The aurora borealis in Paris
The colors rose and fell like something breathing, as though the whole soul of the earth were there. He felt as though he were witnessing something greater than himself, than anything. The red wave rippled among the stars, at once something unknown and the blood of his heart.
(description of the aurora borealis of October 24, 1870, in Hearts at Dawn)
The Northern Lights in Paris? It seems impossible. Paris is so beautiful already, how could so much more beauty be added to it? And then of course, in a more practical way of thinking, isn’t Paris’s latitude too low for the aurora borealis to be visible?
And so, when I first read a mention of the aurora borealis seen in the sky over the City of Light on October 24, 1870, I felt certain I’d misunderstood. But numerous sources confirmed it, including the journal of Juliette Lambert (also known as Juliette Adam).
Lambert was too busy tending to wounded soldiers at an ambulance (an improvised hospital run by wealthy Parisians) to be able to poke her head outside and look up at the sky, something she regretted. She imagined what it would have been like to see the aurora borealis from the top of the Sainte-Chapelle.
I’m not sure why she thought about the roof of the Sainte-Chapelle in particular, but the steep roof with its spire that probably has gazebo-like space you could stand inside would have been a particularly lovely vantage point. I borrowed the idea for my novel, letting Joseph and some slightly inebriated friends make the risky climb, thanks to some scaffolding that could have been there at the time, left over from the building’s recent restoration.
Unlike Juliette Lambert, many people in and around Paris that night actually got to see the aurora borealis themselves, and we have at least two eyewitness accounts that have survived.
Well, there at least three that I know of, but the third is a fragment I found in a woman’s diary that notes only the date and the words aurore boréale. Either she was so amazed by the sight that she felt it was useless to write more, since she’d keep it in her mind’s eye forever, or she was just a woman of few words (the rest of the diary seems to attest to this).
Fortunately, Monsieur Chapelas-Coulvier-Gravier, a meteorologist whose first name seems impossible to find (but then again, with all of those last names, maybe a first one is unnecessary?) and his assistant, a Monsieur Jesmann, wrote a detailed description of the aurora that appeared a few days later, in the October 29 edition of the newspaper Le Monde Illustré (If you follow the link, scroll down until you come to an engraving of rays of light over the cityscape; their account begins on the page just before it).
(Before we go further, you might wonder about newspapers being printed during the Siege of Paris. While food and some other things were scarce, paper and ink seemed to have been in good supply. Paris was celebrating a new freedom of the press after the fall of Napoleon III, and had many newspapers in circulation, despite the fact that none of them could be regularly and officially distributed outside the besieged city. That said, many marauders carried newspapers to Prussian spies, who used them to keep track of what was going in inside Paris’s walls. And there was even a newspaper of sorts that was transported in small format and on lightweight paper, via balloon and pigeon post, that had the delightful title La Gazette des Absents (the Absent People’s Gazette — reflecting just how cut off from the world the Parisians were, with no mail or telegraph services besides aforementioned unreliable balloons and pigeons.)
And now, back to the aurora borealis….
In Le Monde Illustré, the aurora seen on the night of October 24, 1870, is described in detail that’s both poetic and scientific. The authors helpfully use the constellations at times to indicate where its lights reached (a technique used to a lesser extent in my second source, as well).
Despite its seeming exactitude, this description is not necessarily definitive. The other principle eyewitness source I found, an account on page 172 of Le Chronique du Siège de Paris, a special compilation published by the Paris-Journal newspaper after the Siege, portrays a few details slightly differently.
Most notable for what I wanted to describe in Hearts at Dawn are the differences in color and time. Messieurs Chapelas-Coulvier-Gravier and Jesmann often make references to white-colored rays of light, while the account in the Chronique du Siège says these rays of light were des rayeurs de lumière plus jaunes que la lueur générale (rays of light more yellow than the surrounding light in general).
Another notable difference is what time the two accounts claim the aurora was first visible, and when it ended.
The Chronique du Siège reports that “A neuf heures le phénomène déclinait rapidement et disparaissait bientôt après” (At 9pm, the phenomenon declined rapidly and disappeared soon afterwards).
But Chapelas-Coulvier-Gravier and Jesmann write that while the sky had regained its normal color by 9:30pm, the aurora came back at 10. First, it was visible only at the horizon, as beams of white light visible through clouds that had covered the sky. But between 10:45 and 11 pm, “le phénomène reparait avec ses teintes rouges magnifiques; enfin jusqu’à minuit, heure à laquelle l’apparition s’efface complètement, ce ne sont que des intermittences de plaques rouges et de beaux rayons” (the phenomenon reappeared with its magnificent red hues; until midnight, the time when the apparition faded away completely, with the exception of occasional spreads of red and of beautiful rays of light).
The lack of reporting after 9 or 10pm in the Chronique du Siège often makes me chuckle — I wonder if the reporter figured the first magnificent display was enough and he was ready to get to bed or pursue something else, instead of standing around staring at the sky in the hope that maybe something else would happen (especially understandable considering the sky was now cloudy)? Or maybe it was a vantage point issue — after all, where did all that cloud cover suddenly shift to?
As for when the aurora started, while both sources say that the most activity and strongest light was between 8 and 9 pm, the Chronique du Siège’s authors claim that you could already see that something strange was happening in the sky around 6:30 pm: “l’horizon N.-O. se colorait d’une faible clarté rougeâtre, analogue à celle d’un incendie, mais qui s’en distinguait par l’absence de toute fumée” (the north-west horizon became colored by a weak reddish light, similar to that of a fire, but notable for the absence of any smoke.)
After about 15 minutes, the sky was dark, and no other unusual activity was observed until around 8:10pm.
Maybe the observer in this source wasn’t a meteorologist, as Monsieur Chapelas-Coulvier-Gravier was, because for Monsieur Chapelas-Coulvier-Gravier, that reddish light in the sky at 6:30 pm didn’t seem worth mentioning. Or maybe he didn’t see it? For him, the aurora started a little later, at 7pm, and instead of a glow that could be mistaken for a fire, it began dramatically, tinted as much with light as with the fervent patriotism typical of many of the Parisians in the early days of the Siege:
Dès 7 heures, une clarté d’une blancheur remarquable apparaissait au nord et faisait déjà présager un phénomène peu commun; peu à peu le ciel prenait une teinte d’un beau rose; puis, tout à coup, partant du centre du petit arc qui n’était pas encore visible, s’éleva un quadruple rayon, qui mérite d’être signalé d’une manière particulière, car il présentait exactement les nuances nationales.
(Starting at 7pm, a light of remarkable whiteness appeared in the north and already gave a sign of an uncommon phenomenon; little by little the sky took on a beautiful rose hue; then, all of a sudden, coming from the center of an arc that wasn’t yet visible, arose a quadruple ray, which deserves to be mentioned in particular because it perfectly showed our national colors.)
From a vantage point in the south of the city, or just outside its limits, further south (noted in the paper as being at both the Bicêtre ramparts and the observatory at the Jardin du Luxembourg, from which we can infer that M. Jesmann was at one of these places and Chapelas-Coulvier-Gravier the other), the sky started out a very bright white, then became rose-colored, and then suddenly a ray of light in four colors emerged. From the emphasized comment at the end (the author’s emphasis), for a moment the light was probably blue (or maybe that was just the color of the twilight sky?), white, and red, the colors of France.
The writer of the Chronique du Siège de Paris also mentions this patriotic light show, but does it at the end of his article, and a bit cynically, which makes me think this account might have been written or edited after the Siege:
La population y voulut chercher des augures favorables. On fit remarquer que cette aurore avait les trois couleurs bleu, rouge, blanc, et un savant très-avancé vanta les bienfaits de la nature nationale et de l’éléctricité républicaine.
(The population wanted to seek good omens in this. Some remarked that this aurora had the colors blue, red, white, and a brillant savant lauded the benefits of the national nature and republican electricity.)
None of these nationalistic sentiments are particularly surprising. Napoleon III had been deposed on September 4, after the Parisians learned of his defeat at the Battle of Sedan, and a new Republic had been proclaimed. Patriotism had been fervent ever since the start of the Franco-Prussian War that summer, so, armed with this foundation and the excitement of the new Republic, it seems a given that many observers would have seen the Tricolore in the sky.
Interestingly, while there aren’t any other detailed accounts of it that I’ve found, many other contemporary sources mention the aurora borealis at least in passing. In many cases, it’s primarily described as being red, and there’s a general idea of many people seeing it not as a patriotic light show, but as a prophecy of something, often bloodshed on the battlefields. An observer today who believes in the mystical nature of things might say that it was a presage of the coming of the Paris Commune, since red was the Communards’ color. The Commune would revolutionize (literally and figuratively) world politics and spark a short and bloody civil war in Paris itself shortly after the Siege ended, from March to May 1871.
But maybe you’ve come here out of scientific interest, not trying to analyze the long-ago sky for potential prophecies. You might still be wondering if seeing the Northern Lights in the sky over Paris was an unusual phenomenon.
It turns out that while somewhat rare, the aurora borealis has been seen in Paris and other parts of France many times throughout history. In fact, according to this article, the earliest known depiction of the Northern Lights that we have comes from a 30,000-year-old cave painting that was found in…France!
In more recent news, the Chronique du Siège makes a reference to several that were witnessed in an impressively short time, noting that the aurora seen on the night of October 24, 1870 was “aussi belle que celles de l’hiver 1859–1860” (as beautiful as those seen in the winter of 1859–1860).
That said, Paris isn’t some winter wonderland with the aurora borealis stretching across its sky all that frequently. For one thing, during the entire rest of the Siege, there’s no mention of any other aurora borealis sighting.
But there have been the occasional sightings well after 1870. Even pretty recent ones. The aurora borealis was visible in parts of northern France, as well as other spots in central and northern Europe, on October 30, 2003. Even closer to our own time, the most recent record of the aurora borealis being visible in many parts of France, probably including Paris, dates from the night of March 17, 2015.
This article from Le Parisien explains that in most places, the 2015 aurora wasn’t easily visible to the naked eye. Fortunately, unlike in 1870, people had high-tech cameras that could pick up the lights. ….Then again, in 1870 Paris, the sky was far more visible, due to a lack of light pollution.
There are no photographs of the aurora from 1870, and the only image I could find of it is the engraving from Le Monde Illustré, which is a black-and-white engraving that shows rays of light in the sky over the city. But thanks to the vivid albeit slightly different descriptions from that paper and Chronique du Siège de Paris, it’s possible to imagine what it looked like: a predominantly red aurora, with bright white and/or yellow lights running through it, and at times some green, depending on where you were looking.
But when I was doing my research, the 1870 news articles were where I stopped. At the time, it felt like enough.
I started researching the aurora borealis of October 24, 1870, in a somewhat whimsical quest to see if I could find out precisely what it had looked like, not at all sure I’d find anything. It was such an extraordinary event that I wanted to include it in my novel, viewed through my characters’ eyes and hearts, and I hoped I’d be able to describe it as accurately as possible.
Researching the aurora borealis was also a way to find a few moments of reprieve from a particularly rough time in my life, when my mother was sick and I had gotten into an argument with another beloved family member.
It turned out to be the perfect escape. When I read those two descriptions, despite their disparities, I felt as though I could see something magical that had happened more than a century ago.
I don’t know when we’ll next be able to watch the Northern Lights in the sky over Paris — or even if we’d be able to see anything at all. But there is some comfort, for me, in knowing that it’s possible, that any night those lights might be dancing over the sky above me, just as they danced for the besieged residents of my beloved city so long ago.
A Beauty and the Beast retelling that will enchant lovers of fairy tales, Paris, history and romance, Hearts at Dawn is currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
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I hope you enjoyed these musings on the appearance of the aurora borealis in the sky over Paris on October 24, 1870. Feel free to subscribe to this blog or follow me on Goodreads or Amazon to find out when I publish new posts.
Until next time!