A Conversation with Rebecca Stott about The Coral Thief
- The novel takes place soon after the defeat of Napoleon by the British Navy at Waterloo. What was it that drew you to this particular sliver of time in French history?
1815 was a remarkable turning point – a vortex in history. It was twenty years or so after the French Revolution. The French had established a republic and then Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to power, appointing himself initially as First Consul, then later Emperor of France. He’d been cock-of-the-roost in Europe for more than ten years, conquering one European country after another. He’d made Paris the centre of everything, politically and culturally, literally transforming the map of Europe. He and his men had plundered hundreds of palaces across Europe and he’d sent back all his spoils of war to Paris so that, by 1815, the museums, libraries and galleries in Paris were full to the rafters with paintings, rare books and unique natural history collections. Then all of that power came crashing to an end when Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo; the Allied armies marched into and occupied Paris turning the city into a vast military encampment. Because Paris had been pretty much closed to foreigners for ten years, curiosity brought thousands of English visitors to the city. At the same time the French émigrés were coming back, many of them exiled or on the run. And now that Napoleon had fallen, the rulers of the Italian states, Prussia and Holland had sent ambassadors to Paris to demand their stolen treasures back, so the paintings and statues and collections were on the move again. It was a fascinating vortex. I wanted to send some people in there to see what it was like.
- The book intertwines the story of Daniel Connor, a young English medical student, with Napoleon, as he makes his way to exile. Why did you decide to link the two?
Daniel Connor is a brilliant young medical student – ambitious, hardworking, a little bit self-regarding. For most ambitious young men at this point in history, Napoleon was a hero. He had shown what could be done with sheer nerve and intelligence and brilliance. But of course, for English men Napoleon was also the enemy, a potential invader. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, Daniel’s life couldn’t begin until Napoleon had fallen, so all through that summer and autumn whilst he’s in Paris, falling in love, discovering breathtaking new ways of seeing the world and coming to see how old the earth really was, he was rising in his own sky at the same time that Napoleon was falling in his. Threading Napoleon’s story through Daniel’s story was a way of anchoring Daniel to history, a way of indicating the way that the lives of generations entangle. It also provided something of an evolutionary way of seeing time, not a single straight line but a series of overlapping arcs. The animals in the novel are important too – like the ostrich in one of the later chapters and the giraffe at the end. Everything, to use Charles Darwin’s phrase, is ‘netted together’. I wanted to show history as a tangle of mutually entangled lives – not just Napoleon and Daniel’s lives but also all the animals who had got caught up in history too – the animals transported across Europe by Napoleon’s soldiers and brought into Paris to the menagerie in the Jardin. ‘It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank,’ Darwin wrote, ‘clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.’ That’s the kind of history I wanted to write. To take a moment in time and look at the tangle of mutually dependent lives, and to make that include the animals too.
- You begin with an epigraph from one of Charles Darwin’s notebooks. What does this mean to you?
Yes, the quote is from Notebook C which Darwin kept in 1838 after he’d returned from the Beagle voyage and was gradually working through the stages of his transmutation theory. He wrote: ‘Once grant that species [of] one genus may pass into each other . . . & whole fabric totters & falls’. The entry marks a moment when Darwin glimpsed the enormous philosophical consequences of what he was working out. He saw that his species theory would threaten the religious and social premises of so much orthodox thinking and would perhaps even topple the social fabric. And of course that is what Daniel comes to see too through Lucienne Bernard and through the other students of Lamarck who come to Fin’s salon. Lucienne knows that scientific knowledge can be stunted by politics and religion. She can see that the re-establishment of the King and the Bourbon government in France and the return of the priests will ensure radical and heretical scientific debate was silenced in Paris. The novel is about falling in many ways – falling roofs, falling people, falling orthodoxies. Some of the passion of The Coral Thief is about that – about fighting to be allowed to think for yourself, about the right to ask questions. Lucienne’s passion is driven by that – she’s not against religion or against the priests (she might even have some remnants of religious belief in her) but she wants to live in a world in which any question can be asked.
- Two very strong scientific personalities figure into the narrative of The Coral Thief—George Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Who were they and what impact did they have on science of the time?
They were both famous all over Europe. Cuvier was a comparative anatomist with a great deal of power in Paris. He ran the Jardin des Plantes. He was on a number of committees and in many ways he dictated the development of natural history in Paris. He was a charismatic lecturer and a brilliant thinker who was developing comparative anatomy in extraordinary ways, but he was passionately opposed to speculative science in general and to evolutionary ideas in particular.
Lamarck was a transmutationist (an early exponent of evolution) and older than Cuvier. He was a Professor of Invertebrates at the Jardin des Plantes. He’d written a number of important books on the taxonomy and classification of shells but since the turn of the nineteenth century he had been working on evolutionary ideas. As a result, he had become associated with radical atheistic ideas and with dangerous speculation, though of course, like Darwin later, he didn’t really write about religion, he was more interested in the origin of the earth and in finding mechanisms to explain the transmutation of species.
Cuvier’s argument with Lamarck was not a religious one; it was just that he thought Lamarck’s ideas were wrong scientifically and that whilst there was no proof for evolution, it was at best a ridiculous castle in the air. He did his best to lampoon Lamarck’s ideas where he could, whilst also trying to retain an air of scientific neutrality and fairness.
When Lamarck died he was buried in a pauper’s grave (his bones were later dug up and scattered in the catacombs under Paris); Cuvier was given a large tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery. That was no accident of history.
- Why thieves and theft?
Theft is one of many things that fascinate me. The Coral Thief explores the nature of theft, particularly in Paris in 1815 when the city was full of ‘stolen’ spoils of war. What does it mean to steal something that has already been stolen? I also love heist movies but there’s usually a lack of development of character in them because character is sacrificed to plot. I wanted to see if I could write the equivalent of a heist movie with historically complex situations and people. Not sure if readers will think it works, but it was something I wanted to do. The novel is also about curiosity too, like Ghostwalk, and about how far people will go to find out something.
- You have noted that the character of police chief Henri Jagot is modeled on Francois-Eugene Vidocq. Who was he? Were the police during this time quite as sinister as your character?
Vidocq is famous. Versions of him appear in several nineteenth-century novels such as Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Balzac’s Père Goriot. He was a notorious thief who had been recruited by the authorities in Paris to run their Bureau de la Sûreté. It was a brilliant choice because, of course, Vidocq understood how criminals worked and he also knew most of them. He was ambitious, ruthless and highly successful. He is generally held to be the first police agent in France and, because he later set up his own private detective agency, historians call him the first detective. He was also considered by most biographers to have been corrupt. But Vidocq was only one of many agents in Paris. Paris had been full of agents since the Revolution. Everyone was spying on everyone else, and the intellectuals in Paris were particularly closely watched. There’s a brilliant essay by the historian Robert Daunton called ‘A Police Inspector Sorts His Files’ which describes the working practices of one police agent in Paris during the Revolution whose job it was to watch a number of intellectuals. Daunton argues that it was in this atmosphere of constant surveillance that the concept of the intellectual was made. If Paris is an enormous web of intrigues and surveillance in 1815, which was what I was trying to describe, Vidocq/ Jagot is the spider sitting at the centre of it. He was also another collector – most of my main characters are collectors – he was cataloguing criminals whilst Cuvier was cataloguing bones and fossils.
- What about collecting? Why is that so important to the novel?
In the 18th and 19th centuries it was of course highly fashionable for aristocratic people to have collections in their houses. People would specialize in collecting coins or shells or paintings or natural history or botanical specimens or snuff boxes, or perhaps they’d have a variety of all of these things. Cabinet makers made a fine living building exquisitely carved shelves and display cabinets for these objects. Agents travelled all over the world to procure rare and beautiful objects for the Duchesses and Counts who employed them. Those natural history collections were the predecessors of the modern museum. And the objects in these collections were objects to think with, to speculate upon, to talk about in relation to the great mysteries of nature. For Lucienne Bernard, I think, reassembling that coral collection of hers, started by her grandmother, was a way of countering the tragic fracturing of her history and her family in the Revolution, shoring up something against the ruins of all of that, trying to make a whole out of the broken parts. And that is something that a novelist does too, I think, assembling (in my case, historical) objects, some of them ‘stolen’, to make a whole.
- Much of the novel’s action takes place in Paris’ “Underworld”—how did you research that? I would imagine they didn’t keep excellent records.
Journals, diaries, old prints, books, guidebooks, letters – hundreds of them. I’m lucky – I live five minutes away from one of the greatest copyright libraries in the world and that is where I work – often in the Rare Books Room, a beautiful room with long desks and people sitting reading manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. I found a guidebook to Paris for 1815 that tells you everything – where to get hats mended, where to buy the best cut flowers or a whole pig, how to hire a valet or a carriage, as well as a review of all the theatres and marionette theatres and wax museums. It made it all so immediate and vivid. At one point I had memorized so much that I felt I could walk down the Rue Vivienne, for instance, and point out all the shops on either side. Then I found a rare book which listed all the entries into the quarries and mapped all the quarry tunnels too. So pretty soon I could map Paris overground onto Paris underground. And there really were people living and working down there in the tunnels – an illegal mint that worked in the quarry system under the streets, and Knights Templar tunnels. Of course, actually going to modern Paris only helped me picture the Paris of 1815 up to a point. Modern Paris has been utterly remade and the labyrinthine streets I wanted to see were largely knocked down in Haussmann’s redesign of Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century. So Marakesh in Morocco and some small towns in Jordan seemed to me more useful as a way of imagining how parts of Paris might have been then: food being cooked in the streets, smoke, street sellers, people selling you things everywhere, the smells of coffee, lemons, fish, and the people: picaros, street entertainers, prostitutes. Another big problem was light – there was too much of it in Paris. There seems to be almost no where in modern Paris where you can walk in streets in darkness. But you can in Marakesh.
- For all of the laymen out there, what is the evolutionary significance of coral?
Coral pieces were beautiful and collectable objects in their own right but they were also tools for the philosophers – clocks, ways of measuring time and ways of thinking about animal, plant and mineral definitions. Sea creatures like corals and sponges were important to natural philosophers at this time because they seemed to sit on the borderline between what was defined as a plant and what was defined as an animal. They also reproduced in strange ways. Corals were particularly difficult to classify – they looked like trees; they had flowers. But when they were taken out of the sea they went hard like rock. It wasn’t until people started to look at them closely that they saw that they were actually animals – they had free-swimming young and they digested. Corals were also important in terms of time. Natural philosophers like Lucienne Bernard (and Charles Darwin later) worked out that certain islands and reef systems had been built by corals growing on top of each other over a period of thousands of years. So if you knew how quickly a coral reef grew and if you could measure or estimate the depth of a coral reef you could prove that the earth was much, much older than the church leaders claimed. So corals are silent, but they’re also eloquent. I guess they had the same kind of fascination for me as the prism in Ghostwalk.
- One of the main characters is a strong, well-educated woman. Were talented women active in science during this time period—or were they relegated to the sidelines?
Both. Active and relegated. Visible and invisible. Women were often the assistants to fathers, brothers, husbands, botanical or anatomical illustrators, managers of what we would call laboratories; they ran salons and organized conversaziones; they did calculations; they rewrote or edited scientific manuscripts; they translated; they labeled. But they were rarely credited. Sophie Duvaucel and Clementine Cuvier, Cuvier’s two daughters, were very important to him and to his work. Lamarck also had daughters who kept everything going and managed his work. No doubt these women also had conversations with their fathers about the philosophical consequences of their work. And in the literary world too of Paris there were a number of women who were rocking the boat, living in unusual ways, sometimes even cross dressing – later George Sand the female novelist (Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin) went around Europe dressed as a man with her lover, Chopin.
- Your two novels—first the national bestseller Ghostwalk and now The Coral Thief—have been linked to great scientists in history (first Sir Isaac Newton, now Darwin—even though he was only 6 when much of the novel takes place!) What is it about scientific discoveries and the (now) larger-than-life men who “made” them that inspires you to write fiction?
I guess because we’ve turned so many great scientists into icons and their life stories into myths and once that has happened other important people disappear into their shadow. But no scientist or philosopher exists in isolation. Newton didn’t. As far as he might have wanted to keep himself away from the world and keep his head down, he actually depended on so many other invisible people. He was always connected up. But those people who brought him manuscripts and worked behind the scenes become more invisible the more we tell ourselves that geniuses like Newton were loners, lone geniuses, almost supernatural. Darwin knew he wasn’t a lone genius. He knew how dependent he was on all the other little people who had the nerve to go into print about evolution before him. He gave them credit in a preface he wrote to On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. So Lucienne Bernard and her band of heretic thieves stand for all the invisible people behind the scenes who did the incremental work that, bit by bit, made evolutionary ways of seeing acceptable. The corals are like that too – the invisible architects of coral reefs, working away just under the water line.