The Education Of Delhomme:
Chopin, Sand, & La France
by Nancy Burkhalter
History Through Fiction
November 17, 2020
My last review made you travel from Provence to Jerusalem in the 12th century. With The Education of Delhomme, we’ll mostly remain in Paris in the mid-19th century, in the company of famous artists.
You may be familiar with the French Revolution and the 1830s uprising, so well described in Les Misérables, but have you read any book set about fifteen years later?
The Education of Delhomme does an amazing job at recreating the context of the period, as for social movements, the political life, the life of artists, and much more. For instance, imagine having to fight against an epidemy not of Covid, but of cholera?
The book opens with our main narrator imprisoned at the Conciergerie (featured on the book cover), awaiting his trial. He was accused of spying, but claims he is innocent. Between this chapter and the last, Beaulieu Delhomme reminisces and shares about his life.
Raised by a rather cruel father, he first had to study medicine. Definitely far from his dreams of being a musician. He finally managed to enter le Conservatoire, but was not considered good enough. He is instead proposed a place to learn how to tune and repair pianos.
Then comes an offer he cannot refuse, seeing his financial situation: Vidocq (1775-1857), a famous criminal turned criminalist, hires him to work for his private detective agency, the very first official one, and offers him nice money.
The period was a time of social turbulence in France, mostly caused by the awful conditions of workers. So Vidocq, working for the Louis-Philippe government, wants Delhomme to find information on George Sand, a famous French author who used her art to write pamphlets defending workers and helping them rise to ask for better rights. She also advocated voting rights for women (which won’t happen in France until 1944!).
How best to get to George Sand? Of course by getting closer to her lover: the famous pianist Frédéric Chopin, for instance by becoming his piano tuner.
The book contains fabulous passages on Chopin, his character, his moody personality maybe mostly due to his tuberculosis, his music of course, but also his technique for playing. This is accompanied by some nice reflection on art and inspiration (chapter 17).
If you are not familiar with piano tuning, you will discover so much. The details are fascinating without being overly technical. You can definitely see the author knows what she is talking about, having herself been a piano tuner for many years.
Delhomme’s story is interspersed by extracts from George’s Sand (fictional) diary.
George Sand developed a large entourage of famous artists, so it was neat to meet some of them, like Delacroix, Turgenev, and Berlioz, among many others. And of course the romantic author Lamartine, who was a major political player of the time.
We also meet other famous people of the time, like Camille Pleyel – he founded the famous Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1830.
To go back to history, I was impressed by the author’s description of La Conciergerie. I totally felt there, and it looked very similar to what I saw when I visited it a few years ago.
Another great part is the evocation of Revolutionary Clubs, especially the meeting described on pages 146-150. I happened to read a lot recently about the topic, including diary by members of these clubs (research I did for another author), so I was able to see the great job Burkhalter did in weaving this theme in her story.
I was actually quite familiar with the time, with Chopin, and George Sand, but I hardly knew anything about Vidocq, so even though he is “the villain” of the story, I was fascinated by his character.
We still have four volumes (!) of his memoirs – not completely autobiographical, as it was not unusual at the time to ask for professionals to revise the text – especially as policemen memoirs soon became quite trendy! He also wrote two novels.
I loved the smart ending, redeeming somewhat Sand’s character.
Also, I have to mention the absolutely gorgeous cover.
At the end of the book, you will find a short profile for the major characters, and a list of resources, for instance a book by Jonathan Fenby, an author also featured on France Book Tours!
The only thing I found weird was the chapter titles format. They usually contain two part names, that come up then as subparts. It seems to me it would have been better to separate each part. If the author or publisher didn’t want to get 70 chapters or so, they could have chosen the not uncommon French format of short untitled and unnumbered chapters.
I also noticed a few French mistakes, like couris instead of cours on page 172.
And French politician Cavaignac is unfortunately always spelled Carvaignac each time he is mentioned.
Tuesday night, on the day the book was released, I was fortunate to participate in a Zoom meeting with the author, the publisher, and other fascinating people. I really enjoyed hearing the author speak about her research, and the hard work of fiction writing! It made me even more appreciate the quality of her sentences, where each word is carefully chosen.
VERDICT: Beautifully crafted, this historical novel takes you in the heart of Paris life in the 1840s. Music and misery, art and hardship, beauty and danger. A must for all lovers of music or French history.
Beaulieu Delhomme, a piano tuner, faces the guillotine for committing treason against the newly elected French president due to his part in the bloody worker uprisings in 1848. The one person who could save him from this fate is his former arch-rival, the celebrated author, George Sand. The plot leading to his imprisonment revolves around the triangle of composer Frédéric Chopin, his lover George Sand, and Delhomme, Chopin’s loyal piano tuner. Both Sand and Delhomme compete for the attention of Chopin, who fights a losing battle with tuberculosis. The president’s spymaster uses this triangle to lure cash-strapped Delhomme into exploiting his friendship with Chopin to spy on George Sand, whose fiery rhetoric threatens the new president.
At first, before the uprisings that marked a tumultuous period out of which France’s Second Republic grew, Delhomme favors preserving the status quo because any policy changes might jeopardize his (and Chopin’s) wealthy client base. Sand wields her pen against the oppressive laws and ridicules Delhomme for his views.
Delhomme changes his opinion of the monarchy when he sees how his nephew is abused as an orphan working in a piano factory in industrial London. Delhomme becomes a double agent, paid to spy for the president while secretly working for the resistance. Sand softens her contempt when she discovers that he has switched allegiances and now promotes workers’ rights.
Delhomme is caught working for the resistance, jailed in Paris’ infamous Conciergerie prison, and faces a trial for treason. Even Sand’s testimony is not enough to trump that of the vaunted spymaster, but her fame may be enough to persuade the new president to pardon him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is an educator, writer, journalist, linguist,
and piano tuner.
She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and English education,
as well as a Doctorate in linguistics
from the University of New Mexico.
She has taught composition for many years in the U.S.,
Germany, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Russia.
Her overseas work led to an interest in comparative education,
especially critical thinking.
Both observations and research led to her book and blog,
Critical Thinking Now.
In 2019, she was a recipient of Go Back, Give Back,
a fellowship through the State Department
to train teachers in St. Petersburg, Russia.
A resident of Edmonds, Washington, Burkhalter loves to travel, write, and learn languages.
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HAVE YOU READ ANY OTHER NOVEL
SET IN PARIS AT THE TIME?
What’s your favorite book on Chopin or George Sand?
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book free of charge for review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.