The Belle Époque

A Cultural History, Paris and Beyond

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Pub Date 06 Jul 2021 | Archive Date 13 Oct 2021

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The years before the First World War have long been romanticized as a zenith of French culture—the “Belle Époque.” The era is seen as the height of a lost way of life that remains emblematic of what it means to be French. In a vast range of texts and images, it appears as a carefree time full of joie de vivre, fanfare and frills, artistic daring, and scientific innovation. The Moulin Rouge shared the stage with the Universal Exposition, Toulouse-Lautrec rubbed elbows with Marie Curie and La Belle Otero, and Fantômas invented automatic writing.

This book traces the making—and the imagining—of the Belle Époque to reveal how and why it became a cultural myth. Dominique Kalifa lifts the veil on a period shrouded in nostalgia, explaining the century-long need to continuously reinvent and even sanctify this moment. He sifts through images handed down in memoirs and reminiscences, literature and film, art and history to explore the many facets of the era, including its worldwide reception. The Belle Époque was born in France, but it quickly went global as other countries adopted the concept to write their own histories. In shedding light on how the Belle Époque has been celebrated and reimagined, Kalifa also offers a nuanced meditation on time, history, and memory.


Dominique Kalifa (1957–2020) was professor of history and director of the Center for Nineteenth-Century History at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon–Sorbonne. His books include Vice, Crime, and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld (Columbia, 2019).

The years before the First World War have long been romanticized as a zenith of French culture—the “Belle Époque.” The era is seen as the height of a lost way of life that remains emblematic of what...

Advance Praise

"Dominique Kalifa’s 'untold' history of the Belle Époque offers a probing reflection on the concepts through which we structure and give meaning to time and the past. Scholars of memory, nostalgia, and temporality will find much to think about in a book that is at once playful and ambitious."

--Stéphane Gerson, author of Disaster Falls: A Family Story

"Dominique Kalifa’s 'untold' history of the Belle Époque offers a probing reflection on the concepts through which we structure and give meaning to time and the past. Scholars of memory, nostalgia...

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Featured Reviews

Very excellent and in-depth descriptions of what the Belle Epoque was, what characters were in it and why it developed. Very detailed. It helps to have been to Paris so that the areas discussed come to mind. But the writer does a good job of bringing the city to the reader. Throughout the read I always had the semi uncomfortable feeling that I was hovering above the activity, though. I never really felt involved, like I was THERE, the way one would in reading a good biography. I think this should have been the biography of an era so that one does not feel outside the action so much. Overall it is a very well done piece and if you want to get an idea of what the Belle Epoque was, this will be a good source.

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With The Belle Epoque the late Dominique Kalifa gave us a magnificent and very detailed portrait of France and its civilization from the tail-end of the 19th century to the beginning of WWI. From its artistic avant gardes to its fledgling technological progresses (electricity, automobiles, filmmaking,..etc.) Kalifa covers all the significant changes that profoundly altered all aspects of French society during the optimistic and peaceful years leading to the Grande Guerre. But it's when the author starts to explain the notion of Belle Epoque and how it came to be used almost 20 years later that the book becomes really fascinating. It was in 1940 on Radio Paris that it was heard in France for the first time after the Germans had started to occupy the country. Kalifa explains with brio how the expression came to represent a longing for better times, times unfortunately gone, for a humiliated nation in "search of lost time" a nation looking back longingly and nostalgically at 15 years of peace, optimism and joie de vivre, and how la Belle Epoque and its images have influenced us overhere in France ever since. On a more personal level, I remembered while reading this captivating and very engrossing book that back in the late 70s I actually got into trouble in high school with one history professor because I couldn't conciliate Belle Epoque and Affaire Dreyfuss. La Belle wasn't so beautiful after all.....Mais ça c'est une autre histoire... Kudos to Ms. Susan Emanuel for her wonderful translation and many thanks to Netgalley and Columbia University Press for the opportunity to read this wonderful book

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You wouldn’t find this book even if you’d google it. Unless you know the authors name by heart. But we should find it, it’s an interesting book to read.

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This book was received as an ARC by the publisher on NetGalley. Dominique Kalifa’s <i>The Belle Époque: A Cultural History, Paris and Beyond</i> is not at all what I expected it to be. As such, it’s best that I start off this preface by saying what this book is not. This is not an overview of the Belle Epoque (1890ish-1914, in traditional terms), nor is it a cultural history of the years at hand. Instead, Kalifa’s work fits better into the literature on historical memory. Kalifa’s questions are not: what happened during the Belle Epoque, how did those events occur, and why did they occur when they did? Instead, Kalifa is asking: How did the “Belle Epoque” emerge as a coherent historical era, and how did the terms of that historical era change over time? Kalifa ultimately finds that the “Belle Epoque” as a coherent concept for fin-de-siècle Paris did not exist until the summer of 1940, just after France fell to German armies. This is not to say that people did not use the term “Belle Epoque” prior, nor that the years of the Belle Epoque were like those after the First World War, especially the 1920s. However, the “Belle Epoque” was instead framed as the “good old days” by middle-aged and elderly French citizens. By being framed as an experience in personal terms, the turbulent politics of the time fell to the wayside and were supplanted by memories of rapid technological advancement, cultural boldness, and high society. Interestingly, it appears that World War II <i>had</i> to happen for the idea of the Belle Epoque to take root, as it was heavily advertised to German soldiers and occupying authorities as something for them to take pleasure in. While many of the most collaborationist entertainers faced punishment after Liberation in 1944, many of their ideas about the early 20th century continued to hold sway. The formalization of the Belle Epoque in France’s public memory also brought professional and cultural attention to the period. Increasing numbers of historians began to work on the scholarship of the Belle Epoque in the 1950s and 1960s, and the postwar years saw a surge in the number of films that take place in the early 20th century. At the same time, there was a surge of memoirs by public figures that dwelled on the period and the publication of numerous postcard albums with nostalgic writings. As such, the so-called “Trente Glorieuses,” or the years between the end of World War II and the end of Georges Pompidou’s administration experienced the most stable, glorified conception of the Belle Epoque. One notable thing about ideas about the Belle Epoque until the mid-1970s was that it was a fundamentally Parisian affair. However, the landscape of French historical scholarship changed in the 1970s and 1980s, with increasing numbers of studies emphasizing events and processes that took place outside of the capital. While many of these examined provincial cities, others looked at small towns or whole provinces as units of analysis. In doing so, historians developed a better idea of the “Belle Epoque” throughout the Hexagon. Moreover, historians also took the time to look at the “dark side” of the Belle Epoque, including alcoholism, crime, a pervasive sense of anxiety, and more. Our understanding shifted further in the 1990s and 2000s with the “globalization” of the Belle Epoque, to the point where the “Belle Epoque” is no longer a uniquely French phenomenon. It is now common to speak of “Belle Epoque Austria,” for instance, and the Belle Epoque is frequently elided with the Gilded Age in the United States and the Victorian years in the United Kingdom. Ultimately, Kalifa’s text is an academic work that seeks to speak with other scholarly texts. Although Kalifa does offer some language that suggests he wants this to be available for a wider audience, I’m not convinced that a non-French audience will find the work nearly as useful or interesting as the French themselves (or perhaps Belgians, who seem to commence the “Belle Epoque” in 1885, with the founding of the Congo Free State—yikes). Moreover, the rapid-fire discussion of films, works of literature, music, and other cultural phenomena from years past make the text a bit more inaccessible for those unfamiliar with those artifacts. That being said, Kalifa’s book is undeniably fascinating for those interested in both French historical memory and the Belle Epoque itself, especially graduate students.

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