Photo Captions

An Infinite History


I first went to the archives in Angoulême in 1995, long before I had a digital camera. There were different ways of seeing, all the same. The routine, when the archives closed in the afternoon, was to walk up the hill – a slow, traffic-crowded inclination from the archives départementales, a steep climb on the Rue du Secours, from the archives municipales – and then to drift. The days were a time for looking at pieces of paper, and the late afternoons for looking at the houses and the distant vistas. The esoteric tools of the métier were the sharpened pencil, the pad of lined paper, and, eventually, the “archive camera.” The way to look at the vistas was with one’s own eyes. It seemed a form of profanation to take other sorts of photographs with the camera from the archives, and a profanation, too, to look at the streets with something other than the historian’s eye.

At last, I did take other photographs. On a sunny evening around midsummer, in June 2014, the view from the window of my room. A year later, in June 2015, on another summer day, one of the bridges over the Charente, and a rust-stained wall in the old paper mill that is now the Musée du Papier. This is the other esoterica, in knowing the minute of the day, and the number of the file, of every image; the historian as her own archive, stored every evening in an invisible distant memory.

The old town of Angoulême looks much the same, now, as in the long nineteenth century over which my book, An Infinite History, unfolds. Some of the streets were widened, in the French revolution and the restoration; churches were demolished, and new churches were built; the spaces of the old convent of the Tiercelettes are there, still, underneath the shops of the central square of the town. So are the numbers that were engraved on the façades of the houses in 1769, for the lodging of the militia, on one or two of the (unwidened) streets. The archivist of the town, M. Florent Gaillard, told me where to look for the numbers that are left, and this was my next journey with the camera’s eye.

Numbers for the lodging of the militia, engraved on the façades of the house in 1769.

On yet another sunny day, in July 2016, M. Gaillard took a friend and me to the back of the storage area of a pharmacy in the old Place du Mûrier, now the Place Francis-Louvel, through a door, and down a long flight of stone stairs to an immense open space in the grounds of the old convent. I have a blurred photograph of the stairs, and a photograph of the intensely green ferns in the cracks in the stones.

A blurred photograph of the stairs near the old convent of the Tiercelettes. Green ferns in the cracks of the stone stairs. The rust-stained wall in the old paper mill that is now the Musée du Papier.

The photograph at the top of the page was taken in February 2019. It was a brilliantly sunny evening, once again. I took 104 photographs over the course of the day in the archives départementales, and then walked back up the hill with a plan in mind. An Infinite History starts with the pre-nuptial contract of a couple in Angoulême, signed a few steps away from the convent of the Tiercelettes in 1764. One of things I had tried to do, in the book, was to find out as much as I could about the friends and relations -- eighty-three individuals -- who were the signatories of the contract. At least eighteen of them, it turned out, were close neighbours of the father of the bridegroom, a tailor who lived in a tiny, triangular cluster of houses known as the “Isle de la Cloche Verte.” The triangle is in the same place today, more or less, and my plan was to walk round it, taking photographs. I was looking, still, for the old engraved numbers, and for façades that looked much as they had looked during the lifetimes of the couple and of their children.

Jeanne Allemand Lavigerie, the oldest of the daughters of the young couple to survive infancy, turned out to be the central figure in the book. She kept a shop on the Place du Mûrier, during the revolution, and she then, together with her four unmarried sisters, took out a mortgage on the confiscated property that her parents had acquired during the revolution, and bought a house at the end of the Rue de Beaulieu. They established a girls’ school, and stayed there, on the Rempart du Midi, for the rest of their lives. One of their brothers retired to live with them, and one of their sisters settled next door; the only famous person in the entire extended family, their great-nephew Charles Martial Allemand Lavigerie, later Cardinal of Algiers, visited on family occasions. Jeanne died in Angoulême in 1860, at the age of ninety-one, having lived under five monarchs, two empires, and two republics. She was there, in 1858, at the time of the laying of the first stone of the neo-medieval town hall, at which the then archivist of the town described the brilliant light – the “luminous atmosphere” – of Angoulême, and looked forward to the eventual entry into the town of a future emperor, “Napoleon XXX.”

The Rue de Beaulieu runs from the Place Francis-Louvel to the ramparts, at the western extremity of the old town. It is a narrow street, still, and several of the stories I tried to tell in An Infinite History took place there. It was where the little dog of Laurence Sterne’s daughter Eliza was stolen in 1769, and where Balzac set the most dramatic events of Les Illusions Perdues; it was also where Jeanne’s married sister lived, and the route for the sisters to walk into the center of the town. I had the idea, after I had walked round the old Isle de la Cloche Verte, that I could try to see something of what the sisters saw, in their own daily lives. The house where they lived in their school is no longer there. But I know where it was, from the cadastral maps of the town. This is a picture of the light outside their windows.


Emma Rothschild