The Quartier Latin
As seen in the panorama of 1852, the Latin Quarter was a maze of winding, narrow streets and old buildings. Most notable to the modern eye is the absence of the Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard St. Michel, which were carved through this block of buildings after 1857 as part of Haussmann’s plan of urban renewal.

The Maison Vauquer

The old Latin Quarter, as depicted in this street map of 1809, was the place where Balzac’s aspiring provincials found cheap lodging when first arriving in the capital. The most famous of these is perhaps Eugène de Rastignac in Le Père Goriot (1834). Rastignac, for lack of money, was obliged to lodge at the Maison Vauquer, a pension upon which Balzac lavishes many pages of description, pointing to things such as its odor sui generis.

The Maison Vauquer was located on what was then the rue Neuve-Ste-Geneviève. The name of this street, as we see in the displayed photo, was changed to the rue Tournefort in the later 19th century, well after Haussmann’s boulevards had transformed the Latin Quarter and opened it up to real estate speculation. Tournefort was an 18th century scientist. This contemporary street map is taken from A. Béraud et P. Dufey, Dictionnaire historique de Paris, volume 2 (Paris: Librairie nationale et étrangère, 1825), 84. The photo is from Balzac: Archéologue de Paris, 246. Its source is an unnamed “private” collection.


Student Rooms

Balzac offers copious descriptions of the lodgings his ambitious students occupied in the Latin Quarter. Lucien de Rubempré’s student days, detailed in Illusions perdues, take place in 1821. His room is on the 5th floor of a furnished hotel (or hôtel garni) rue de Cluny. Daniel D’Arthez, leader of the famous “cenacle” Lucien briefly joins, has a 6th floor room rue des Quatre Vents, again furnished. Perhaps the most extreme conditions, however, belong to the room Raphael de Valentin takes in the Hôtel St-Quentin, rue des Cordiers at the corner of the rue de Cluny. It is an unfurnished, attic room. The year is 1826:

RRien n'était plus horrible que cette mansarde aux murs jaunes et sales, qui sentait la misère. ..La toiture s'y abaissait régulièrement et les tuiles disjointes laissaient voir le ciel. Il y avait place pour un lit, une table, quelques chaises. N'étant pas assez riche pour meubler cette cage digne des plombs de Venise, la pauvre femme n'avait jamais pu la louer. (Bibliotheque de la Pléiade, IX, 91)

[Nothing was more horrible than this attic with its yellow, dirty walls, which smelled of misery. . .The roof closed in on one in an implacable manner, and the disjoined tiles of the roof gave glimplse of the sky. There was room for a bed, a table, a few chairs. Not being rich enough to furnish this cage worthy of the Venitian prison “the leads,” the poor lady had never been able to rent the room.]


Aspiring students like Lucien, Daniel D’Arthez and Raphael were obliged by their pocketbooks to dine in table d’hôte restaurants, eating menus à prix fixe (fixed price menus, one single entrée). The most famous of all such establishments, in Balzac, is Flicoteaux:

Flicoteaux est un nom inscrit dans bien des mémoires. Il est peu d’étudiants logés au quartier latin pendant les douze premières années de la Restauration qui n’aient pas fréquenté ce temple de la faim et de la misère. (Illusions perdues, IV, 634)

[Flicoteaux is a name engraved in the memory of many. There are few students who lived in the Latin Quarter during the first twelve years of the Restoration who have not dined in this temple of hunger and misery.]

This contemporary engraving of a like table d’hôte establishment is reproduced in Fournisseurs, 48.

Rêver la gloire

All of Balzac’s students had the “dream of glory,” accepting to lock themselves away in these dingy garrets in order to master knowledge and ultimately give birth to some great work of literature that would assure their fame on the Parisian stage. This in turn would result in ascension of the socioeconomic ladder and a move to the new, wealthy quarters of the right bank, notably the Chaussée d’Antin. Perhaps the best description of this ambition is that of Raphaël de Valentin:

Je me réjouissait en pensant que j’allais vivre de pain et de lait. . .plongé dans le mond e des livres et des idées, dans un sphere inaccessible au milieu de ce Paris si tumultueux, sphère de travail et de silence où, comme les chrysalides, je me bâtissais une tombe pour renaître brillant et glorieux. (IX, 87)

[I exulted in the thought that I was going to live on bread and milk…immersed in the world of books and ideas, in a realm inaccessible to all else in the midst of this so tumultuous Paris, a realm of work and silence where, like the silkworm, I would build myself a tomb in order to be reborn in brilliance and glory.]

The engraving represents Lucien Rubempré né Chardon in his bare and shabby student room, writing his plays and poems, which he hopes will propel him to fame and riches. It is typical of the rooms of all of Balzac’s aspirants. The illustration is by C. Nanteuil for Balzac’s Illusions perdues, XXI (Paris: Édition Furne, 1843).

Copyright © 2003 Regents of the University of California, UCR College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Tomás Rivera Library. All rights reserved.