The Belle Époque (the beautiful era) is the name given to French society in the period between 1871-1914. After their humiliating defeat by Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the birth of the Third Republic, France was determined to show the world that it was a powerful nation. This coincided with a series of moves towards a faster, brighter modern world, connected by railways and telephones, industrialised, and dazzled with electric lights. Proust himself signed up to a service called the théâtrophone which connected select Parisian opera houses and theatres to subscribers' homes, transmitting performances into their telephones.
This was an era of 'isms': Surrealism, Dadaism, Cubism, Fauvism, all within an overarching Modernism of which Proust was to become a central figure. Society was marching forward at an ever-increasing pace. The Belle Époque was, more than anything, an era of social, political and technological change. The past became separated from the present in a way that had never been experienced before. Proust viewed this with ambivalence, both celebrating the artistic freedoms this new era bestowed and lamenting the loss of the familiar world that had gone before. The problem of time lies at the heart of his writing: how to capture the essence of time that has passed, and to preserve it in art.
Like most golden ages, the Belle Époque was only beautiful if you were one of the beautiful people, an artist or an aristocratic patron who could afford to see the Ballet Russes or to visit the Folies Bergère. For most people, France was still rigidly class bound, and life could be like an Émile Zola novel: a poverty trap with no visible escape. As Proust shows, prostitution, drug and alcohol addiction were widespread, and affected all classes of society.
The era was given its name retrospectively, after the First World War had destroyed any sense that society was progressing towards a brighter future. The Belle Époque then came to mean a lost world of innocence that could never be recaptured.
Paris was called the 'Capital of the Nineteenth Century'. When Proust was alive, it was one of the most exciting places to live in the world, full of artists, writers, dancers and musicians. This sense of possibility lasted beyond Proust's death, up until the Second World War. One famous night in 1922 Proust went to a dinner party at the Majestic Hotel with Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Joyce, and Picasso (but there were far too many egos at the table for the night to be considered a success). It was the Paris of the Moulin Rouge, the cabarets, arcades and elegant cafés.
Shortly before Proust's birth, Paris was the scene of an uprising known as the Paris Commune. France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and a growing sense of discontent at their conditions led workers in Paris to overthrow the government for several weeks until it was brutally defeated by the regular French army.
In Swann's Way Proust's Paris is mainly seen through the eyes of Charles Swann, habitué of the fashionable, aristocratic world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain on the Left Bank (south of the river) as well as the bourgeois salon of the Verdurins on the Right Bank, around the Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The location of Swann's house on the Ile Saint-Louis is apt in many ways: in the middle of the river Seine, his house is mid way between the bourgeois and aristocratic worlds to the Right and Left; it is also a fashionable address in its own right, popular with artists and musicians, and therefore suits this side of Swann's character as well.
In the last part of the volume, Place-Names: The Name, the narrator begins to introduce his own Paris to the reader: the Champs-Elysées, where Françoise warns him of the danger of falling roof slates, and the nearby park where he sees Gilberte again. Unlike the semi-fictional Combray, it is possible to walk down the streets named in Proust's Paris, such as the Rue La Pérouse where Odette lives, or Swann's Quai d'Orléans.
In later volumes of the Search Paris becomes a much larger part of the narrator's world; in fact most of the novel's action takes place here. Proust himself spent most of his life living in the centre of Paris. His apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann, where he wrote his novel, is now open to the public on Thursday afternoons.
The village of Combray is based on Illiers (now Illiers-Combray) in North-Central France, and on Auteuil, the village near Paris where Proust was born, which has now been absorbed as a suburb of the city.
Proust portrays Combray as an old-fashioned society of rigid social distinctions and long-preserved traditions, providing its citizens with a sense of comfortable security, but also locking them in the past. It is associated with the narrator's family, and his childhood, as opposed to Paris, which is associated with the swift changes and excitements of the narrator's adult life.
The village is also associated with a pastoral, idyllic conception of the countryside, as seen in the two country walks, Swann's Way and the Guermantes Way, taken by the narrator and his family. His wish to describe the beauty of the flowering hawthorns and scenery punctuated by distant church spires, is an important part of origin of the narrator's wish to become a writer.
The real village of Illiers-Combray has a population of 3,178. It added the name 'Combray' in 1971 as a part of the centenary celebrations of Proust's birth, and now has a Proust Museum located in the house of Jules and Elisabeth Amiot, Proust's uncle and aunt.
The fictional seaside pleasure resort of Balbec is based on Cabourg in Normandy. Although it is mentioned in Swann's Way, the narrator does not actually visit Balbec until volume two, Within A Budding Grove. Proust stayed at the Grand Hôtel in Cabourg for two summers in 1907 and 1914.