In 2010, a Paris apartment that had been shuttered for decades was opened, revealing a wealth of antiques, paintings, and other artifacts of a time long past. One piece stood out from the rest: a large portrait of a beautiful woman in a pink evening gown. The painting turned out to be a never-exhibited piece by Italian artist Giovanni Bolding.
Who was this woman? How did she come to be painted by such a well-known artist? Why did this apartment—a near-perfect time capsule—remain untouched for so long?
These questions inspire and inform The Velvet Hours, a historical novel by Alyson Richman ’94. When Richman first read of the mysterious apartment in 2014, she asked herself these questions and more. With a combination of research and imagination, she tells the story of the original owner of the apartment, a French courtesan of the Belle Époque, Marthe de Florian, as well as that of her granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron, who inherited the apartment but left it unvisited for decades.
The book begins with Solange closing the apartment after her grandmother’s death, as the Germans advance into France: “The place was now sealed like a tomb.” Although she opens her tale with this deathly imagery, Richman brings the apartment—and its inhabitants—to vibrant life. She reconstructs the opulent surroundings with lush details and lavish descriptions to bring the reader to a bygone era. The story unfolds slowly, as 19-year-old Solange learns of and meets her paternal grandmother for the first time in 1938. Over a series of increasingly frequent visits, Solange hears the story of Marthe’s life and a previously unknown chapter of her family history.
Born Mathilde Beaugiron, Madame de Florian takes on a nom de guerre at the encouragement of her lover, a new name that “evoked beauty and infinite possibility.” Having beauty in her life is of the utmost importance to Marthe, as she was born the daughter of a laundress, worked as a seamstress and actress, and then was lifted by her wealthy suitor into “the demimonde, the half-world. Caught between beauty and darkness.” It is her suitor, Charles, who buys her the apartment and gives her the means not only to survive, but also to collect beauty around her.
Interspersed with the story of Marthe’s time with Charles, the apartment, and eventually, the painting, the reader gets glimpses of Solange’s life in the early stages of World War II. An aspiring writer, Solange is keenly observant and interested in the lives of others, but in her own life she feels disconnected: “I saw everything through the lens of someone perpetually on the outside.” Then, as she follows the threads of her grandmother’s life, Solange begins to enact her own story, meeting a young man who will ultimately change the course of her life, much as Charles did Marthe’s.
As Marthe’s story and life wind down, Solange’s picks up speed and urgency as the Germans begin to advance closer to Paris. Richman reveals her version of how the apartment came to be sealed off and why Solange doesn’t return to it. Much as the portrait dominated the exquisite apartment, Marthe and the beautiful life she created for herself loom large in the novel, leaving Solange’s story and the novel’s ending feeling a little rushed. Nonetheless, The Velvet Hours offers intriguing answers to the questions the mysterious apartment raised, while presenting the reader with an evocative meditation on the power of beauty and the bonds of family.
Garrett, a freelance writer based in the Boston area, is a voracious reader of fiction.