Guest Author Post: Sarah Bernhardt and the Siege of Paris by M.K. Tod.

Many thanks to Davida Chazan for inviting me to be on her blog today. I’m delighted to share a bit about Sarah Bernhardt’s role in the siege of Paris.

Sarah Bernhardt and the Siege of Paris

And an excerpt from M.K. Tod’s upcoming novel “Paris in Ruins” 

The Franco-Prussian war occurred in 1870 during the reign of Napoleon III. The French were quickly defeated, and the Prussian army soon surrounded Paris, determined to force the French government to surrender. The siege resulted in thousands of deaths and untold suffering. Tragedy didn’t end there. In the middle of March, radical republicans overthrew the government and established the Paris Commune. For ten weeks, the Commune carried out acts of murder, assassination, pillage, robbery, blasphemy, and terror, until finally expiring in blood and flames.

The-Divine-SarahA perfect setting for a novel!

Serendipity led me to Sarah Bernhardt’s role in the siege of Paris. A biography of this famous French actress had been on our bookshelves for years. I think it belonged to my mother, and at some point in the last thirty years, I ‘borrowed’ it with the intention of reading Sarah’s story. It remained unread, despite its alluring cover, until I had the idea of writing a novel based on Bernhardt’s life.

As it turned out, Sarah’s life and character did not appeal to me—too many affairs, too extravagant, too self-centered and domineering. I have to like my main characters, and in this case, I wasn’t sure I could. So, the biography went back onto the shelf until deep into writing Paris In Ruins, when I wanted one of my characters to volunteer to nurse the wounded and recalled the story of Bernhardt’s good works during the Franco-Prussian war.

In My Double Life, Bernhardt mentions her decision to establish a hospital, or an ambulance as many of the smaller ones were called then.

“The Odéon Theatre had closed its doors, but I moved heaven and earth to get permission to organise an ambulance in that theatre, and, thanks to Emile de Girardin and Duquesnel, my wish was gratified. I went to the War Office and made my declaration and my request, and my offers were accepted for a military ambulance. The next difficulty was that I wanted food. I wrote a line to the Prefect of Police. A military courier arrived very soon, with a note from the Prefect containing the following lines:

‘Madame—If you could possibly come at once, I would wait for you until six o’clock. If not, I will receive you to-morrow morning at eight. Excuse the earliness of the hour, but I have to be at the Chamber at nine in the morning, and, as your note seems to be urgent, I am anxious to do all I can to be of service to you.’” It was signed Comte de Kératry.

Sarah knew the comte from an earlier time. They had even corresponded when he left France to serve in Mexico. At his office in the Tuileries Palace, she asked for ‘bread, milk, meat, vegetables, sugar, wine, brandy, potatoes, eggs, coffee’, and also asked Kératry to get rid of the gunpowder stored in the theater’s basement. “If Paris were to be bombarded and a shell should fall on the building, we should all be blown up, and that is not the aim and object of an ambulance.”

Kératry must have been entranced by Sarah Bernhardt for he fulfilled all her requests and more.

There are many details in My Double Life about the small hospital at the Odeon Theater and others in The Divine Sarah, that biography I mentioned.

“When at last the casualties were brought in, they arrived in horrifying numbers. Beds were set up in the auditorium, the dressing rooms, the bar, and the foyer. Even the stage was filled with the mutilated and the dying.”

I’ve situated my character Camille Noisette as a volunteer in Sarah’s hospital. A privileged young woman accustomed to servants and parties, Camille is determined to help her fellow Parisians and soon becomes accustomed to the horrors of caring for the wounded including the prevalent use of amputation as a treatment.

Ultimately, Sarah’s hospital is forced to close when the Prussian bombardment begins to destroy buildings in the area. I won’t tell you what happens to Camille—that would give the story away—but here’s a little excerpt from Paris In Ruins to spark your interest.


“Do you know where I might find Madame Bernhardt?” Camille asked an old woman sweeping the black-and-white tiled floor of the theater’s vestibule.

A puzzled look caused her to repeat the question, this time a little louder, and the woman waved at a narrow door tucked behind the grand staircase. “Là-bas,” she said. “Down there.”

“Monique, why don’t you wait for me here?” Camille said, pointing to a low bench. “I’m sure I won’t be very long.”

Following a dimly lit corridor that slanted downward, Camille reached the back of the theater and discovered a series of small rooms and a jumble of props and costumes as well as ladders, lamps, chairs, and a panel where tools of all sizes and shapes hung in an orderly fashion. A light glowed softly in the distance.

She took a few more steps. “Bonjour,” she called. “Is anyone here?”

Oui, un instant,” came the reply.

A minute later, a dark-haired beauty dressed in black emerged from a doorway, and although Camille could not see her face clearly, she knew from the mass of curls and statuesque posture that she was about to meet Sarah Bernhardt.

“Yes?” Bernhardt said. “If you are an actress, the theater is closed because of the war. I cannot help you. Life is difficult for anyone in the theater. You will have to make do, just as I am, as there are more important matters at hand.” She arched her dark eyebrows and tilted her head as if expecting Camille to leave.

“My name is Camille Noisette, Madame, and I’m not an actress. However, I’ve heard you may soon open the Odéon as a hospital for our wounded, and I would like to help.”

Bernhardt frowned and moved closer to Camille. “Where did you hear such a rumor?” The tone was dismissive, but the voice was pure as crystal.

“It’s not true?” Camille asked.

“I didn’t say that. I merely asked where you heard the rumor.”

“I . . .” Was truth the right strategy? Would Sarah Bernhardt be offended if told of the gossip at Madame Lambert’s salon? The actress’s reputation held her to be impetuous and demanding, a woman of powerful connections and great willpower who was capable of daring risks to have her way. There was no point in lying. “I heard it at an evening salon. One of the gentlemen in attendance speculated that the Comte de Kératry would willingly help you.”

Bernhardt laughed—a deep, throaty sound accompanied by a toss of her head. “Yes. That’s exactly what people would say about me. And they’re right. I am planning to open a hospital here, and I saw the comte yesterday. He is being most generous.” The last sentence was accompanied by a sultry look.

“Well, I would like to help,” Camille said. “I believe you will need volunteers, and although I’m not trained to nurse, I’m sure I can be useful.”

Sarah Bernhardt tapped an index finger against her lips while surveying Camille from head to toe. “You don’t look useful. You look like a young society woman accustomed to having others wait on her. Why would I need someone like that? You’d only get in the way. And I’m having enough difficulty as it is. Both the French Society for Aid to Wounded Soldiers and the French Army medical corps are in hopeless disarray.”

It hadn’t occurred to Camille that her station in life would be a reason for refusal, and for a moment she searched for an adequate reply. “I can . . . I can read to wounded soldiers,” she said. “Or write letters. I can fetch supplies, fold linens, and spoon soup into the mouth of someone too weak to feed himself. I’m not afraid of hard work.”

“Hmm. You’re right. Those tasks might be useful. Do you know anyone who could provide supplies?”

“Such as?”

“Food, medicines, fuel, coffee, clothing, blankets. The hospital will need all sorts of things if we are to treat the wounded and help them heal. The Comte de Kératry told me definitively that they are expecting thousands of casualties, possibly tens of thousands. Many will die before they can be treated, but others we will save. They will all need to eat and drink and be kept warm.”

“Tens of thousands, Madame? But how can that be? Paris is completely fortified.”


When the siege was almost at an end, Sarah wrote this in her memoir: ‘The infamy of war. What has happened to humanity when our enemy deliberately targets buildings flying the ambulance flag? Will there ever be a time when wars are no longer possible? When the ruler who wages war is dethroned and imprisoned? This horror is like poison seeping onto our streets, affecting every man, woman, and child.’

The siege and the insurrection that followed were a turning point for France and Sarah Bernhardt, one of France’s most famous actresses, played an exceptional part.

About M.K. Tod

Paris in Ruins lighterM.K. Tod writes and blogs about historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS  is available for pre-order on AmazonUSAmazonCanada, and Kobo. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

Paris in Ruins

Paris 1870. Raised for a life of parties and servants, Camille and Mariele have much in common, but it takes the horrors of war to bring them together to fight for the city they love. War has a way of teaching lessons – if only they can survive to learn them.

The story of two women whose families were caught up in the defense of Paris is deeply moving and suspenseful ~~ Margaret George, author of Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero

Tod is not only a good historian, but also an accomplished writer … a gripping, well-limned picture of a time and a place that provide universal lessons ~~ Kirkus Reviews.

A few weeks after the abdication of Napoleon III, the Prussian army lays siege to Paris. Camille Noisette, the daughter of a wealthy family, volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers and agrees to spy on a group of radicals plotting to overthrow the French government. Her future sister-in-law, Mariele de Crécy, is appalled by the gaps between rich and poor. She volunteers to look after destitute children whose families can barely afford to eat.

Somehow, Camille and Mariele must find the courage and strength to endure months of devastating siege, bloody civil war, and great personal risk. Through it all, an unexpected friendship grows between the two women, as they face the destruction of Paris and discover that in war women have as much to fight for as men.

M.K. Tod’s elegant style and uncanny eye for time and place again shine through in her riveting new tale, Paris in Ruins ~~ Jeffrey K. Walker author of No Hero’s Welcome

Links to retailers (there will be a paperback but not up yet):
Link to book trailer:

Endorsements for Paris in Ruins

A riveting story of patriotism, treachery and bravery set against the Siege of Paris when the courage of gently raised women like Camille and Mariele knows no bounds ~~ Patricia O’Reilly, author of The First Rose of Tralee

A meticulously researched novel about an almost forgotten war in which the newly assertive Prussians brought the French empire to its knees—a dress rehearsal for the two World Wars. In the 1870s women were far from the vote but were still very active in the war efforts. The story of two women whose families were caught up in the defense of Paris is deeply moving and suspenseful ~~ Margaret George, author of Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero

M.K. Tod’s elegant style and uncanny eye for time and place again shine through in her riveting new tale, Paris in Ruins ~~ Jeffrey K. Walker author of No Hero’s Welcome

A wonderful, compelling novel of the literal horrors of conflict arising from both war and revolution, seamlessly joined by the loyalty and friendship of Camille and Mariele that never wavers but grows despite the destruction of their comfortable and safe world. ~~ Margaret Scott Chrisawn, Ph.D., author of The Emperor’s Friend

An exquisitely crafted story combining poignancy and passion that follows the lives of two strong women and their families during the horrendous 1870 siege of Paris. ~~ Patricia Sands, bestselling author of Drawing Lessons

M.K. Tod’s Paris in Ruins conjures a compelling story from the historical catastrophes that befell Paris in 1870 and 1871, when a German Army conquered the city, then Frenchmen turned on each other in a revolution that devolved into a bloody civil war. A triumph of historical fiction! ~~ David O. Stewart, bestselling author of The Paris Deception.

9 thoughts on “Guest Author Post: Sarah Bernhardt and the Siege of Paris by M.K. Tod.

  1. That sounds brilliant. I’m interested in both the Franco-Prussian War and Sarah Bernhardt … ah, and I see that it’s only £3.99 for the Kindle version on Amazon UK! I’m on it 🙂 .

    Liked by 1 person

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