The Eifel Tower has been a sensation since it’s construction in 1889. It has gone on to become the most well-known and most recognized landmark in the world. From our current evolved state, it’s hard to imagine what an incredible feat it was to construct such a monument. It was an absolute act of daring to even visualize such a thing, yet the tower has become synonymous with the city itself, though popular opinion at the time believed it would be an eyesore and a complete failure.
Being terrified of heights, I’ve never been able to even get close to it. This is something the female protagonist in Beatrice Colin’s stunning novel and I have in common. When Caitriona Wallace ascends in the hot air balloon over the future home of the Eifel Tower, my stomach lurches along with hers.
But a shared fear of heights had nothing to do with my affinity for the story. From the first paragraph, I was transported to a time and place so authentic in its description, I felt as though I was seeing it with my own eyes. Just as I can feel the tense and immediate attraction between Cait and Émile Nouguier, the architect and chief engineer of the further monument. It is their separate stories and how they slowly and intricately weave together that had me savoring every evocative scene, every nuanced word of a story set when class and gender almost always determined one’s outcome in life.
I loved every word of this gorgeous novel and I was so keen to learn what inspired the author to write it. It’s my great pleasure to share Beatrice Colin’s story behind To Capture What We Cannot Keep:
For the last twenty years or so I have been a regular visitor to Paris, first to see an elderly relative who lived near the Bois de Bolougne and second, as Fashion Editor for a Scottish newspaper. Deep below the Louvre I took my seat, watched the shows and took notes; Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, Issey Miyake, each more a theatrical spectacular than a parade of clothes. Working in Paris was, of course, a joy. When each day ended later than scheduled (fashion shows never run on time) I sank into my bed in the small hotel I frequented on the left bank and thanked the configuration of stars that had led me to spend time my favourite city and get paid.
To work in Paris is quite different from being a tourist. You drink a café at the bar, zip around the herds of coach parties and avoid the spots where the prices are high and the crowds are big. The Eiffel Tower was one such place. I had been there once as a student and never again. I remembered dozens of buses pumping out exhaust fumes, long queues for the lifts and tourists swarming around the base like ants.
One day, however, when surfacing from a fashion show in the north of the city, my eye caught the tower. Taller that the buildings that surround it, constructed from iron girders to render it almost transparent against the light and as elegant as a decorative hat pin, for the first time I wondered who had built it and why.
This led me to books on Gustave Eiffel whose company designed and constructed it, Victorian engineering, the Belle Epoque and Paris in the 1880s. Although the tower is arguably the most famous landmark in the world, few people, me included, knew the fact that when it was built for the World Fair in 1889 it was only intended to stand for twenty years. It has always been a celebrity – it was the tallest structure in the world for decades – and although now the epitome of an icon, its likeness reproduced on everything from t-shirts to iphone covers, it was once the subject of vicious debate. Some engineers claimed it would act as a giant lightning conductor and electrocute all the fish in the Seine. Others said it looked like a giant lamp post and would ruin Paris’ skyline. No matter what one thought about its aesthetics, its construction was nothing short of miraculous. Built in two years by fashioning each individual piece in the workshop and then bolting it together on site, the tower was a masterpiece of engineering in an age where metal was just coming into its own as a building material.
An interest in iron pointed me towards bridges – Eiffel was primarily a bridge builder – which led me back to Scotland to our own iconic Forth Rail Bridge which was constructed in the same period. I discovered that the company who built it were based in Glasgow, where I live, and the man in charge was a man called William Arrol.
Both Arrol and Gustave were middle-aged at the time that I wanted to set my book. And they were men. I tend to focus on women, for obvious reasons. So how could I fashion a story out of this wonderful material. It was while reading up on the Eiffel Tower that I came upon a picture of Emile Nouguier, one of two engineers working for Eiffel who actually designed the tower.
There isn’t much written on Nouguier but there is a photographic image of him as a young man and he looks so sensitive, so serious, so handsome, that in short, I fell in love with him. I wanted a character who would feel the same way so I invented Cait, a young widow who becomes connected with Arrol when she is employed as chaperone for his two young relatives, who, for reasons I won’t go into here, all go to spend an extended time in Paris. The novel is told from alternating perspectives, Cait’s and Emile’s, and their relationship echoes the difficult construction of the tower. I didn’t write it as a traditional love story but one which shows two characters trying to fashion something new in contrast to what was expected of them at the time. Paris was both extremely conservative and excitingly modern, and it was against that backdrop that I wanted to show the effect of the political (with a small p) on the personal.
I followed the trajectory of Emile’s life as closely as I could. He did eventually leave Eiffel’s company and form his own and he did eventually work in Africa. Cait is a fictional character but her life explores how easily a woman’s life could be over at a relatively young age if she lost her husband or never married.
Writing the book was a pleasure. I loved researching the clothes they wore, the social season, the high-class brothels and the art scene. It did, of course, also mean many more trips to Paris, for reasons of research, to spend an afternoon in a boat in the Bois de Bolougne, or walking up the steep hills of Montmartre imagining the air infused with the smell of oil paint.
Today once more women’s rights are once again under threat. One hundred and forty years ago women were just emerging from an age where life was a struggle without a man. As we fight to retain our agency, novels like mine remind us of just how much we have to lose.
Where to find Beatrice: