"If the bottom of a cavity is not properly cleaned the best high polished filling will fail." Armed with this appropriate bromide by way of philosophy, Dr. Thomas Evans, dentist, left his native Philadelphia to make his name in Europe, and arrived in Paris just in time for the Revolution of 1848--the first of several historical upheavals he was to witness, and through all of which he managed not only to survive but prosper.
Determined (in his own words) "to make a high reputation, to gain celebrity, position and fortune," the very low esteem in which dentists were held in France--being bracketed in the public mind with midwives and itinerant tinkers--might have proved a setback to a lesser man. But not to the redoubtable "Handsome Tom." Aided by a healthy self-love, snobbery and great shrewdness as much as professional expertise, he soon made himself the most respected and sought-after man of his profession in fashionable Paris and became, rather to his own gratified surprise, confidant and adviser to a whole slew of crowned heads and celebrities, capping his achievements (if one may be pardoned the pun) by engineering the escape of his patient and friend, the Empress Euge'nie, from a mob storming the Tuileries at the collapse of the Second Empire. This exploit was a romantic sidelight on the history of the times, and Gerald Carson has written a cliche'd but entertaining account of it.
Evans was the European idea of the quintessential Yankee--energetic, inventive, adaptable and with an eye ever open to the main chance. He also was handsome, urbane and a quick learner. Notably discreet, he often acted as private diplomatic courier between the various monarchies of the time, constituted himself unofficial spokesman for the Union during the Civil War, became a newspaper proprietor, bon viveur, philanthropist, inventor of a mobile coffee machine, and made several fortunes in Parisian real estate--helped by inside knowledge of the Baron Haussmann's plans for the reconstruction of that city.
Paris during the Second Empire was a stimulating place for those who had the money necessary to enjoy it, but Carson's picture of it is almost too precise to evoke the atmosphere. Evans, of course, despite his staunch republican principles, was a devoted Bonapartist, and Carson describes the court life of Napoleon III with much the same rather naive relish that Evans might have felt while engaging in it, sparing no detail of the rise and fall of dynasties, political systems and ideas, nor the fashions, gaieties and intrigues of the demimonde.
Having escorted the empress to safety in England, Evans very sensibly decided to stay there himself until the end of the Franco-Prussian War. He kept in touch with Paris, however, sometimes by balloon mail, and the American field hospital that he had helped to initiate before leaving did sterling service throughout the hostilities. He returned to Paris to find his home and possessions intact due to the loyalty of his servants, and his practice in good shape. Republicans, it developed, were as frequently in need of dental services as monarchists.
While Euge'nie, first widowed and then bereft of her only son, lived on in loneliness in England, Evans turned his attention to his newspaper and acquired a mistress, Marie Laurent, more or less because it was the "thing to do." Through Marie he made friends among the artistic community, including Manet (for whom Marie had modeled), Mallarme', Whistler and George Moore. His devotion to his wife and the exiled empress never seemed to flag, however, and the generosity for which he was noted was obviously as much of spirit as of purse. He died back home in Philadelphia in 1897, having left his considerable fortune ($1.75 million) to the University of Pennsylvania for dental education. It is unlikely that many people today lie awake at night wondering just who rescued Euge'nie from the Tuileries, so one can only admire the forethought that ensured that Evans' monument still is the most imposing monolith in Philadelphia Woodlawn Cemetery.
Carson's history is carefully objective and scrupulously documented. Photographs are good, and notes, bibliography and index all attest to the painstaking research of the author. It is a pity the material is rather clumsily arranged and the writing betrays a lack of "feel" for time and place necessary to raise the work above the mediocre. The style is pedestrian when not pedantic (Napoleon III's renowned randiness is described coyly as "erithism"), while the contradictions and paradoxes so apparent in all three main characters are presented with no attempt at exploration or explanation.