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A fascinating portrayal of the lives of the great nineteenth-century courtesans.
Marie Duplessis, Cora Pearl, La Païva and La Présidente, the four women whose lives and legends are examined in this fascinating book, were all representatives of the golden age of the French courtesan. In the reign of Emperor Napoleon III the opulent and pampered demimonde became almost indistinguishable from the haut-monde, with mythical reputations growing up ...
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A fascinating portrayal of the lives of the great nineteenth-century courtesans.
Marie Duplessis, Cora Pearl, La Païva and La Présidente, the four women whose lives and legends are examined in this fascinating book, were all representatives of the golden age of the French courtesan. In the reign of Emperor Napoleon III the opulent and pampered demimonde became almost indistinguishable from the haut-monde, with mythical reputations growing up around its most glittering and favored celebrities.
Marie Duplessis became the prototype of the virtuous courtesan when Alexandre Dumas Fils portrayed her as Marguerite Gautier in La dame aux Camélias. Apollonie Sabatier, known as La Présidente, put men of letters and other arts at ease amidst the gracious manners and bawdy talk of her salon and was immortalized by sculptor August Clésinger and poet Charles Baudelaire.
To prejudiced eyes, the Russian Jew La Païva appeared intent on exploiting the rich young men of Paris. Covetous onlookers resented her ability to amass and display great wealth, most notably in the design and building of her opulent hotel in the Avenue of the Champs Elysées. The English beauty who called herself Cora Pearl was another "foreign threat", with her athletic physique, sixty horses and ability "to make bored men laugh", including Prince Napoleon.
Virginia Rounding disentangles myth from reality in her lively, thought-provoking study. Nineteenth-century Paris comes to life and so do its most distinguished and déclassé inhabitants.
The highly paid courtesan of the demi-monde represented the pinnacle of a continuum of women who traded their bodies and their company for financial reward in mid-nineteenth century France. Throughout much of that century Paris enjoyed one of the most regulated systems of prostitution in the world, a system envied by the authorities of many other capital cities. Dr Michael Ryan, a member of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons and Senior Physician to the Metropolitan Free Hospital, expressed this envy as far as London was concerned in his Prostitution in London, published three years after Dr Parent-Duchâtelet's work and drawing heavily upon it:
As prostitution has ever existed, and will ever exist, in all countries, the French police regulations are intended in every way to diminish the nuisance caused by it, and to regulate the houses devoted to it. The regulations in France, are well calculated to repress crime, while those in this country, are most defective, and hence the frequent murders and robberies, in brothels, so often recorded in the public papers.
The French system was based on the belief of the inevitability, even the necessity, of prostitution combined with the desire to discipline the prostitute, to keep the whole phenomenon contained and subject to authority. As Dr Parent-Duchâtelet put it, 'Prostitutes are as inevitable in a great urban centre as are sewers, roads and rubbish dumps. The attitude of the authorities should be the same in regard to the former as to the latter.' The ideal was considered to be the creation of an enclosed world of prostitutes, a sort of distorted mirror image of the enclosed world of the nun, in which the women concerned would be good 'workers', doing as they were told, and contributing to the stability of society by absorbing the excess sexual energy of men, while remaining invisible to the bulk of the population. It was believed that registration with the police and tight control over the activities of prostitutes would result in the containment of syphilis, a great scourge of the nineteenth century, as well as in the maintenance of stable married life. This was essentially a European attitude, carried to its logical conclusion in the French system of regulation; an entirely different attitude prevailed in New York, for instance, where the emphasis was on the desire to stamp out prostitution altogether. Dr Ryan quotes from an address delivered by the Reverend Mr M'Dowall, Chaplain to the New York Magdalen Asylum, in May 1832 in which he had declared that 'the grand effort of those who would promote reformation, should be directed to arresting, and, if possible, reclaiming, those wretched females, who are the pest and nuisance of society, though equally the objects of our compassion and abhorrence'.
Parent-Duchâtelet's research was conducted and published during the reign of Louis Philippe, a period also known as the July monarchy. The ethos of this monarchy centred on the maintenance of political and social stability and, in the early years of his reign, Louis Philippe's naturally conservative outlook was strengthened by a number of workers' demonstrations - such as the revolts of the Lyonnais weavers in 1831 and 1834, which were brutally suppressed - and by several attempts on his life. Little was done to address the growing social problems arising out of the Industrial Revolution, the workers in the slums having to fend for themselves while the middle and upper classes made money out of them and went dancing and dining on the proceeds. Disease, especially cholera, was rife among the urban population; the cholera epidemic of 1832, which lasted from mid-February to nearly the end of September, claimed the lives of 18,402 Parisians. The glittering façade of Paris masked an underworld of poverty and disease, a dislocation which was a marked feature of Second Empire life but whose seeds were sown during the July monarchy, where the contrasts between rich and poor also provided a natural setting for the growth of prostitution and for the rise of the courtesan.
The backbone of the French system was the registration of prostitutes, a registration which could be entered into voluntarily or enforced following an arrest. Registered prostitutes or filles soumises (literally, submissive or compliant whores) had to submit to various regulations, including mandatory health checks for venereal disease, while unregistered ones (insoumises) operated outside the law. A fille soumise either worked independently, in which case she was known as a fille libre or isolée, or as a fille en carte (because of the obligatory identity card which detailed the dates of her medical inspections as well as any infringements of the rules), or in a strictly regulated and supervised brothel known as a maison de tolérance or maison tolérée, where she would also live. This latter type of prostitute was known as a fille de maison or a fille de numéro, by virtue of the number she was given when she was entered in the brothel-keeper's book, though it may also have referred to the fact that the authorities required brothels to display their street numbers in a large size over the door. At the top of the hierarchy were the first- and second-class maisons, intended for an aristocratic or bourgeois clientele, and generally to be found in the centre of Paris, in the area around the Opera House in the rue Le Peletier. Such establishments were lavishly furnished, with thick carpets, mirrors and statuary, and an abundance of mythological motifs in the decorations on ceilings and walls.
Prostitutes who worked independently in Paris were hemmed in by a network of petty restrictions, designed to prevent the innocent and the virtuous from being offended by the too obvious presence of vice which was tolerated only so long as it could be kept invisible except to those who knew where to look, and which increased the difficulties of carrying out their trade. In particular, prostitutes were forbidden to solicit or even appear in the street or other public places before seven o'clock in the evening and after ten or eleven at night. Neither were they supposed to draw attention to their trade by dressing or behaving provocatively. One way in which such restrictions were circumvented was through the use of intermediaries or procuresses who, while appearing to carry on a legitimate business as, for instance, clothing merchants or outfitters, would also be making appointments for a number of prostitutes from whose profits they would take a cut. Such women were likely to have previously been prostitutes themselves and could now, by their very presence alongside younger women in the streets, indicate, to those men who knew the signs, the availability of the latter; they could also direct the interested passer-by to the nearest brothel. 'The more severe the regulations of the police are made, the more important to their class these women become.' The extent to which a prostitute could get away with soliciting varied from area to area of Paris. Alphonse Esquiros, a phrenologist and social commentator who took up and developed some of Parent-Duchâtelet's theories in his Les Vierges folles (The Foolish Virgins), first published in 1840, and who, unusually for such commentators, was endowed with a sense of humour, presents a vivid picture of these differences in describing how an old hand might instruct a new recruit:
In the area of the Bourse, the Chaussée d'Antin and boulevard de Gand, the prostitute should walk along the pavement, discreetly beckoning with her eyes when appropriate; around the Palais Royal and in the streets of Saint-Honoré, Montmartre, Richelieu and Saint-Denis, she should whisper in a man's ear; in the Latin Quarter, she should address him as 'tu' and call a spade a spade; finally, in the Cité, in the rue de l'Hôtel-de-ville and elsewhere, she should accost the passers-by boldly, seize their protesting arms and drag them to her by force, even at the risk of being elbowed sharply in the chest.
The most convenient arrangement for a prostitute would be to have a roster of regular clients, obviating the need for her to solicit for new ones. A fille en carte might have an arrangement whereby a group of gentlemen bought her services en bloc, dividing up among themselves who would visit her on which day. Such an arrangement could also be advantageous for the men concerned by lessening the risk - or at least the fear - of contracting a venereal disease, by confining sexual activity within a closed circle of acquaintances.
A distinction was made between those women who registered voluntarily and those registered by the authorities. Voluntary registration was a simple procedure, involving a woman going to the Prefecture of Police armed with her birth certificate and asking to be registered. She would be questioned by the assistant head of the bureau and asked to declare her matrimonial status, the professions of her parents and whether she had any children. She would then undergo a medical examination at the police dispensary. The minimum age at which a girl might legally apply for registration was sixteen. Compulsory registration might be the result of a police raid, of the sort so feared by Emile Zola's Nana in his novel of that name:
Moreover, Satin inspired [Nana] with an awful fear of the police. She was full of anecdotes about them ... In the summer they would swoop upon the boulevard in parties of twelve or fifteen, surrounding a whole long reach of sidewalk and fishing up as many as thirty women in an evening ... [Nana] saw herself hustled and dragged along, and finally subjected to the official medical inspection. The thought of the official armchair filled her with shame and anguish ...
The compulsory health check, or contrô1e sanitaire, was detested by prostitutes who, no less than other women of the period, experienced medical examination of the sexual organs as an assault on their modesty. The 'armchair' Nana dreads so much refers to the adapted table on which the women were examined. The doctors preferred to use an ordinary table, with a raised plank at one end for the woman to rest her feet on, but so many prostitutes were in the habit of wearing big hats which they did not want to be squashed as they lay back, that a kind of reclining armchair was devised so that they could remain partially sitting up. The dispensary where the checks were carried out was originally located in the rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs not far from the Louvre and the Tuileries, moving in 1843 to the courtyard of the Prefecture of Police on the quai de l'Horloge on the Ile de la Cité, and it was open from eleven in the morning until five in the afternoon, every day except Sunday. The checks were carried out at speed; on average during the Second Empire, fifty-two women would be examined in one hour. Independent prostitutes were required to attend for the check twice a month, while doctors visited the maisons de tolérance to carry out the checks every week.
If a fille insoumise arrested during a police raid, or a fille soumise attending for her routine check-up, was found to be suffering from a venereal disease, she would be sent to the prison-hospital of Saint-Lazare where she could be detained until she was cured. Registered prostitutes could also be taken there for infringements of the rules. Saint-Lazare was a source of terror, reputed to be filthy as well as harsh, and women were continually devising ways of disguising any tell-tale symptoms of disease, always trying to keep one step ahead of the examining authorities. Some such device, at which Dr Ryan will do no more than hint, appears to have been a form of cup inserted into the vagina and covering the cervix, as it also had the effect of appearing to stop menstrual bleeding:
It is necessary to abstain from details; but I may mention that this invention has often served to conceal their maladies, and has thus enabled them to elude the watchfulness of the police; and they have also employed it in the hospital to simulate cures, and recover their liberty; but these tricks are now well known, and no longer deceive the persons who are charged with the sanitary surveillance.
If, on her first arrest, a fille insoumise turned out to be healthy, she would probably be released, while a second arrest was likely to lead to immediate registration. Unless she was in a position to call on some influential protector prepared to vouch for her and to state that she was not after all a prostitute, it would be in the woman's best interest to comply at this point, as refusal to be registered would only result in further detention and investigation.
A further type of institution devoted to the prostitute, in addition to the brothel, the hospital and the prison, was the refuge where she could go to repent and be, to some extent, rehabilitated. Convents had originally provided such a refuge but they had been abolished at the time of the Revolution, and the only institution available to the repentant prostitute at the time of Parent-Duchâtelet's researches was the refuge of the Good Shepherd, founded in 1821 by an association devoted to the education of prostitutes. A woman had to be aged between eighteen and twenty-five to be admitted here, and there was a disturbingly high mortality rate caused, or so Parent-Duchâtelet considered, by the extreme change the prostitute had suddenly to make from her previously unstructured life into this new one of an ordered austerity, involving getting up at five o'clock every morning followed by long hours in chapel: 'they jumped, so to speak, from one extreme to another, and without the least transition'.
Parent-Duchâtelet estimated the number of prostitutes in Paris in 1836 as approximately eighteen thousand, one half of whom were kept women or femmes galantes, over whom the police had no jurisdiction because they carried on their affairs in private.
No one, says [Duchâtelet], can deny that these women are really prostitutes; they propagate fatal diseases and precocious infirmities, more than all the others, and they may be considered to be the most dangerous beings in society. The police cannot, however, treat them as prostitutes, for they all have a residence, pay taxes, and conform, apparently, to the rules of decency; consequently, they cannot be refused the outward tokens of respect which are due to virtuous women.
Excerpted from GRANDES HORIZONTALES by Virginia Rounding Copyright © 2003 by Virginia Rounding
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|Introduction: The Demi-monde||1|
|Ch. 1||Prostitutes and Prostitution in Nineteenth-century Paris||9|
|Ch. 2||The Life of Marie Duplessis||31|
|Ch. 3||La Dame aux camelias||55|
|Ch. 4||The Creation of La Paiva||75|
|Ch. 5||La Femme piquee par un serpent||97|
|Ch. 7||Les Fleurs du mal||133|
|Ch. 9||The Hotel Paiva||175|
|Ch. 10||The English Beauty of the French Empire||195|
|Ch. 11||Putting on a Show||229|
|Ch. 12||The Collapse of Empire||253|
|Ch. 13||La Femme de Claude||269|
|Ch. 14||Last Years||285|
|Conclusion: Seen and Unseen||307|