Catherine Hewitt's The Mistress of Paris is a fantastically readable biography of a nineteenth-century Parisian courtesan who harbored an incredible secret.
“A gorgeous, smart, ambitious, hard-working, steely autodidact and businesswoman whose product was herself, Valtesse would be totally at home in our self-branding society.” —The New York Times Book Review
Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne was painted by Édouard Manet and inspired Émile Zola, who immortalized her in his scandalous novel Nana. Her rumored affairs with Napoleon III and the future King Edward VII kept gossip columns full. But her glamorous existence hid a dark secret: she was no comtesse.
Valtesse was born into abject poverty, raised on a squalid backstreet among the dregs of Parisian society. Yet she transformed herself into an enchantress who possessed a small fortune, three mansions, fabulous carriages, and art the envy of connoisseurs across Europe. A consummate show-woman, she ensured that her life—and even her death—remained shrouded in just enough mystery to keep her audience hungry for more.
Spectacularly evoking the sights and sounds of mid- to late nineteenth-century Paris in all its hedonistic glory, Catherine Hewitt’s biography tells, for the first time ever in English, the forgotten story of a remarkable woman who, though her roots were lowly, never stopped aiming high.
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About the Author
Catherine Hewitt studied French Literature and Art History at Royal Holloway, University of London and the Courtauld Institute of Art. Her proposal for The Mistress of Paris was awarded the runner-up's prize in the 2012 Biographers' Club Tony Lothian Competition for the best proposal by an uncommissioned, first-time biographer. She lives in a village in Surrey.
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The Mistress of Paris
The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret
By Catherine Hewitt
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Catherine Hewitt
All rights reserved.
A Child of the Revolution
It would still have been dark when the young peasant girl, Emilie Delabigne, boarded the diligence or stagecoach which was to carry her from Normandy to Paris early one morning in 1844. Having loaded a small bundle of possessions on to the roof, diligence passengers took their seats among the strangers who would become their travelling companions over the next three days. The coach must set off before sunrise if they were to maximise the daytime travelling hours – diligences were not as costly as the faster mail coaches, but they would not drive through the night. Passengers were obliged to stop at one of the post stations dotted along the route to Paris where they would rest and eat. Eight people, sometimes more, could be packed into a diligence; at 24, Emilie might well have been the youngest woman of the party setting out that morning.
Country folk travelled to the capital for all sorts of reasons: perhaps some pressing business matter to attend to, or an illness in the family that would demand an extended stay with relatives. But it was too far for a humble peasant to travel simply for leisure. Emilie had a more serious reason for taking the coach to Paris.
Diligences were a notoriously uncomfortable mode of transport, particularly when the roads were rough, as they were in Normandy. Slowly, steadily, the vehicle would pick up pace, creaking as it went, swaying precariously from side to side. Passengers frequently complained of being thrown this way and that. Emilie had to steady herself to watch her childhood home gradually disappearing from view through the carriage's tiny windows. It was a sight charged with poignancy, anticipation and trepidation. For at this moment, only one thing was certain: she was unlikely ever to see her home again.
Emilie was not the only young peasant moving to Paris at this time. Migration from country to city had always occurred, but the momentum increased from the mid-century as industrial and commercial development heightened the demand for labour. With improved communication, news of Paris's wonders and delights began to reach the ears of the countryside's impressionable young. 'All over France the peasant displays the same foolish awe for the city of Paris. Everything which comes from Paris seems magnificent to him,' lamented one female commentator. Paris dazzled and entranced, enticing the young with the promise of well-paid jobs, better standards of living, opportunities and adventure. By the middle of the 19th century, the mass departure of the young for the capital had become the bête noire of the regional press.
For many, communication with townsfolk was to be viewed with suspicion. The disappearance of the countryside's female population caused particular alarm. 'Just count the losses to our agriculture brought about by our young village girls' excessive appetite for luxury,' spat a vicar from Emilie's region. 'Boarding schools and fashion have turned them into precious little madams, begloved, corseted and crinolined, unable to bend down and reach the ground, incapable of hoeing wheat, of binding sheaves, of feeding the animals.' Village girls were forgetting their primary responsibility to become virtuous wives and mothers. Worse, they were developing a taste for independence.
The most dangerous influence of all was felt to be the idealised figure of la Parisienne. Elegant, fashionably dressed, turning heads wherever she went, la Parisienne cast a spell over impressionable young peasant girls. Home, family and friends would be forgotten as girls set out eagerly to transform themselves into this revered – and reviled – model of femininity.
But not all youngsters migrated with such fanciful notions. The capital boasted very real practical advantages, too. Jobs were not only more numerous; they were more secure. Agriculture was a notoriously unpredictable business. Many peasant children leaving for Paris had watched incredulously as their parents struggled in vain to maintain paltry little farms. The young were realising that such suffering was futile.
Marriage remained a peasant's principal means of securing his or her property and future, but in ever-shrinking village populations, opportunities for prosperous partnerships were few and far between. A country girl who could only ever hope to become a farmer's wife might realistically aspire to marry an artisan or even a bourgeois if she moved to Paris. And many girls whose families were unable to supply the all-important trousseau, so vital to securing a good marriage, found that a temporary job in Paris increased their value on the marriage market when they returned to the countryside as well.
But Emilie did not set off to Paris that morning with the idea of one day returning. There was no previously arranged marriage to fund. Her departure was to be permanent.
Emilie's parents were approvingly described as an 'honest' family, a term generally understood in 19th-century France to mean 'of modest income' but 'hard-working'. Unlike the children of many of the poorest labourers, Emilie had learned to read and write (though she would always struggle with her spelling). Her literacy casts her father not as a labourer, but rather a member of the 'middle' peasantry, involved in commerce and thus part of a social community. Still, Emilie's departure suggests that M. Delabigne was not affluent enough to support a daughter of working or marrying age, or to secure her an advantageous betrothal to the son of a local farmer. In the absence of secure, well-paid jobs, many parents encouraged their children's departure for the city.
But even with her parents' support, once she left Calvados, Emilie would be utterly alone, probably for the first time in her life. She would need to be resourceful and resilient. Fortunately, these were qualities that the young Normandy girl had in abundance.
A female diligence passenger like Emilie would have arrived in Paris exhausted, her skirts crumpled and her limbs aching from three long days on an unforgiving road, broken only by snatched hours of sleep in strange beds. But as the vast city of Paris came into view, even the weariest of travellers would be inclined to forget their fatigue. After the quiet backwaters of the provinces, Paris's splendour could not fail to dazzle and amaze.
When Emilie arrived in the 1840s, the capital was slowly waking up to industrialisation. New buildings were being constructed to accommodate the growing industries, and Paris had seen its first railway open seven years earlier, turning the capital into a hub of activity and cultural interchange. On the surface, Paris was transforming itself into a lavish metropolis which impressed foreign visitors with France's prowess. As industry swelled, the promise of jobs saw the city's population double in size in the first half of the 19th century. Hopeful migrants flocked to the city from all corners of France. In the year Emilie arrived, Paris's population was nudging 1 million.
Career opportunities for women were limited for most of the 19th century. There was no state secondary education for girls until the 1880s, meaning that the options were restricted to shop work, dressmaking, laundering or repairing clothes, cleaning, and waitressing or bar tending. There was industrial work, but this was often less well paid than these domestic tasks. A more fortunate young girl might secure a live-in post as a domestic servant. She might be employed as a maid or, if she were educated, a governess. In all cases, the hours were long and the work demanding. A marriage, even if it were loveless, was often a more attractive alternative.
For an unmarried country girl like Emilie, determined or obliged to find work, a move to the city was her best chance of finding employment. Even then, women's wages were meagre compared to men's. But this did not deter Emilie. Calvados was a department that relied heavily on the fickle industry of agriculture; any regular paid employment was to be celebrated.
Emilie was lucky. No sooner had she arrived in Paris than she began work as a lingère or linen maid in a boarding school on the outskirts of the city. To secure such a position so quickly, a young girl would need to have some familiarity with the textile industry and the work of a domestic servant. If she were skilled and had contacts, a country girl like Emilie could even be offered a post before leaving and have her travel expenses paid by her employer.
A lingère was a position with heavy responsibilities. Emilie was in charge of checking in and distributing the soiled and clean laundry for the whole school. She had to ensure that all the linen was in good repair and stored appropriately. She would make minor repairs and occasionally be expected to make curtains or other soft furnishings for the school. Above all, she had to be cleanly, meticulous and physically strong. The work was laborious and the hours long. She would rise early, work relentlessly and retire late, exhausted, her body aching and her mind numbed. And at the end of each day, she would have barely 1 franc to show for her labours.
It was a punishing existence that left little time for pleasure, and in any case, conduct manuals advised employers to limit the number of social excursions enjoyed by their staff. Still, Emilie's board and lodgings were paid for, and a school was a social community in itself. As a newcomer to the city where she was yet to make friends, Emilie no doubt welcomed the company of her colleagues. These were people with whom she could share her new experiences and exchange gossip as the day passed.
However, for a girl of Emilie's age, much of the colour and interest of her job came from the men she was now working closely alongside. And as a new face with a fresh, country complexion and an earthy, natural beauty uncommon in Paris, she soon attracted the attention of one of the male teachers, a Monsieur T. By chance, Emilie's new admirer was also of Normandy extraction. Separated from family and friends, in a city where everything was strange and unfamiliar, Emilie was easily seduced. A romance quickly blossomed.
The period that followed marked a parenthesis in Emilie's life, during which the monotonous routine of the working week was punctuated by romantic interludes and stolen moments of intimacy. But then one day towards the end of 1847, Emilie made a terrifying discovery: she was pregnant.
Some accounts claim that Monsieur T. was already married; others paint him as a bachelor fond of his freedom and his drink. Either way, he never married Emilie. Still in her twenties, Emilie had become the figure that 19th-century society most reviled: the unmarried mother. She knew that both she and her illegitimate child would be social outcasts and she would need to seek alternative lodgings. Her story was only too familiar.
In 19th-century Paris, single mothers were almost always poor and without family, and frequently drawn from the textile and domestic industries. Emilie knew her options to be severely limited. She could hardly return to Calvados, where she would face unemployment as well as contempt. Her wisest move was to see out her pregnancy in Paris. There, she could at least work for most of the term and then make childcare arrangements afterwards. Perhaps the baby's father would even assist her financially. It was not so much a chance worth taking – it was her only choice.
But by the time Emilie was nearing the end of her pregnancy in the summer of 1848, France had been thrown into uproar. If Paris's face appeared to glitter and sparkle, beneath the surface the country's economy had been faltering since the middle of the 1840s. The Orléanist regime watched in horror as its popularity began to crumble. In February 1848, a banquet in Paris escalated into a full-scale political demonstration, leading protesters to take to the streets and form barricades. A dismayed Louis-Philippe I abdicated, a provisional government was hastily put in place and a republic declared. But when discontent with the new administration's political approach reached a head in June, radicals once more took to the streets. The Parisian landscape was transformed into a maze of barricades and the streets reverberated with the sound of gunfire and shouting. Tens of thousands of Parisians participated; at least 12,000 were arrested and some 1,500 were killed.
Barely three weeks after the conflict's bloody climax, with gunfire still echoing through the streets and the smell of smoke lingering in the air, Emilie went into labour. She was far away from her home town with no female family members to support her. Paris had its attention elsewhere. On 13 July 1848, alone and in the sweltering heat, Emilie gave birth to a baby girl.
Emilie adhered to common practice and gave her new baby her own name. But for convenience as much as caprice, the little girl soon came to be known as Louise.
Louise's birth certificate does not identify her father. The blank space where his name should appear betrays a complicated relationship. Though Louise's father joined her mother when she moved nearer the centre of Paris, he never officially recognised his lover or her child. He was often absent, and when he did return, his fondness for drink placed a constant strain on the household. Emilie Delabigne had to manage alone with her baby.
She could have given the child up. In 1844, 66 per cent of single mothers abandoning their infants at the children's home, the Hospice des Enfants Trouvés, were lingères. But Normandy women were renowned for their sense of family and duty; Emilie refused to give up her daughter.
As baby Louise grew, she began to develop a curious, striking appearance. She had a flush of golden red hair and pale skin, against which the piercing blue of her large eyes was accentuated. She was not exactly pretty by conventional standards; but there was something disarming, ethereal, even bewitching, about her appearance.
By the time Louise had learned to walk, her mother had moved to a tiny top-floor apartment in the Rue Paradis-Poissonière in Paris's poverty-stricken 10th arrondissement. It was a lively area of the city, populated with shopkeepers, artisans and factory workers, and animated by a scattering of little theatres and café concerts. Workers' apartments like the one Louise and her mother inhabited were cramped and stuffy with low ceilings. The rooms were poorly lit and dingy, and the few possessions the mother and daughter owned would instantly have made it look cluttered. And Louise and her mother were not alone in the apartment; the little girl's father was unreliable, but his presence was consistent enough for him to father six more children. Mme Delabigne, as she was now known, being over 25 and a mother, showed no resistance. Living as a concubine was common, particularly for girls who had migrated and could not easily acquire the necessary written consent of their parents to wed. Besides, the formalities of marriage presented a great expense.
Living conditions became more and more uncomfortable as the family grew. Money was hard-won and quickly spent. Finally, Louise's mother realised that the cost of her lover's presence outweighed the gain. She severed relations with him for good.
Louise would never truly get to know her father. Her childhood was spent on the Rue Paradis-Poissonière, and she could not have begun her life at a more difficult time, both for her mother and for France. The revolution of 1848 had done little to improve the daily life of the poor. In Paris, the consequences of the wave of migration that brought Emilie to the capital were taking their toll. The golden opportunities so eulogised had proved a limited fund, reserved for the quick and the lucky. For the poor, living conditions were squalid. The putrid air made the stomach turn, while disease and sickness spread uncontrollably through the filthy, overcrowded streets.
The Rue Paradis-Poissonière was a microcosm of the city's ills. On either side of the dirty, narrow street, tightly packed buildings housed a growing number of workers, shopkeepers and dressmakers. The majority of the street's working-class inhabitants harboured bitter resentment at their lot. The theatres, café concerts and dance halls may have enlivened the area, but they also led to widespread alcoholism. It was an unsavoury place to grow up. A child had to be permanently on his or her guard. But Louise had little choice. Her mother had to continue working, and when she was away Louise found that the street became both her playground and her school.
Children of all ages would mix in the streets, the older ones teaching the younger what they knew, the young listening wide-eyed as the world was revealed to them. A child had to be perceptive and make quick judgements about characters and their surroundings. By the age of ten, Louise was becoming sure-footed. She was rapidly learning the skills needed to survive on the street, her bright eyes watching, looking, absorbing everything around her. She grew skilled at adapting to her changing surroundings. This facility would serve her well throughout her life.
Excerpted from The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt. Copyright © 2015 Catherine Hewitt. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. A Child of the Revolution,
2. The Child Becomes a Woman,
3. First Love, First Appearances,
5. A Courtesan Must Never Cry,
6. The Lioness, Her Prey and the Cost,
7. Names and Places,
8. The Union of Artists,
9. Words and Wit,
10. Valtesse and Zola's Nana,
11. A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words,
12. A Political Affair: Gambetta, Annam and Tonkin,
13. The Thickness of Blood,
14. Slander, Scandal and Sun Queens,
15. The Thrill of the New: the Comtesse in Monte Carlo,
16. The Feminine Touch,
17. New Beginnings: The Sale of the House,
18. The Final Act: Preparing a Legacy,
Epilogue: The Legacy,
About the Author,