GRANDES HORIZONTALES, by Virginia Rounding
Grandes Horizontales: The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans
Bloomsbury, £20, 337 pp
They took their success lying
John Adamson reviews Grandes Horizontales: The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans by Virginia Rounding
It is not often when reviewing that I discover that I have stayed in the house of one of the leading characters, particularly when she happens to have been a prostitute - albeit, I hasten to add, one at the very top of her profession. The house in question is number 25, Avenue des Champs Elysées - now the Paris Travellers' Club - which offers its hospitality to assorted visiting diplomats, monsignori, and the occasional Cambridge don (hence my own entrée), but once the pleasure ground of a distinctly racier set.
Built for "La Paiva", a Russian-born Jewish brothel-girl who became the most celebrated Parisian temptress of her age, this vast hotel particulier, with its alabaster staircase and Boucher-style ceiling paintings of libidinous nymphs and shepherds, stands as a monument to the social standing (and flashy wealth) that could be achieved by a successful courtesan. It still evokes the louche, sexually permissive upper-class demi-monde that reached its apogee in the 1850s and 1860s, a world that formed a sort of parallel universe that existed beside mainstream, polite society.
Men, of course, could move between these two societies, maintaining separate personas in each: pious pater familias in one, raffish adulterer in the other. For women, however, it was another matter. Movement between the two was only in one direction. Once a woman had become a demi-mondaine (a term first popularised in 1855 by Alexandre Dumas fils), either because of divorce or sexual scandal, or the need to sell her favours for money, there was no route of re-entry into polite society.
On the other hand, by exploiting their looks, charm, and favours, a small elite of these women could acquire a measure of influence, financial independence and (ironically) sexual freedom that was denied to their more respectable, married sisters.
This book examines the careers of four of them: Marie Duplessis, the consumptive beauty who formed the model for Dumas's Lady of the Camelias (and hence of Verdi's La Traviata); Apollonie Sabatier, a muse to Flaubert and Baudelaire; and the English-born Cora Pearl, the mistress of Napoleon III's eponymous cousin, the portly, irascible Prince Napoleon - as well as the worldly marquise de Paiva.
Of course, these indulged and affluent "courtesans" were merely the pinnacle of vast pyramid of transactions in which money changed hands in return for sex (or sometimes merely companionship). Most of that pyramid was occupied by common-or-garden prostitution, an area where the French had decided that, if vice could not be eradicated, then at least it should be controlled. From the early 19th century, as Virginia Rounding notes, prostitutes in France were, for the most part, registered and subjected to regular medical checks, and brothels (the euphemistically named maisons de tolerance) were supervised by the state.
It was this tolerance that made the world of the courtesan possible. As Rounding explains, affluent courtesans became celebrities, enjoying an elevated (if ambiguous) social position. There was nothing furtive, still less dangerous, about these illicit upper-class liaisons. Nor was the relation wholly, or even primarily, to do with sex. The courtesan held court, not in her boudoir, but in her salon. And while these salons were not without their sexual frisson, they fulfilled a variety of other roles, not least as forums for political and literary debate.
During the 1850s, for example, the celebrated Apollonie Sabatier kept a salon on the rue Frochot, not only avidly frequented by Flaubert and Baudelaire, but also by a string of other lesser lights. Yet, in general, she remained faithful to Alfred Mosselman (the man who paid her bills), posing as an object of unattainable desire to her entourage of the literary lubricious.
Unlike the world of the bordello, where sexual grati fication was immediately available, the salon of the courtesan derived part of its allure from the discri mination with which its femme fatale dispensed her favours. Flaubert's letters to Apollonie, in consequence, are full of unfulfilled fantasies and longings, not least (with his fetishist interest in feet) his unfulfilled desire to make "obscene caresses" - whatever these may be - in the eyelets of Apollonie's boots.
The relative fidelity of Apollonie Sabatier, however, seems to have been something of an exception among Ms Rounding's quartet of great horizontales. Most were not only selectively "available", but also keen to use their availability as a route to acquiring wealth. The youthful Marie Duplessis, for example, died in her early twenties surrounded by all the fine jewels, clothes and furnishings of an affluent member of an haute bourgeoisie. And most courtesans proved themselves adept at exploiting the rivalries between their admirers.
But, even among the most venal, there were accepted bounds to cupidity. The extravagance of La Paiva, who gained a reputation for bringing young men to financial ruin in order to fund her already ostentatious lifestyle, was thought to have gone too far. She was ubiquitously vilified. (On one occasion, she is alleged to have extorted a fee of 12,000 Francs for her services from an impoverished but besotted admirer, only to burn the notes in his presence during the course of their tryst.)
Pampered, vain, manipulative and occasionally tragic figures though these women were - a complexity finely delineated by Ms Rounding - they possessed an almost heroic confidence that made them exceptional among their sex.
There are numerous examples, but none beats that of Cora Pearl, who became the talk of Paris when, with no training for the stage and still less as a singer, she undertook the exacting cameo role of Cupid (appropriately enough) in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. She appeared before an audience of noblemen "in white gloves and holding ivory lorgnettes", confident in the knowledge that whatever the deficiencies of her voice, she would conquer all with a costume that consisted of nothing more than a few strategically placed and very expensive jewels.
John Adamson is a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge
and loves of the serial mistress
Rupert Christiansen reviews Grandes Horizontales by Virginia Rounding
The phenomenon of the Parisian courtesan is one of the more amusing mythologies of the 19th century, an erotic fantasy largely created by men who wanted to characterise Louis Napoleon's Second Empire as decadent. No story about the shamelessly rapacious antics of the grandes horizontales was too far-fetched to be believed, and the moral was never far away: read Zola's novel Nana or Frédéric Loliée's Les Femmes du Second Empire, and you will be left with a shocking but enthralling picture of thousands of high-spending, sexually rampaging beauties moving inexorably towards syphilis and ruin.
The truth is less lurid. Some courtesans were doubtless no more than expensive hookers, many of them working-class girls raped as children and subsequently barred from respectability. But others look more like free spirits, deserving respect for their resilience, independence and refusal to kowtow to the mercenary and hypocritical aspects of the institution of marriage. They belong as much to the history of the déclassé - a category embracing the divorced, separated, victimised, abandoned and cussedly nonconformist - as they do to the history of prostitution.
And they struck a problematic bargain. The courtesan, as Virginia Rounding points out in this sober and intelligent study, sells far more than the prostitute, "for she is not much interested in a one-off transaction, involving only her body and only for an hour or so; the whole package she has to offer is herself". Some of them steered this dangerous course more successfully than others.
The most familiar and romantic (in both senses) story is that of Marie Duplessis, born Alphonsine Plessis and commemorated by Dumas in La Dame aux camélias and Verdi in La Traviata. Recent versions of her life by Pam Gems and Neil Bartlett have reinterpreted her as an effing and blinding Essex girl, but this was not the case: although she could be crazily vivacious, she was emphatically not coarse. "She had received from God the kind of elegance and distinction which would have made a great lady envious," wrote her obituarist. "Gracefulness came as naturally to her as scent does to a flower." So did lying, a trait which drove her lovers crazy.
Exploited by her father, this tiny, childlike creature of obscure origins was picked up in her teens by the Duc de Guiche, who educated and refined her into a well-read lady with superior manners and cultivated conversation. Dumas's own liaison with her was brief, and the story he created after her death was largely drawn from her longer relationship with the Comte de Perrégaux, whom she eventually married. The camellias may well have been an invention; the notion that she had an affair with Liszt is also dubious.
Tuberculosis took Marie Duplessis tragically young. Her coeval Apollonie Sabatier, on the other hand, survived to become a dignified, elderly spinster, the beneficiary of an income bequeathed by a grateful Richard Wallace, the founder of the Wallace Collection. She was an artist's model and also something of a literary muse: Baudelaire dedicated some of the poems in Les Fleurs du Mal to her, and she became famous for her Sunday soirées, at which Gautier, Flaubert and Delacroix felt free to talk dirty. "Courtesan" doesn't seem a fair description of this charming woman; "serial mistress" might be nearer the mark, though even that doesn't do justice to her capacity for disinterested friendship with men.
La Païva was a much less sympathetic character. A Russian Jewess of vaulting ambition, she was hard, cold, clever, calculating and greedy. Having ensnared the hugely rich Silesian Count Henckel von Donnersmarck, she had him build her a marble and onyx mansion in the Champs Elysées: the Goncourt brothers recorded its staggering vulgarity in their diary. She died fat, but not ruined or syphilitic.
These three are known largely through the report of men who either idolised or reviled them. Of Cora Pearl, we have a somewhat more objective picture, since she wrote her own candid, if unreliable, memoirs. Born Emma Crouch of Plymouth and seduced at 14, she became the lover of two of the Second Empire's most powerful men, the Emperor's cousin "Plon-Plon" Bonaparte, and his right-hand man, the Duc de Morny. She wore too much make-up and dyed her hair, but for all her gold-digging tartiness, she remained likeable - an underworld guide to Parisian femmes galantes described her as a "jolly good fellow".
Virginia Rounding has intelligently woven these four potted biographies into a seamless narrative and framed them in a clearly drawn historical context. But her approach is so doggedly unimaginative and unspeculative that the result is strangely flat and mundane: stripped of their legends and left shivering in the cold light of fact, the courtesans aren't nearly as exciting as we thought they were.
Grandes Horizontales by Virginia Rounding
Julie Wheelwright finds that the famous courtesans of Paris paid for independence with isolation
28 June 2003
There has always been a thin line between the public and private performances of notorious women. In 19th-century France, the nation's most highly paid mistresses - known as courtesans - understood that the monetary value of their company was tied to their reputation. Indeed, many worked hard at enhancing their own mythology, often giving contradictory stories about their origins, egging their clients on to ever greater excesses and even inspiring writers. Charles Beaudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal owed much to grande horizontale Apollonie Sabatier, while Alexandre Dumas fils turned Marie Duplessis' life into legend in La Dame aux camélias.
Virginia Rounding's history of four courtesans does much to separate the gloss from the fascinating realities. All her subjects were "fallen women" who understood that once they entered the demi-monde, they could never again be respectable: "No return journey was possible," she writes, "no matter what riches she might amass or works of charity she might undertake." Yet the courtesan's world ran in parallel to bourgeois society, with fashions often borrowing from both and the ladies of twilight entertaining the most powerful men of France.
Among them was Cora Pearl, an Englishwoman whose rape at a young age provided her with the determination to use her sexual powers to gain the wealth that an impoverished childhood had denied her. She arrived in Paris in the 1850s, worked her way up to become mistress of the Duke de Morny, the Prince of Orange and "Jean-Jean", Prince Napoleon. Invitations to her salon were sought-after. One admirer described a dinner party where she "strewed orchids over the floor and dressed as a sailor, danced the hornpipe, followed by a can-can". But privately, she mourned the loneliness that came with her inability to enjoy real intimacy. For her liaisons with the Prince at the Palais Royal, she often dined alone in a room that his wife had vacated, served by the same butler. Through the walls, she could hear the Princess Clotilde talking with their children, an intimacy that embarrassed her.
Such uncomfortable reminders of their state as outsiders was the price the courtesans paid for their independence. Women like La Pavia, Russian wife of a Jewish tailor, chose their clients, dictated their terms and could amass a fortune. La Pavia, born Esther Pauline Lachmann, remade herself in Paris, using her "prodigious powers of attraction" and exotic methods of seduction. She found a wealthy marquess, blackmailed him into marriage, and once his fortune began to wane, sent him abroad. In her forties, "painted and powdered like an old tightrope-walker", she found another husband to finance a gruesomely opulent palace famed for its portraits of her as much for its onyx staircase and bath.
If there existed an archetype of the hard-hearted schemer, Dumas' literary portrait of his lover Marie Duplessis gave rise to another interpretation of the courtesan's life. Marie, who died young of consumption, was known to be pious, had a reputation for good works and often gave away money and clothes. She was immortalised as the fallen woman with a heart of gold. Rounding calls her "the ideal illustration of what could happen to a vulnerable young girl on the streets of Paris". And there were hundreds of thousands at that time, who ended up with a similar fate without having tasted the high life.
Although the detail of courtesans' lives would in themselves make a good read, Rounding sets their careers within the context of the financial expansion of 19th-century France that fuelled such excesses. These were women ahead of their time, often grossly exploited as girls, impoverished in middle age, but who enjoyed that rare opportunity to earn their own money and live an unencumbered life.
29 June 2003
Napoleon III's Second Empire (1852-70) was an era of frenzied, conspicuous consumption which ended in tears, with France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Moralists shuddered gleefully over its depravities. Many focused particular attention on the celebrated courtesans. Zola depicted his super-prostitute Nana dying of consumption, "a shovelful of putrid flesh", the ultimate symbol of a diseased nation. The younger Alexandre Dumas virtually invented "the tart with a heart" in La Dame aux camélias, based on his affair with Marie Duplessis, but he went on to write another play raving about decent society being undermined by "a colossal Beast with seven heads and ten horns": prostitution.
This witty and stylish book explores the "legends" and heated fantasies about four of the most famous grandes horizontales. Apollonie Sabatier, known as La Présidente because she presided over a celebrated weekly literary salon, was for years "kept" in style by a rich businessman. She inspired a famous statue, much caressed by museum visitors, of a (naked) "Woman bitten by a snake" - and seemingly brought to a spectacular orgasm. She received letters of wonderfully po-faced obscenity from Flaubert and the poet Théophile Gautier: "I'm ready, like a large King Charles' spaniel, to lick between your fingers and your buttocks, and your gusset. I needn't mention the clitoris, that goes without saying." Baudelaire worshipped her as a goddess and wrote some ethereal poems to her but (reading through the lines of their fragmentary correspondence) seems to have recoiled in horror when she offered to sleep with him.
Blanche de Païva was a Russian Jew who married a Portuguese marquess, left him soon after and eventually got so rich she built a residence on the Champs Elysées rivalling Prince Napoleon's neo-Pompeian palace nearby. Since she also became the mistress of a leading Prussian dignitary, racism no doubt played a part in the way she was portrayed. One observer thought "she resembled both an automaton and a vampire".
Another told of the 10,000 francs she demanded from a young man who wanted to sleep with her. Many also noted that her grand house was equipped with an innovative central heating system but always kept very cold, as if she were "some inhuman creature who had swept in from the frozen wastelands of Siberia, cold-blooded, needing neither physical nor emotional warmth".
Rounding describes all this with panache and includes an excellent introductory chapter on the classification and regulation of different types of "loose women" in 19th-century France. Prostitutes, we learn, were registered and compelled to submit to regular medical examination not on a table but on a sort of reclining armchair, because many of them wore huge hats they didn't want to squash. The book is full of such intriguing historical details.
What is more problematic is that Rounding also tries to find the real women behind the stereotypes, to reclaim her quartet from the male fantasists surrounding them. Sheer lack of evidence often makes this difficult. It is clear that La Dame aux camélias is highly romanticised, but the personality and inner life of Marie Duplessis, who died aged 23, remain highly elusive. (She may well have cultivated such elusiveness.) Lists of lovers, and speculation about whether a courtesan did or did not sleep with a long-forgotten artist, tell us little in themselves.
Furthermore, Rounding ends her book on an odd note, praising La Païva's "drive" and "business acumen", La Présidente's "gifts for friendship and putting guests at their ease", as qualities which might have taken them far in an age offering greater opportunities to women. This may be true, but it feels a bit half-hearted and pious.
Fortunately, the final figure in the book, Cora Pearl, has a voice as well as a reputation. Originally from Plymouth, she was celebrated for her skill at "pigeon plucking" - relieving rich young men of their money - and her eye-catching flamboyance. (She is said once to have been served up on a platter, naked except for a few sprigs of parsley, and to have dyed her dog blue to match her dress.) She was also rumoured to be so callous that she only worried about the blood stains on the carpet when a poet tried to commit suicide in her presence.
Pearl's memoirs, written in the style of a music-hall romp, describe her admirers, adventures and attempts to play her lovers off against each other (while always keeping the richest on side). "As for what is conventionally termed blind passion or fatal attraction, no!" she remarks cheerfully at one point. "Luckily for my peace of mind and happiness, I have never known them." She alone emerges from this book as a real - and very likeable - personality. Rounding never quite manages to make any of the other three come alive enough to overshadow the gaudy myths about them, but her account of their "legends" is highly entertaining.
Madames flutter by
Virginia Rounding tells the story of four courtesans in nineteenth-century France who had glamour and cash - and were the first fashion victims in Grandes Horizontales
Sunday June 8, 2003
Grandes Horizontales:The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth-Century Courtesans
Bloomsbury £20, pp337
The myth of Paris has been embodied in women of legendary sexual charm since the fifteenth century, Agnès Sorel, Diane de Poitiers, Ninon l'Enclos and many others; women of dubious or even unknown antecedents who achieved amazing social and cultural prestige in what was otherwise one of the most misogynistic societies in Europe. The best-remembered of these fabulous monsters are probably the courtesans of the fin de siècle represented by Colette in Mes Apprentissages, Gigi and Chèri, but Virginia Rounding looks here at the previous generation, the reigning beauties of the Second Empire.
Her engaging book interweaves the stories of four women: Marie Duplessis, (Alexandre Dumas's dame aux camélias), Apollonie Sabatier, La Païva and Cora Pearl. Only two of the four even possessed the sumptuously exaggerated curves then considered the ideal of female beauty. Duplessis was slim and adolescent, Pearl was unfemininely athletic and La Païva was not even pretty: she had a big nose, a grim little mouth and a frumpy hairdo. All they seem to have had in common is opportunism combined with a powerful survival drive.
What these women were about was not sex, but ostentation. They were themselves, as Dumas observed, 'luxuries for public consumption, like hounds, horses and carriages'. Pearl, who possessed a sort of sardonic humour, once had herself served up on a silver platter, naked apart from some parsley. Consumption was also what they were supposed to die of; the disease which, mythically, was 'accelerated by venereal excess' and ate the body from the inside without destroying its beauty (of this quartet, only Duplessis actually did). Their way of life was based on spending - which is, significantly, the usual nineteenth-century word for ejaculation. Money rushed through their hands: because they functioned as advertisements for their protectors' magnificence, extravagance was almost their principal job. The first fashion victims, they have significant factors in common with more recent women famous for being famous. Their profligacy is easily understood by their own consuming need, which was not for sex or even for love, but for living up to their own reputations, without which they would disappear back into the obscurity from which they emerged. They ended up, consequently, with a lifestyle rather than a life. This is a story which Rounding tells very well.
The funniest parts of the book deal with the salon of Sabatier, where Thèophile Gautier let his hair down, writing obscene letters for reading aloud, which are not so much monuments of sophisticated perversity as a regression to the nursery world of 'pee, po, belly, bum, drawers'. Tellingly, Sabatier, who had to sit through this stuff and look as if she liked it, invariably addressed him as 'vous' rather than 'tu'.
Another highlight is the inadvertent tragicomedy that ensued when this kindly and simple woman, having failed to realise that when Baudelaire addressed passionate verse to her he required her to stick to his script and remain sadistically inaccessible, horrified him by writing back to say that she was his any time he liked.
One thing that Rounding brings out very clearly is the extent to which these women, as well as being significant subjects of literature and the visual arts, were part of the commercial life of Paris as more than just big spenders. La Païva's bath, sculpted out of a single block of Algerian yellow onyx, received an award at the 1867 Universal Exposition and, more generally, her great house on the Champs Elysées, now a listed building, was a showcase for contemporary style. The grandes horizontales were as famous for putting on clothes as for taking them off. Duplessis and Sabatier famously stuck to their own styles - Duplessis liked to dress with perverse simplicity, 'suitable only for a nun or a duchess', while Sabatier chose to create her own fashions or ask artist friends to design her clothes. A photograph of Pearl shows her in a crinoline some eight feet in diameter. Both she and La Païva were also notorious for their use of heavy makeup; La Païva overdid the kohl, keeping her face white, while Pearl, in keeping with her chosen surname, pioneered the use of frosted powders. Subtlety was not the name of the game.
In their own time, as Rounding's many excellently translated quotations show, these women were both figureheads and scapegoats for everything which was hard, artificial and commercial in French society. Now one's sympathy is all on their side, so it is cheerful to discover that they were not, as legend would have it, beautiful and doomed, with the exception of Duplessis, whose tuberculosis was more probably the result of the slogging hard labour of her childhood than of the patisserie and down pillows of her prosperity. La Païva married a Count, Sabatier enjoyed a modestly prosperous old age and died of flu at 68 and, though a number of moralists alleged that Pearl died in abject poverty, in fact she succumbed to cancer at 51 in a perfectly comfortable three-bedroom flat.
Many questions remain. Rounding can show nothing of the inner lives of these women, or even whether they had any, since they are images reflected in a thousand distorting mirrors. La Païva somehow leaves an impression of powerful, practical intelligence, while Cora Pearl's energy and humour come through in her memoirs. But why on earth did she want to learn Volapük?
Virginia Rounding homepage
Frances Wilson is seduced by Grandes Horizontales, Virginia Rounding's engrossing account of the glamorous courtesans who titillated 19th-century France
Saturday July 12, 2003
by Virginia Rounding
337pp, Bloomsbury, £20
Being neither prostitute nor mistress but charging for those services a wife would give for free, the courtesan is an endlessly troubling figure. The ambivalence and uncertainty of her role is captured in the two titles by which she was most commonly known in 19th-century France: the grande horizontale and the demi-mondaine.
She was a symbol of decadence, as conspicuous and impertinent as Clésinger's scandalous statue of Apollonie Sabatier in the Musée D'Orsay, in which she appears magnificently horizontale, jutting her hips in the throes of orgasm.
But she was also barely visible, living as she did in the half-world, an exclusive underground terrain in which, like Eurydice, she was condemned to remain. A courtesan was a woman who fell from respectability and then rose to great heights in an alternative realm. She was an exile.
To complete this transferral from one world to the next a change of name was required, and the four grandes horizontales whose lives and legends are described by Virginia Rounding shared between them 15 names, including the titles bestowed on them by the public.
Marie Duplessis, whose childlike appearance and early death made her the prototype of the "modest" courtesan, was born Alphonsine Plessis, became Mme la Comtesse de Perregaux and was known posthumously as la dame aux camélias after her lover, Alexandre Dumas fils, portrayed her in his hit play as the saintlike Marguerite Gautier, who dies of a broken heart. "Compared with the courtesan of today," Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote when La Dame aux Camélias was revived in 1868, "and her monstrous corruption, squalor, language, slang and stupidity, Marguerite Gautier... seems nothing but a faded engraving of some vague design."
Esther Pauline Lachmann, the daughter of Russian Jews, was the type of contemporary courtesan of whom D'Aurevilly most disapproved. Shrewd and determined, she became known as La Paiva. The ambition and extravagance of La Paiva (whose husband's title was itself fictitious) were such that even Napoleon III asked to be shown around her marble, onyx and gold-encrusted palace, built for her by her lover and future husband, the Count Henckel von Donnersmark. After her death, Henckel remarried but kept her body in a large jar of embalming fluid, before which he would weep for hours.
Aglae-Josephine Savatier, whose more modest home became a salon for Bohemian intellectuals, including Baudelaire (who was her lover), Flaubert, Delacroix and Saint-Beuve, became Apollonie Sabatier, thus erasing any association between herself and a "savate", meaning an old, used slipper. Madame Sabatier was soon dubbed La Presidente, and such was her status that she received scatological and pornographic letters from Theophile Gautier.
English-born Cora Pearl, lover of Prince Napoleon, changed her name "for no particular reason" from Emma Crouch, but, as Rounding points out, she enjoyed word play and "the making of herself a gem strung on a chain of lovers". This changing of names was a form of reinvention but it was also a sign of the times: Louis Napoleon had adopted the title of Napoleon III, suggesting that one could be whoever one chose to be.
While courtesans have traditionally written about themselves as victims of an idle and hypocritical aristocracy who passed them around like after-dinner mints, they tend to have been written about in trifling, excitable, blushing terms, as though they represented no more than the glittering ephemera of a glamourous bygone age. Susan Griffin's The Book of the Courtesans (2001) and Joanna Richardson's The Courtesans (reprinted in 2000) idealise their subjects. Rounding breaks new ground; Grandes Horizontales is a historically precise, coolly analytical study of the rise and fall of second-empire Paris, a regime that is treated as inseparable from the dangerous opulence of the demi-monde.
After the Franco-Prussian war the extravagant lifestyles of the courtesans were blamed for the ills of France. "The first thought to enter everyone's head," wrote J de l'Estoile in 1871, "was where all the missing gold had gone." Most, it was presumed, was adorning the palace of La Paiva. Because Rounding sees courtesans as a product of economic and political pressure, she avoids the breathless prose and novelettish narrative that one tends to associate with tales of traviatas and marquises. "Amid all the glamour of the courtesan," Rounding reminds us, "there is a tendency to forget that money is being exchanged for sex."
The courtesan might appear to offer more than just her body: reputation was bought as well, along with wit, conversation, a good salon, beauty and status, but it was essentially sex she was selling.
"The actual nature of the transaction is veiled," Rounding writes; "when a demi-mondaine is looking for a protector, or even just a client, she is offering a package in which the sexual act is implicitly included but may be the one thing which is not overtly displayed."
So La Presidente advertised her sexuality instead in Clésinger's writhing statue and La Paiva trumpeted her accomplishments in her marble mansion. Cora Pearl played cupid in Offenbach's operetta Orphée aux enfers dressed only in strategically placed diamonds. The demi-mondaine only revealed half of herself, her promise and her success; this is what makes her so elusive, and thus so desirable.
Rounding is strong on the role and etiquette of the courtesan's salon and on the details of her appearance and toilette, but she is as interested in the legends generated by the grandes horizontales as she is in their lives, and she deftly analyses the ways in which fact and fiction bleed into one another in the making of a reputation. While none of her four women knew the others, they knew of one another, and Rounding shapes her narrative so that each life weaves into the next, as lovers are shared and others' legends are consumed. This is a rich, timely, engrossing book that puts its forerunners to shame.
Wilson's biography of the Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson will be published
by Faber in the autumn.
Camille - the first tart with a heart - has inspired countless plays and films. But her life, says Lyn Gardner, was far from romantic
Wednesday March 5, 2003
On February 5 1847, the prostitute known as Marie Duplessis, once queen of the Parisian demi-monde and arguably one of the modern world's first celebrities, died of tuberculosis. She was only 23. Within weeks, all her belongings, including her pet parrot, were auctioned to pay her massive debts. Fashionable Paris turned out in force, most not to bid but merely to stare. Charles Dickens was among the throng, later commenting: "One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d'Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness." A myth was beginning to take shape.
Within the year it emerged, fully formed, in the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas the younger, the illegitimate son of the author of The Three Musketeers. In the novel, Dumas, who had had an affair with Marie Duplessis between September 1844 and August 1845, transforms himself into Armand Duval and Marie Duplessis into Marguerite Gautier. The consumptive Marguerite is the original tart with an enormous heart, who gives up her young lover Armand, the only man she has ever loved, at the behest of his father, who argues that the family's spotless reputation is being destroyed by the scandal of the liaison. Marguerite's self-sacrifice is the death of her. Not since Romeo and Juliet had romantic myth offered an opportunity for such a good cry: a minimum of five hankies was required to make it through to the end of the novel.
But people didn't read it as romantic myth. The book's enormous success came about partly because many people read the fiction as fact. Dumas's affair with Duplessis had been an open secret in fashionable Paris. Operating at that suspect but lucrative crossroads where legend and truth converge, the novel became a runaway hit.
But just as his hero Duval could not let his lover rest, and exhumed her rotting corpse a year after her death, nor could Dumas. With indecent haste he turned his novel into a money-spinning play. La Dame aux Camélias had its premiere at the Théatre de Vaudeville on February 2 1852. It would have been sooner if the censor had not rejected it three times, considering the subject matter indelicate. It was almost five years to the day since Duplessis's death.
In Dumas's play, Marguerite dies in the arms of her lover, who returns to her at the 11th hour, giving rise to one of the longest, most popular and potentially camp deathbed scenes in the history of drama. "I have lived for love and now I am dying of it," cries Marguerite. With the success of La Dame aux Camélias, which became known as Camille in the English-speaking world, Marie Duplessis became trapped for ever in a romantic myth. When Verdi's opera La Traviata premiered a year later, with Marie/Marguerite rechristened as Violetta, the chains were fastened even more tightly.
The trouble with myths is that they are lies. The real Marie Duplessis (born Alphonsine Plessis) may have dazzled Paris for a few brief years, but her life was nasty, brutish and short. She did not expire coughing prettily in the arms of her beloved, but alone after years of disease and three days of agony. Reputedly sold into prostitution by her father in her early teenage years, Marie had made her way to Paris by the time she was 15 and reinvented herself as a well-paid courtesan.
It must have seemed like a canny move for the former Normandy peasant girl, but it meant Marie was no longer mistress of her time, her body or even her heart. She was a working girl, at the beck and call of the men who bought her - victim of a creeping disease that ravaged her youth, beauty and health, and a society that tolerated her as long as she remained at its margins. The adding of "Du" to her surname was a pathetic attempt to give herself aristocratic status. When she died, she was surrounded by the trappings of wealth and status, but in reality she owned nothing but debts.
Like the vultures who turned up at the auction to pick over her remaining possessions, Dumas picked over the bones of her life and turned them into a meal ticket. Much of the rest of his life was devoted to writing books and plays that decried prostitution and upheld the sanctity of the family.
His stage version of Camille became an enduring success. Tragic actresses in the 19th century queued up to play Marguerite, and the role became as coveted as any of the great Shakespearean heroines. It was one of Sarah Bernhardt's greatest stage successes, and she repeated the role on film in 1912 - perhaps unwisely, as she was aged 68 at the time. Rudolf Valentino played Armand Duval in a 1920 movie version opposite Alla Nazimova, and Greta Garbo won an Oscar nomination for her 1936 portrayal of Marguerite in which her death is famously signalled by a remarkable long close-up shot that simply fades to darkness, an absence.
Even now, the story retains its appeal, constantly reappearing in different versions. In the theatre these have included Pam Gems's feminist but still strongly romantic reading of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the mid-1980s, and Charles Ludlum's high-camp 1973 version for his Ridiculous Theatre Company - a production that held new meanings on its 1990 revival, three years after the death of its author from Aids. This week a new version of Camille by Neil Bartlett opens at London's Lyric Hammersmith.
Cinema, meanwhile, has brought us Pretty Woman, interesting because in this instance prostitution is the disease, and because it offers a happy-ever-after ending. (Notably, Julia Roberts's unhappy hooker proves her genuine worthiness for true love to Richard Gere's uncharming Prince Charming, a multi-millionaire businessman, by weeping all the way through a performance of La Traviata.) More recently, Baz Luhrmann transposed the story to fin-de-siècle Paris with the all-singing all-dancing Moulin Rouge, in which Nicole Kidman's nightclub singer Satine comes prettily kitted out with consumption.
The appeal of the story to a 19th-century audience is understandable. After all, the rules were clear for 19th-century romantic heroines: whether you were Marguerite, Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, death was where your story inevitably led. There would be no happy-ever-afters for these Cinderellas, but death could bring redemption. In the case of Marguerite, her illness signifies that she is full of moral decay, but it is also part of her attractiveness and wins sympathy from the audience. (Consumption, with its pallor and glittering-eyed fever, was so identified with an ideal of female beauty that young women would attempt to mimic its symptoms, even going so far as to starve themselves or eat sand.) But you can't go on coughing charmingly for ever - some would argue that Marguerite's dying is drawn out far too long as it is - and in the end death is her only option. It is only in death that Marguerite can become a virgin again.
What is less clear is why this story retains its hold over us today. After all, we no longer believe in virgins. Nor do we believe that tuberculosis is caused by living too fast or is a sign of moral decay; we know that it is caused by a bacillus that thrives in conditions of overcrowding and poverty. We know it is not a pretty illness but a dangerous one that is on the rise. And what is the point of redemption if you don't believe in God?
In Camille, Marguerite must die so that Armand's sister can become a respectable bourgeois matron. Looked at in that light, Marguerite's sacrifice is not worth making. She dies so that young men like Armand can go on sowing their oats. She dies so we can go on believing in romantic myths, even though we know they are not true. She dies without protest and she dies too soon. What we need is a Marguerite who dies shrieking loudly - or doesn't die at all.