Sex in the City for women of the demi-monde living in nineteenth-century Paris and London involved living a racy, scandalous and at times, dangerous, lifestyle.
In his planning notes for Nana, the character of which was based on four notorious, pampered prostitutes, Zola describes his novel as being about “a whole society chasing after sex. A pack of hounds following a bitch . . . The poem of male desire.” * Nana rises from being a streetwalker to high-class cocotte; her golden tresses and “deadly smile of the man-eater” holding Le Tout Paris in thrall. Zola’s descriptions of her delirious expenditure, rising debts and magnificent, glitzy Hotel Particulier, “which seemed to have been built over an abyss that swallowed up men — along with their worldly possessions, their fortunes, their very names — without leaving even a handful of dust behind them,” foreshadow her vile death rotting in a state of stinking pustulence from smallpox during the last years of the French Second Empire. When it was published the novel was an instant hit, selling around 55,000 copies.
In his study of prostitution in Paris published in 1842 — Streetwalkers, Lorettes and Courtesans (Filles, Lorettes et Courtisanes) — Alexandre Dumas shows how going to work on the streets near La Bourse or rue Saint Honoré; on the Grands Boulevards; or in a brothel was more profitable for a lower-class girl than factory work, or shoplifting. Many sold themselves to support their families. Others were servants sacked by their employers, or arrived in the big city from the country having fallen pregnant.
Lorettes were generally women from bourgeois families fallen on hard times — the daughters of ruined minor aristocrats, bankers, colonial families, or mistresses abandoned by their lovers — operating around Notre-Dame de Lorette in the 9th arrondissement. The courtesan, however, held a special position in a high society permeated by deception, corruption, and trickery; and was a world away from the misery on the streets.
The demi-mondaine evolved out of the lorette and the courtesan. She was elevated to the heights of luxury and was given lavish gifts such as diamond bracelets and racehorses. At the end of her gilded life she invariably sank into the depths of misery.
These pampered cocottes of the demi-monde, known as Grandes Horizontales, formed an élite of talented, professional whores, the most successful of whom became wealthy and famous in their own right. They enjoyed freedom and political power, unavailable to other women. The price they paid was being ostracized from polite society.
The cupolas of the Carlton Hotel, built in 1910, in Cannes — then a fashionable winter resort for Europe’s élite — were inspired by the voluptuous bosom of La Belle Otéro with whom the architect Marcellin Mayère was obsessed. A volatile and passionate Spanish beauty, her patrons included Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. She accumulated a great fortune and gambled it all away. The last of the Grandes Horizontales, her death in 1965 marked the end of an era.
The courtesan’s natural enemies — age and disease — formed a repulsively fascinating part of last year’s exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Splendeurs et misères: Images de la prostitution, 1850-1910; named after Honoré de Balzac’s epic novel A Harlot High and Low (Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes) which forms part of his Comédie humaine series.
Balzac’s depiction of the villain Vautrin, a seductive, manipulative, Faustian character, bring to mind the fraudster William Henry Rochfort whose malign influence contributed to the downfall of Harriette Wilson, and he “welcomed the publisher Stockdale’s scheme for producing her Memoirs in a manner most calculated to bring the biggest returns.”
In her novella-length introduction to the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, the reigning courtesan of Regency London, Lesley Blanch writes: “Her looks and youth gone, falling from fashion, penniless, victim of her own extravagances, fighting to keep a hold on Rochfort, her fancy man — [Harriette] began to cast about desperately for a means of raising money. What else had she to sell now but her memories? Thus, fighting for life, she wrote the Memoirs.” The greatest courtesan of her age, her patrons included many of the distinguished men of her day, from the Duke of Wellington to Lord Byron. Her weapons of allure were beauty, style and wit. She held court in a box at the opera and competed with her courtesan sisters for status and prestige.
“Harriette Wilson’s life was deplorable — but how readable!” Blanch exclaims. Wilson’s motive for writing the Memoirs, published in 1825, was blackmail, or “a desperate effort to live by my wits,” as Wilson put it. She was in her thirties, her looks were fading away as were her admirers, and the annuity she had been promised by the Duke of Beaufort in exchange for leaving alone his heir, the Marquis of Worcester, had been cut off. Wilson offered to edit out of her Memoirs any lovers who paid £200, thereby holding the British aristocracy to ransom. Certain men who bought her silence were excluded, while others who paid highly were hugely flattered. Those who were brave enough to stand up to her were ridiculed and shamed —most famously the Duke of Wellington: “Publish and be damned!” he cried. She did and she was.
Blanch offers intimately detailed portraits of eccentrics, individualists and the demi-monde in the Biographical Notes in the Appendix. They read like a raffish Who’s Who of Regency England, and Europe too. She brings the distant past to life so it reads like a novel; precise in its curious detail and bold in its historical panache.
Regency England Undressed: Harriette Wilson, the Greatest Courtesan of her Age was first published in 1955 in New York, where Blanch was then living with her diplomat-novelist husband, Romain Gary. The Wilder Shores of Love, for which she is chiefly remembered, had been published to acclaim the previous year. She liked to write about unconventional women who lived outside the strictures of society; doing their own thing.
Herself a great seductress, Lesley Blanch used to say, “Life should be full of secrets,” and would conclude with a distant look, “I think we all should have our secrets.” Who was she thinking of?
* Source: The Cambridge Companion to Zola edited by Brian Nelson, CUP.
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