Grandes Horizontales by Virginia Rounding

Julie Wheelwright finds that the famous courtesans of Paris paid for independence with isolation

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.

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