Grandes Horizontales: The lives and legends of four 19th-century courtesans by Virginia Rounding

Inhuman creatures: Matthew J Reisz admires an attempt to flesh out the lives of Paris's vilified and adored courtesans
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The Independent Culture

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.