The lives and legends of four women are examined in this fascinating book, all representatives of the golden age of the French courtesan. In the reign of Emperor Napoleon III the opulent and pampered demi-monde became almost indistinguishable from the haut-monde, with mythical reputations growing up around its most glittering and favoured celebrities. Marie Duplessis became the prototype of the virtuous courtesan when Alexandre Dumas Fils portrayed her in La dame aux Camellas. Apollonie Sabatier put men of letters at ease amidst the bawdy talk of her salon. The Russian Jew La Paiva appeared intent to prey on rich young men of Paris. The English beauty who called herself Cora Pearl was another 'foreign threat', with her athletic physique, sixty horses and ability 'to make bored men laugh'. Virginia Rounding disentangles myth from reality in her lively, thought-provoking study. Nineteenth-century Paris comes to life and so do its most distinguished and declasse inhabitants.
Virginia Rounding is an author and book critic, specialising in history and biography. Her most recent book, published in the USA and the UK this year, is a fresh examination of the lives of the last Emperor and Empress of Russia: Alix and Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina. A reviewer commented in the Washington Times: 'she has brought them to life in flesh and blood perhaps better than any previous writer on the subject. This is partly a result of her skill in rooting out and quoting commentary on them by those who knew them well and put their impressions down in letters and diaries. But she has a knack for building on these insights with her own, and so has produced a more rounded portrait than we have ever had before.'
Virginia's previous book was a biography of the Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power, 2006, described in the Daily Telegraph as 'a thumping great triumph of a book'), and she recently presented a programme for BBC Radio 3 about music and musicians at Catherine's court. Catherine the Great was preceded by a study of French courtesans (Grandes Horizontales, 2003, in the Independent as 'impeccably researched, a flirt of a book, enjoyable and sexy').
Virginia is also the joint author, with Martin Dudley, of a series of books on church administration, and she reviews widely for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including the Daily Telegraph, FT Magazine, Independent, Daily Mail and Moscow Times. She lives in the Hoxton area of London and is an elected councillor (known as a Common Councilman) for the Ward of Farringdon Within in the City of London.
In addition to being a writer, Virginia has had a variety of jobs in order to keep body and soul together. She is currently part-time Clerk to the Guild of Public Relations Practitioners, and was for many years administrator of The Consort of Musicke, a vocal and instrument ensemble specialising in English and Italian music of the Renaissance. She has recently set up a writing consultancy, specialising in assisting post-graduate students with their writing of dissertations and theses, having enormously enjoyed her time doing precisely this as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at The Courtauld Institute of Art from 2008 to 2011.
She was educated at Merchant Taylors' School for Girls, Great Crosby, and at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.