This is the first book written by Virginia Rounding, and it is a very impressive debut. She tells the story of four 19th century Parisian courtesans, but also manages to work in a fair bit of French history, covering roughly 1830-1871. She weaves a seamless blend of the cultural and political, and also the comic and the serious. (As an example of the comic, Ms. Rounding mentions that 19th century prostitutes were fond of wearing very large hats in public. Doctors came up with a special reclining chair, to replace the traditional table, so that when the ladies of easy virtue came in for their regular examinations they would be able to keep their hats on throughout the process.) The author selected the four courtesans that she did so that she could demonstrate all the possibilities of living that life. Some of the women were abused when young, some weren't. Some were native born, some were foreigners. Some, when they lost their looks, lost their money. Others remained well-off even after their "prime earning years" were over. The book provides a fascinating look at a world that is certainly strange to the modern (and non-European) reader. The courtesan and her "protector" had a symbiotic relationship. The wealthy man provided money so that the courtesan could live an ostentatious lifestyle- with a beautiful home, expensive clothes and jewelry, servants, etc. Indeed, she was expected to "live it up" to show everyone what a generous lover she had. In return, the man could show the world how special he was- after all, he had not only vast amounts of money but he must also be extraordinary to win the favors of such a desirable and selective woman. The courtesan was certainly predatory. A man could become totally infatuated and could lose all his money supporting such a woman. Once the money ran dry, she would move on to greener pastures. On the other hand, the courtesan was totally dependent on the protector. If the man tired of the relationship and found someone new, the courtesan would very quickly have to find a new "sugar daddy" to maintain her extravagant lifestyle. Besides learning about the four courtesans selected for the book, we also learn about some of the men- such as Alexandre Dumas (fils) and Charles Baudelaire, as well as the Goncourt brothers (all of these men, by the way, were sources- through their fiction, poetry, and journals- for myths and legitimate information regarding the world of the courtesans). The author did a tremendous amount of research on the period in question, and she put it all together to create a fascinating look at a world that existed only for a brief time. If, like me, you are interested in 19th century France, I am sure you will get much pleasure from this book.
This book was brought to my attention at a literary talk at Oxford and had constant rave reviews. After reading this myself, I can't help but rave about it myself. As an English Literature and French student, this well researched and insightful look into not only the fascinating lives of these women, but also the wider context in which they struggled and thrived, is immensely entertaining. Highly recommend this for both an educational and enjoyable journey through this exciting 'underworld' of the nineteenth century courtesan.
arrived nice and quick and made the double bus journey to work a lot more bearable- interesting background about the social situation in 19th century France and how these women made a luxurious living out of upper class gentlemen :)xx