It is said
that prisons are built with the stones of Law
, brothels with bricks of Religion
. In the same manner, it is only in cultures that largely subjugate women
to narrow roles as nuns
, and mothers
that produce great adventuresses, women that live outside both respectable society and the degradation of prostitution
. Such were the imperial concubines of China
, the hetairae of Classical Greece
, and the geisha
Such a place and time was upper-class France of the early 19th century. It was a time of instability and uncertainty: France had experienced, in recent memory, not only the Revolution, but defeat at the hands of the British, and several other uprisings. The response of the former nobility of France was to dig in, and try to outshine the upstarts in virtue what they could not in actual power.
A respectable woman, therefore, was one that had gone from convent school straight into marriage, in a semi-arranged betrothal, whose only experience with men before marriage was a few conversations in a salon (where she might also display her talent for piano-playing, dramatic recitation, or singing), a private ball, or perhaps a formal dinner, at which she might be seated towards the middle of the table, where she would be overshadowed by the men on either side of her -- what Jane Austen called "the marriage mart" was quite unknown to them. As a married woman, her life would be largely spent visiting other high-end families, going to confession and to Mass, raising money for charity through various genteel pursuits, keeping house, sewing, and being a good example for her children. Respectable women did not eat at restaurants, and many did not attend the theater or read novels. Even shopping was not a favored social activity with many women: dressmakers and tradesmen visited their homes with samples, from which they would choose.
It followed, therefore, that the urban life of France in those days was a predominantly masculine one: British-style men's clubs, centered on horse breeding, showing, and racing, were wildly fashionable, as were cafes, where the latest developments in art or politics were debated and discussed. What dealings that fashionable young men had with women tended to be with prostitutes or with minor actresses, "ballet girls" (who acted as extras in the opera), and the like. None of these women were the type, however, you'd want to be seen in public with: they tended to bathe too little, drink too much, use bad grammar, and have horrible table manners.
Into this life stepped the ravishingly beautiful Marie-Alphonsine Plessis. Of humble origins (she added the aristocratic "du" to her family name Plessis, later), and totally illiterate when she began prostitution at the age of fourteen, she nonetheless mangaged to become the mistress of several important men, and by the age of sixteen was recognized as a living marvel: she was not only beautiful, but skilled at the piano and a highly intelligent conversationalist -- her library, auctioned off at her death, contained not only popular works of the day, but many scholarly ones as well.
Her presence in Parisian society and unique combination of waifish beauty, startling precocity, and availability (for a price) caused a scandal, and much speculation as well: one side saw in her nothing but a vulgar slut masterminded by a pushy mother, looking only to trap a man far above her station into marriage, another saw an adventurer of heroic independence, triumphing over a penniless, wretched, family (her father was a shiftless alcoholic), disease (she suffered from tuberculosis, which ultimately killed her), and the disapproval of polite society to become the wealthy, cultivated, confidante of the great and powerful, ultimately marrying before dying at the age of twenty-three in 1847. One view produced a play "Olympia's Wedding", whose eponymous heroine, the craven, sleazy Olympia, was later the subject of Manet's scandalous painting, the other, La Dame aux Camillas, and later, La Traviata.
While Marie Duplessis would have remained an isolated phenomenon on par with Xaviera Hollander or the Mayflower Madam in our day, soon after that the Bourbon Restoration failed, throwing large numbers of the nobility into penury. Their daughters, tenderly cultivated to do nothing more than look pretty and please men, were forced to find work any way they could. Some went into the textile industry as seamstresses; others went abroad to become servants, nannies, or teachers. And more than a few became prostitutes, after the example of Marie.
If one woman of this type caused a scandal, several hundred caused no less than a revolution in public manners. With their (often invented) exotic names and backgrounds, courtesans or les grandes horizontales (as they were called) were the invariable companions of wealthy unmarried men in Parisian life to restaurants, the theater, including the Opera, to casinos and the hippodromes at Longchamps, Chantilly, and Deauville. They were, in a word, irresistable: beautiful and sophisticated beyond any convent-schooled virgin, they dazzled onlookers with their extravagant wardrobes, jewels, and private coaches and carriages, drawn (but of course!) by the finest horses from their client's stables, knowlegable in several languages about art, fine dining, clothing, and of course, sex. Far from being slavish to their admirers, their stock in trade was coquetry, a mixture of flirtatiousness and erotic tyranny that made gaining their favor an exercise in advanced strategy and tactics.
The popular press at the time exalted in their doings, and at least one weekly, "Paris in Love", was devoted to the details of who was boffing who, and how. Did M. Dupont give Jaqueline roses, when she adored violets? Back the bouquet would go, or she would publicly give them away...to her maid. All Paris is abuzz with M. Durand's gift of four chestnut geldings...will Delphine take him on? Sphynx is between lovers -- the one-night-only fee she charged to the visiting Shah is rumored to be in the six-figure level... Was "Sarcanthus"'s ruby just a little too small? The Marquis should have known better...She's looking towards the Duc... On the other hand, the least sign of a relationship cooling would bring forth tears, pleading, tantrums, and often, suicide attempts with an underdose of opium. All this, a standing escort on call, and a guaranteed score every time could be yours...
For a price. Naturally, such women were miles above the average girl-on-the-street, or even girl-in-the-house. One typically engaged such a woman, not for an hour, nor, except in very rare circumstances only for one night. Instead, the system was to pay them living expenses by the month, which gave you an exclusive contract, plus gifts, tips, and a birthday bonus. One-night-only fees, from the very few who worked (full or part time) as free agents were, as hinted before, exorbitant. It all added up to some money, but there were many takers -- indeed, part of their allure was their costliness and even their "difficulty"...after all, a man who could afford to keep one of these creatures must be wealthy indeed, and the more demanding his mistress was, the more money he must be able to spend on her. On the other hand, many of these women were also prized for gentler qualities: religious piety was as common among them as among matadors, and often, a bachelor would go to a courtesan's house for a home-cooked meal, a cup of tisane, and a relaxing night spent doing nothing more strenuous than a hand of cards played for matchsticks. Men "friends", however, who were allowed to visit and tender small gifts and now and then, were not allowed to have sex, and it was from these, and never paying customers, that she might select the one to recieve the most prized favor of all, an actual, nonpaying, sexual relationship. Typically courtesans ended their careers at about 30 (though some worked into their 50's and beyond) either in romantic poverty, as shopkeepers catering to the courtesan trade, or, rarely, married like Marie Duplessis, while their clients generally stopped seeing them after marriage.
Chefs at the restaurants they frequented named concocted and named dishes for them, and their names still dot the pages of Larousse Gastronomique today. Artists painted them. Whole industries formed around their need to be clothed, adorned, painted, pampered and amused. Leading authors wrote poems, plays, and novels about them, or rather, Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba, and Helen of Troy were depicted as ur-courtesans, awe-inspiring in their beauty and power to 'ruin' men, 'ruined' though they may be themselves. It is no exaggeration to say that any 19th century poem about a sphinx, vampire or other kind of a femme fatale was written with courtesans, or a courtesan, in mind. On the other hand, (male) British and American commentators loved to point out that this was the perfect relationship: sex, companionship, and at least fictive romance without emotional or legal hassles...all you needed was money.
Meanwhile, courtesans became so much an accepted part of French life that a thoroughly middle-class teenaged Marcel Proust, observing a party of otherwise ordinary sportily dressed young girls with bicycles in the 1880's, concluded that they must be mistresses connected with some kind of high-level sportsmen: he couldn't concieve that unchaperoned young girls could be doing something so...unladylike...otherwise. This system is also the unspoken background behind the mixture of obsequious charm and sexual boldness towards unattached women most people consider "typically French": since anyone who isn't clearly "off limits" is "fair game", well, eh, why not take advantage of the situation, hein? At least in America, you don't have to pay her...
The era of les grandes horizontales lasted throughout the latter half of the 19th century until the First World War.
About the turn of the 20th century, however, it was obvious that the system was breaking down: in order to break into the business with the requisite wardrobe and refinement at the age of sixteen, a girl either had to have a backer to outfit and train her, or be born into a family of similar women, which cut down the "independent" image considerably. The shift from horses with their carriages to bicycles and automobiles also was a factor -- it was hard to wear an elaborate outfit while pedaling down a city street, or ride in one of the cars of the day, besides which, the Jockey Club didn't breed roadsters. (However, it's also a fact that the doyenne of simplicity in female dress, Coco Chanel was a failed courtesan, and the courtesan lifestyle became the unspoken backstory to most fashion photography.) Also, social restrictions on women were beginning to loosen, and the grandsons of the men who had sighed over Marie were beginning to stalk the infinitely more dangerous, rewarding, and cheaper prey of women who were their actual social peers. Some courtesans kept working into the Twenties, but by the time prostitution was made illegal in 1947, a century after Duplessis's death, their time had long gone.