A scholarly but generally readable tour through some sexy and salacious byways in the social landscape of 19th-century France.
For her writing debut, translator and editor Rounding has picked a spicy topic: four notorious courtesans who plied their trade during the Second Empire (1852–70). Not everyone who wrote about Marie Duplessis, Cora Pearl, La Païva, and La Présidente could do so with disinterest, so in the extensive quotes from primary sources we read the fiery words of those who found love for sale morally repellant, and the serene comments of those more directly involved as buyers or sellers. The author begins with a snapshot of French prostitution and identifies the profession’s hierarchy, from the lowest of streetwalkers to the wealthy, dynamic women who plied their trade in the highest reaches of society. She then constructs from the available documentary evidence brief biographies of her four principals. In each of the stories, a young woman was forced by economic and social circumstance to achieve security by selling her body and company to eager men. All four of these particular women did very well for a time, moving in higher and higher circles, living in mansions, indulging in passions ranging from painting and conducting soirées (Flaubert and Feydeau called regularly on La Présidente) to acquiring horses and precious stones. Embroidering her narrative with lots of social and political history, Rounding tells us how fashionable hoop skirts cut into the income of the church (fewer people could fit in a pew), recalls the belief that women’s orgasms caused consumption, and describes how the Franco-Prussian war changed everything. She also repeats such delectably horrible anecdotes as the rumor that La Païva’s distraught husband kept her dead body immersed in a jar of embalming fluid.
Well-researched, intelligent, and compassionate, but suffers unnecessarily from the absence of illustrations—and the presence of too many long, congested quotations.