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A fascinating portrayal of the lives of the great nineteenth-century courtesans.
Marie Duplessis, Cora Pearl, La Païva and La Présidente, the four women whose lives and legends are examined in this fascinating book, were all representatives of the golden age of the French courtesan. In the reign of Emperor Napoleon III the opulent and pampered demimonde became almost indistinguishable from the haut-monde, with mythical reputations growing up around its most glittering and favored celebrities.
Marie Duplessis became the prototype of the virtuous courtesan when Alexandre Dumas Fils portrayed her as Marguerite Gautier in La dame aux Camélias. Apollonie Sabatier, known as La Présidente, put men of letters and other arts at ease amidst the gracious manners and bawdy talk of her salon and was immortalized by sculptor August Clésinger and poet Charles Baudelaire.
To prejudiced eyes, the Russian Jew La Païva appeared intent on exploiting the rich young men of Paris. Covetous onlookers resented her ability to amass and display great wealth, most notably in the design and building of her opulent hotel in the Avenue of the Champs Elysées. 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", including Prince Napoleon.
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 déclassé inhabitants.
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Virginia Rounding is a translator and writer living in London.From The New Yorker:
Nineteenth-century Paris was famous for its highly formalized system of prostitution. The élite of this demimonde were courtesans who entertained aristocrats, artists, and writers such as Dumas and Baudelaire. Rounding focusses on four such cocottes—Apollonie Sabatier, Marie Duplessis, the Englishwoman Cora Pearl, and a Russian Jew known as La Païva—paying particular attention to the legends that surrounded them. Cora Pearl was said to have had herself served up on a silver platter, decorated only with parsley; after La Païva's death, her besotted husband, a Prussian count, reportedly had her embalmed in a glass jar in his castle. Rounding presents a seductive vision of women whose talent for social, financial, and sexual machination allowed them to navigate Second Empire Paris, and whose acts of self-creation and the works of art they inspired have endured longer than the details of their lives.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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