Like many people of the demi-monde, courtesans often get a bad rap or no rap at all, yet they are part of a long, rich and lust-filled tradition in literary history—especially in Paris. Under what other single metropolitan roof can you find Madame de Pompadour, La Dame aux Camélias and Klondike Kate? (Kate was famous a little bit west of Paris, but practiced the same arts and skills as the others: sharp wit, charm, the ability to talk politics in a peignoir and of course sexual prowess; lace-up boots optional.)
Confidantes, friends, lovers and in some cases business partners to everyone from royalty to writers, courtesans were savvy and sexy, experts in the sensual arts, often knowledgeable about politics and astute negotiators, beginning with their own state of affairs. Aspasia, lover of Athenian statesman Pericles and considered by many as one of the first courtesans, set the standard in 4th century BC, most likely advising her lover on political decisions and influencing Athenian politics. Ninon de l’Enclos, writer, patron of the arts, hostess of a fashionable literary salon and seventeenth-century courtesan said, “Much more genius is needed to make love than to command an army.”
From the Second Empire in the 1850s to the end of the Belle Époque in the 1910s, courtesans benefited from celebrity status at a time when there were more sumptuous and rewarding perks to the star system than having your own reality TV show and a nail polish named after your little dog. Subordinate? In many ways, but in nineteenth-century Paris in particular, courtesans often had more financial stability and independence than married women and could take advantage of alliances in and out of the boudoir.
A courtesan was an essential part of Parisian pecking order, like the heroine Nana in Émile Zola’s eponymous novel, “a smart woman, mistress of all that is foolish and filthy in man, marquise in the ranks of her calling.” Honoré de Balzac dedicated four volumes to them in The Splendors and Misery of Courtesans. Proust loved a good courtesan, or at least loved to write about them, and his fictive fetish was Odette de Crécy, who shows herself to be an excellent hostess, mistress and a lot of other words ending with the suffixes “–ess” and “–ix.”
Here’s a peek into the world of Parisian courtesans, both imagined and real:
Little wild thing, Odette de Crécy in Proust’s Swann in Love: “I know that I’m quite useless,” she had replied, “a little wild thing like me beside a learned great man like you . . . And yet I should so much like to learn, to know things, to be initiated. What fun it would be to become a regular bookworm, to bury my nose in a lot of old papers!” she had gone on, with that self-satisfied air which a smart woman adopts when she insists that her one desire is to give herself up, without fear of soiling her fingers, to some unclean task, such as cooking the dinner, with her ‘hands right in the dish itself.’’
From Émile Zola’sNana, based on the life of singer and actress Blanche d’Antigny: “Her movements were lithe as a serpent’s, and the studied and yet seemingly involuntary carelessness with which she dressed was really exquisite in its elegance. There was a nervous distinction in all she did which suggested a wellborn Persian cat; she was an aristocrat in vice and proudly and rebelliously trampled upon a prostrate Paris like a sovereign whom none dare disobey. She set the fashion, and great ladies imitated her.”
Ninon de l’Enclos: “Feminine virtue is nothing but a convenient masculine invention.”
La Belle Otero, dancer at the Folies Bergère: “I have been a slave to my passions, but never to a man.”
Liane de Pougy, rival of La Belle Otero, also a dancer at the Folies Bergère and author of My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of Paris’s Most Beautiful and Notorious: “My Father, I have lived very freely. Outside of killing and stealing, I’ve tried everything.”
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House. She’s the author of Knock Knock, released by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems and essays have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been Co-Director of the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop literary festival and lives in Paris.