I’ve been reading this book lately called The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues (2001) by Susan Griffin, and through it I discovered the wonderful and weird life of nineteenth-century French courtesan Blanche d’Antigny.
Blanche is not what we would consider a great beauty by today’s standards, but at the time she was thought to be so exceptionally beautiful that she sent men into “an almost orgiastic enthusiasm” (61) just by standing in front of them.
But we have to back way to the beginning to appreciate how wildly odd her journey to “courtesan” really was.
When Blanche (whose real name was Marie, by the way) was just seven years old, her father ran off with another woman and her mother dumped young Blanche with an aunt while she went looking for her no-good husband. Three years later, her mother had found work as a servant to the Marquise de Gallifet and collected her daughter from the aunt.
The Marquise must have taken a liking to either Blanche or her mother, because she sent Blanche off to a prestigious convent school to get an education and to mingle with the daughters of the wealthy. This not only taught Blanche refinement from her lower-class upbringing, but also introduced her to the splendors of the church.
Blanche, who was soon to be a famous courtesan, wanted nothing more than to be a nun.
However, her benefactress, the Marquise, died unexpectedly and the Blanche and her mother could no longer support themselves–let alone continue Blanche’s school tuition. She was pulled from school to go to work as a salesgirl at a draper’s shop. She worked twelve-hour days, despite only being about twelve or thirteen herself, and earned a pittance. The only time she could indulge in her love of religion was on Sundays, when she was permitted to attend church for two hours.
At age fourteen, she rather naively accompanied a young shop assistant to a party at the Closerie des Lilas. Blanche had never before been around such glittering decadence. That night she drank champagne, learned how to do “a particularly lusty execution of the cancan” (60), and was so enraptured by the party that she didn’t even notice when her companion left.
She was seduced that night by a young Romanian, and then found herself a few weeks thereafter accompanying him to Bucharest. They lived together in a hotel for a short while, but it was all a bit sordid, so she decided to leave the relationship in favor of traveling and performing with a band of Romani gypsies.
She fell in love with their style of dance and music, but wasn’t particularly well-treated by her traveling companions, and decided to leave them, too. So she became the mistress of a Romanian archbishop, before graduating to being the mistress of a Romanian prince.
As young women who aspire to be nuns do.
Y’all, fourteen was a BIG year for her.
Despite being the absolute butterfly of Romanian high society, Blanche got desperately homesick and went back to France. There she got work in a play and caused an absolute sensation. Was it due to her great acting? No. Because she was playing A STATUE of Helen of Troy. She didn’t have to move, talk, or do anything except stand there and look hot.
(for those of you who have read Emile Zola’s Nana, this is exactly what he bases Nana’s work in the theatre on–and Zola never even knew Blanche in real life. That’s how famous her non-speaking, non-moving part was).
Blanche was pure spectacle for the theatre. “In one production, Le Chateau a Toto, she entered the second act to the accompaniment of Offenbach’s music wearing a dress that cost 15,000 francs (a small fortune in the nineteenth century); this creation was followed in the next act by a transparent peignoir trimmed with Belgian lace valued at 6,000 francs. In another performance she was so thickly covered in diamonds that one critic wrote: ‘This is not an actress we see on the stage before us but a jewelry store.’
“The size of her personal wardrobe was legendary, too. The journalist Callias tells us that her departure for a tour to Baden caused a traffic jam when the thirty-seven coaches required to carry her dresses and hats obstructed the rue Ecuries-d’Artois” (63).
What’s rather remarkable about Blanche–as opposed to the calculating Nana–is how innocent and naive she was. She started to learn that this was a real problem later on when she entertained gentlemen guests for money. After sex, she frequently fell into such a sound sleep that many of her customers slipped away without paying her. She sorted the problem by sewing her customer’s nightshirts to her dressing gown.
She became, for many, the emblem of the excesses of the Second Empire. The artist Paul Baudry used her as his model for a painting of a repentant Magdalen, while (as stated above) Zola used her as the model for his cold-blooded Nana. However, Blanche was far too innocent to be either of these archetypes–she was neither a ambitious femme fatale, nor a sinner who repented of her wicked ways, largely because she enjoyed her life and never did anything that she thought merited repentance (unlike some courtesans who took pleasure in and built their reputations upon destroying their clientele’s finances and spirits).
In the end, she fell in love with a man named Luce, who was a tenor at the Folies Dramatiques. Upon meeting Luce, Blanche immediately dumped her wealthy benefactor so she could be true and faithful to Luce, who was “short, round man, described by one observer as resembling a small ball” (64).
Their time together was brief–after only two years, Luce died of consumption, leaving Blanche grief-stricken and poor. She had spent all of her savings and cashed in on her jewelry and other mixed securities during the two years they were together. After his death, she resumed her position at the theatre, with some success.
But even that wasn’t long-lived, since her mother died soon after. Then Blanche herself became seriously ill with a dangerous fever. A fellow courtesan, Caroline Letessier (who is more accurately referred to as a cocotte, not being a high-ranking courtesan like Blanche) rescued her by moving Blanche in to her own luxurious apartment to live out the rest of her days. Blanche died at age thirty-four, still astonishingly beautiful.
Wikipedia provides a very different version of this story (and Luce is nowhere to be seen in it), where–after a scandal caused by the financial ruin of one of her lovers–Blanche went on tour in Egypt. It was there that she contracted typhoid fever and returned to France, only to be abandoned by all of her friends and to die alone.
I have no idea which of the stories is true (or both, or neither), but I prefer the first.