In the pecking order of the demimonde of nineteenth-century Paris, the courtesans ranked highest. Merchants of love though they were, they stood apart from the prostitutes who walked the streets, from the grisettes who only took money from their lovers, if at all, to round out their salaries as seamstresses or florists, and from the lorettes who, in contrast, allowed themselves to be kept by their lovers but whose appetite for luxury remained modest.
They were also different from the actresses or dancers who might have wealthy patrons, but who were as well known for their talent as for their scandalous liaisons. A courtesan never burdened herself with any career other than the one she pursued flat on her back, hence the sobriquet grande horizontale. Plenty of other jocular nicknames were applied, largely taken from the animal kingdom, to describe their rank in this very particular society: a cocotte douée, literally a clever chick, becomes a biche, or doe, and then a lionne, or lioness, if she surpasses her competitors. A lioness is a celebrity, reveling in stunning luxury.
The most spectacular courtesan of Second Empire France was La Païva, born in Moscow, the daughter of a Polish Jewish artisan. She launched her career in Paris, using the charms of her body and resourceful mind so successfully that she ultimately owned the most sumptuous mansion on the Champs-Élysées, which had been built just for her. The building now houses the Travellers Club and you can still admire her silver-plated bronze bathtub with its three faucets, offering the choice of running water, milk, or champagne.
These temptresses have existed throughout history but they took on a special status in post-revolutionary France. That’s when they were ushered into French literature, by writers ranging from Balzac to Proust.
Balzac created thirty or so courtesans, more than all the solicitors, barristers, and attorneys put together in La Comédie humaine. How can we explain this profusion? They aren’t there to provide a pretext for erotic scenes, or as object lessons in degradation or personifications of the threat to public morality: they are there because they are entertaining. At once amusing mistresses and first-class hostesses, they gathered around them a lively and talented company where sober-sided public officials, careworn bankers, and narrow-minded shopkeepers could all forget their worries.
The licentiousness that marked the high society of the eighteenth century did not survive the French Revolution. Virtue, piety, and decorum reigned in respectable houses and men were bored. The wives—married too young, deeply ignorant, and regrettably, as noted by Georges Sand, raised to be saintly—had no way to keep those men at home. “The state ought to subsidize a …