Splendor and Miseries

Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850

by Alain Corbin, translated by Alan Sheridan
Harvard University Press, 478 pp., $39.50

La Vie quotidienne dans les maisons closes, 1830–1930

by Laure Adler
Hachette, 260 pp., FF118

Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France

by Charles Bernheimer
Harvard University Press, 329 pp., $29.95

“I love prostitution in and for itself…” Gustave Flaubert wrote in 1853 to his mistress, Louise Colet.

In the very notion of prostitution there is such a complex convergence of lust and bitterness, such a frenzy of muscle and sound of gold, such a void in human relations, that the very sight of it makes one dizzy! And how much is learned there! And one is so sad! And one dreams so well of love!1

“Sex work,” as it is now fashionable to call the profession,2 is highly paradoxical: it demands that a woman offer her body but withhold her pleasure, sell her flesh but reserve her emotions, and remain, in the truest sense, impenetrable; it can be seen as her most humiliating subjugation or as her ultimate freedom from male dominance. These ambiguities of prostitution, its “splendor and miseries,” were examined with particular intensity by the two generations of men—those of Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola, Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and numerous other chroniclers of the bordello culture—who came of age in France under the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe between 1830 and 1848, or under the Second Empire that followed.

There are a great many social and political reasons for the extraordinary flourishing of bordellos during the July Monarchy. From the 1820s on, the Industrial Revolution, which affected France many decades later than England, created a large new female proletariat of pitifully underpaid factory workers, who were easily drawn into the sexual market. The expansive economic climate created by the revolution of July 1830 and the suspension of most forms of censorship imposed by the previous Bourbon rulers also helped vastly to increase the numbers of prostitutes under the reign of the bourgeois king.

Furthermore, as the very term maison de tolérance implies, France already had a long tradition of legalized prostitution. In 1796 the responsibility for surveying filles publiques had been given to the police authorities of each French city, who assigned teams of doctors to check prostitutes periodically for venereal disease. In 1828, under the orders of Paris’s prefect of police, weekly inspections were required by law, and most French cities followed suit. This was the fertile ground upon which the pioneer of French bordello life, a priggishly moralistic citizen named Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, constructed his remarkable system of legalized, “regulated” prostitution.

Parent-Duchâtelet was a medical doctor and an expert on public hygiene with a morbid fascination for decomposition and excrement. An esteemed member of his government’s Public Health Council, he invented numerous implements and items of clothing designed to protect citizens who worked in morgues, slaughter-houses, or sewers (which he referred to as the city’s “most useful monuments,” and visited many times a month) from being overcome by disease or stench. And from 1830 on, reflecting the obsession with social hygiene that characterized the newly powerful bourgeoisie, Parent-Duchâtelet simultaneously took on the tasks of revamping the capital’s sewer and prostitution systems, frequently equating the two in his rhetoric. His magisterial two-volume study, De la Prostitution…

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