“I am a courtesan,’ she announced, ‘and how I do enjoy my work.”
– Catherine Hewitt, The Mistress of Paris
Valtesse de la Bigne was a celebrated nineteenth-century Parisian courtesan. She was painted by Manet and inspired Emile Zola, who immortalised her in his scandalous novel Nana. Her rumoured affairs with Napoleon III and the future Edward VII kept gossip columns full.
But her glamourous existence hid a dark secret: she was no Comtesse. She was born into abject poverty, raised on a squalid Paris backstreet; the lowest of the low. Yet she transformed herself into an enchantress who possessed a small fortune, three mansions, fabulous carriages, and art the envy of connoisseurs across Europe. A consummate show-woman, she ensured that her life – and even her death – remained shrouded in just enough mystery to keep her audience hungry for more.
When I requested a copy of The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt from Allen and Unwin, I didn’t expect such a fascinating read! The blurb sounded really interesting however I wasn’t prepared for just how enthralling it would actually be! The Mistress of Paris is a classic rags-to-riches story about a woman whose intelligence and charisma drove her from the poverty-stricken streets of her childhood to the ultimate life of luxury.
Louise Delabigne was born to a questionable mother and no father, raised in squalor. When she was thirteen she began working in a dress shop that sparked a curiousity for a life more affluent and glamorous than her own. When she was old enough she left home, the romance of the city luring her away from the poverty she had always known. Louise failed to make an impression in the theatre where she began pursuing work and soon turned to prostitution to make a living. Who knew it was such a complex social hierarchy? Unregistered girls on the streets began as grisettes and then progressed to a lorette, both hoping to attract a wealthy benefactor to elevate them to a higher social status. The girls could then progress to the highest ranks of the profession – les grande horizontales or la garde – which is where Louise wanted to be. Known for her beauty and stunning red hair, she navigated her way up the social ladder and reinvented herself as Valtesse, a play on words that translates to ‘your highness’! Valtesse became a courtesan because this allowed her be exactly who she wanted to be.
What follows is an extraordinary tale of a woman who controlled every aspect of her life from her outward appearance, her behaviour and public image she wanted people to see. Valtesse’s confidence was astounding; through careful manipulation of people and situations, Valtesse found herself surrounded by the best of Parisian society including noteworthy artists, writers and political figures. Her intelligence and appreciation of the arts was well known and she soon amassed an unrivalled collection of works. She craved knowledge and sought out the company of those who would enrich and challenge her mind. She mimicked the behaviours of those she wished to impress; Valtesse was a social chameleon, blending in to any situation she chose to be in. She was a woman who knew how to claim and maintain power; even her choice of clothing and colour palates symbolised patriotism, sovereignty and grandeur. She nicknamed herself Rayon d’Or or ‘ray of gold’ – what a woman! Confidence was not something Valtesse lacked and no matter what obstacle threatened to undo her carefully constructed life – private or public – she managed to navigate each outcome in her favour.
Although the author chose a fascinating subject, the power of The Mistress of Paris lies in Hewitt’s brilliant storytelling. There are times when Hewitt’s story reads like fiction; there is a certain fairytale-like quality to it although it does not take away from how well researched it is. Hewitt’s insight into the life of Valtesse de la Bigne is exceptional and her observations and deductions paint her in a most illuminating way. The Mistress of Paris is one of the best biographies I have read!
AUTHOR: Catherine Hewitt
PUBLISHER: Allen and Unwin
PUB DATE: 21 October 2015
Thank you to Allen and Unwin for sending me a reading copy in exchange for an honest review!