The Mistress of Paris was awarded the runner-up’s prize in the 2012 Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian competition.
The biography traces the incredible tale of the bewitching courtesan, the Countess Valtesse de la Bigne, who clawed her way up from humble, impoverished origins to become one of the most sought-after and glamorous women in Paris. Her lovers included countless painters, writers and politicians, while her affairs with women caused a scandal in turn-of-the-century Paris. She was painted by Édouard Manet, she negotiated the country’s political affairs with Léon Gambetta, she wrote a novel and in turn inspired the novelist Emile Zola, who immortalised her in his scandalous fiction Nana (1880). With the wealth she acquired, she lived a luxurious lifestyle, and purchased fabulous mansions, carriages and an art collection which made her the envy of connoisseurs across Europe.
Nothing could have predicted the trajectory Valtesse’s life would take. Born Louise Delabigne, she spent her childhood playing on the backstreets of one of the most squalid quarters of Paris. The little girl’s only respite from her miserable life with a promiscuous mother and an alcoholic stepfather, was the touching friendship which she developed with the landscape painter Camille Corot. But these fleeting moments of happiness were short-lived.
The trauma of her first, brutal sexual encounter as a teenager lifted a veil to reveal an even darker side to the sparkling city and its pleasure-seeking residents. The experience steered Louise’s life into an inevitable vortex of alcohol and prostitution. When she finally fell in love with a man who seemed kind and good, only to have her heart broken and be left with two daughters, Louise made a radical decision. Henceforth, she would no longer be sweet little Louise. She wanted to be worshipped. She wanted riches. She would become a courtesan.
In one breathtaking stroke, she severed contact with her family, and would rarely see her daughters. Louise became ‘Valtesse’, a contraction of the French ‘Votre Altesse’, or ‘Your Highness’. From now on, all those who addressed her would testify their subservience.
Valtesse rose to reach the height of her fame during the 1870s. Beautiful, rich, fashionable, highly intelligent and fiercely determined, a talented writer, pianist and occasional painter, there seemed nothing Valtesse could not achieve. She read widely to educate herself and paid scrupulous attention to her appearance, capitalising on her flame-red hair and her piercing blue eyes. Few men remained immune to her charms. This woman entertained (and held sway over) some of the most renowned painters, writers and politicians in 19th-century France. She mentored the infamous courtesan Lianne de Pougy and her rumoured affairs with Napoleon III and the future Edward VII ensured the newspaper gossip columns were never short of material.
This biography delves beneath the surface of the cool, sophisticated exterior Valtesse presented, to reveal a complex character with a vulnerable side. It exposes a woman who paradoxically sought the limelight while simultaneously seeking to remain enigmatic. This complex mind even thought out how she would be remembered after her death. She used her final hours to personally hand write to all those she knew and inform them that she had died. And she kept her audience guessing right to the end; why else would she have requested that she be buried between two men of whom no one, not even her closest friends, had ever heard?
The Mistress of Paris is the story of the 19th century’s answer to the modern-day ‘It’ girl, of one of the most skilled self-publicists who worked tirelessly to fashion her own image, yet who ensured that her life remained shrouded in just enough mystery to keep her audience transfixed - and hungry for more.
Catherine Hewitt has had a long career in academia, with a special interest in 19th-century French art, literature and social history.
Having been awarded a first-class honours degree in BA French from Royal Holloway, University of London, she went on to attend the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art where she took a Masters in the History of 19th-Century French Art and was awarded a distinction. In 2012, she completed her PhD on The Formation of the Family in 19th-Century French Literature and Art, with joint supervision from Royal Holloway and the Courtauld Institute. Throughout her a...
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