Book Review: Les Grandes Horizontales by Virginia Rounding

Les Grandes Horizontales, by Virginia Rounding, gives us a view into the mysterious shadow world of mid-nineteenth century France known as the demimonde. This half world, in and out of which men could move freely yet women could not, was the world of the courtesans, or les grandes horizontales, or “women flat on their backs.” Through the stories of four different women, we see how life in the demimonde could lead to either fame or failure.
Rounding profiles four courtesans living in Paris during the reign of Louis Philippe and the Second Empire. We see Marie Duplessis, the Real Dame aux Camelias; Thérèse Lachmann, also known as La Païva; Apollonie Sabatier, who was given the nickname La Présidente; and Cora Pearl, the English demimondaine who took Paris by storm. Some are able to make it in the demimonde, or it slowly kills them.
Rounding is very frank about the attitudes regarding prostitutes at the time. Women who turned to prostitution were considered to “have been drawn to their way of life through laziness, greed, vanity, and inability to cope with poverty in any other way.” Yet in reality, the reasons were quite different. Women did it to supplement meager incomes, since there was no social safety net, and if a woman had been a victim of sexual abuse or assault, there was really no other choice of occupation.
Yet if a woman was able to become a courtesan, there were more options available to her. She could be more discretionary in her choice of lovers, and she could, for the most part, spend her money as she saw fit. As Marie Duplessis wrote in a letter to a prospective lover:
“¦I need to remain, at all times, absolutely free in my movements and mistress of my fancies; I give the orders, I do not receive them; I have no desire at all to be compelled to receive a lover whenever he expresses the wish to see me. I have also the misfortune to believe neither in promises, nor in fidelity; it is enough to tell you that I acknowledge sincerity only when it has been proved to me.
Life in the demimonde also allowed demimondaines some freedoms that women of the haut monde (high society) did not have. A demimondaine might move with the city’s artistic and intellectual circles. Marie, La Païva, and La Présidente were known to have hosted salons in their homes. Cora Pearl even gave opera singing a try. Yet for all of the freedoms, a woman of the demimonde might enjoy, there were also several pitfalls.
A demimondaine was dependent upon the men who supported her, and if he was a very wealthy man, she would be expected to reflect this in her purchases. It was very easy to go into debt, and very many times courtesans did not save for the years ahead. And if a courtesan had been of limited means before the money started pouring in, it was very easy for her to spend it. Marie Duplessis was known to be a compulsive gambler, unlike La Païva, who did her best to save what she could to achieve her goal of financial independence.
Since a woman might be the property of her husband or father in the eyes of the law, and while she might have very little recourse in changing her circumstances, it is very easy to see why a woman would–if she could–choose to take the plunge into the demimonde and never look back. And in the end Rounding makes us venture the question: Was there really much of a choice? And if you could choose, would you step into the twilit world of the demimonde with your head held high, aware of the dangers that might come with it? I think I know what my answer would be. Because the choice of taking a risk to perhaps make a better life for myself would still be a choice in a world where my options would be quite limited. And if that choice could give me the life I wanted, yes, I would.

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