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Sex, hygiene, and style in 1840s Paris

The young woman who inspired Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias and Verdi’s Violetta in La traviata conceived at least once in the course of her 23 years. At the time she was in her late teens. During the five years that followed the birth of her baby, between the ages of 17 and 22, she prospered as the leading courtesan of the most glamorous city in Europe. The word ‘courtesan’ is a euphemism for an upper class prostitute, a paid woman who doubled as a trophy exhibit at the theatre and opera. The world of chic Parisian sexuality in the 1840s was simultaneously covert and ostentatious: the more brilliant the appearance of the courtesan, the grander the reputation for wealth and generosity of the buck or ‘lion’ who owned her just then. Only rich and famous men could afford women like Marie Duplessis whose wardrobe and apartment, paid for by the men who kept her, added up to a fortune.

After the grand shows and premieres in town, it was time for the final act of the evening. In La Dame aux Camélias Dumas does not leave much to the imagination when the two young men fetch up in the apartment of Marguerite Gautier (aka Marie Duplessis). Admittedly, the cruder parts of his account concern the narrator’s friend. While he is attending to the young courtesan, who is having a tubercular coughing fit, his friend is having sex with her middle-aged pimp in an adjacent room. This is Dumas’s way of deflecting the rawness of paid sex from his heroine while leaving us in no doubt about what is involved for all parties concerned.

Boulevard de la Madeleine, Paris. Marie Duplessis’s boudoir was the first window from the left (above ‘Soldes’) on the first floor. Photo courtesy of René Weis. Used with permission.

Marie Duplessis had a number of prominent sexual liaisons between 1842 and 1846. Under the circumstances it seems almost incredible that she should only have become pregnant once. Contraception as we know it wasn’t available then while at the same time she couldn’t afford to conceive; pregnancy would inevitably spell the end of her sexual career and diminish her erotic value thereafter. Courtesan mothers were not in demand, which is why she pleaded with the few people who knew about her baby not to reveal her secret. If women wanted to stay in the ‘business’ after motherhood it would be as pimps at best. Marie Duplessis’s own chaperone, one Clémence Pratt, was the mother of a teenage daughter at the time of their business arrangement. After a life in prostitution Madame Pratt had reinvented herself as a moderately successful Parisian fashion designer while doubling as Marie Duplessis’s manager, a lucrative sideline.

When Marie’s belongings were sold off after her death, her apartment was packed with respectable Parisian women who wanted to see for themselves. The room that attracted most interest was her boudoir and the adjacent ‘cabinet de toilette’, which intervened between the boudoir and her bedroom. What the auction catalogue describes as cabinet de toilette we would term a luxury en suite bathroom. But of course there was nothing like that in the period. While 1840s Paris boasted an impressive number of high rise stone apartment blocks, like the one that she inhabited at 11 Boulevard de la Madeleine (see illustration), none of them had any plumbing for toilets, showers, or baths. All human waste generated in these huge buildings needed to be disposed of in chamber pots, emptied by maids, while fresh water for ablutions was delivered on a daily basis by water carriers.

Under the circumstances general bodily cleanliness and sexual hygiene in particular posed considerable challenges, as indeed did the airing and, probably, perfuming of spaces used for purging. From the auction catalogue of her belongings, which is understandably discreet on this, it would seem that Marie Duplessis had acquired what we would recognize as a sit-down toilet, shielded inside a commode. It was the only substantial item in her flat that she had purchased herself. In reality this would have been an elaborate piece of furniture with, inside it, a covered seat above a form of chamber pot. Her rich lovers and patrons evidently expected the highest sophistication from courtesans like her in return for the vast sums they expended on them. It appears that in this most intimate respect, as in more public ones, Marie Duplessis led the field by sheer stylishness. Her instinctive class was what drew her lovers to her. Many of her admirers in Paris granted that she was far from being the city’s most beautiful woman while almost all of them, women included, noted that she was the most graceful courtesan in town, and one of the city’s most generous women.

Featured image: “Paris” by Moyan Brenn CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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