The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt


Published by Icon Books, 5th November 2015, 320 pages, £16.00

Quick Description: non-fiction, biography of a self-made woman, a Parisian Courtesan who rose to fame in the 19th century.

Steam?: tantalizing hints

Plot: 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.

Now I have never heard of Valtesse de la Bigne, so when I heard about this publication, I was on board from day one. The jacket cover is just so scandalous, its hard not to be really. It has the ring of tabloid, which is befitting to the subject. Valtesse remains to shock and intrigue to this day… But firstly, the research is thorough, and the author has a very straight-forward writing style. Hewitt takes us through from rags to riches, birth to death, whilst reminding us of key historical events.

I feel educated and appropriately introduced to the life of courtesans during 19th century Paris. Hewitt has opened my eyes to the excess of prostitution in the capital and the different levels of the trade a young women would need to ascend before attaining a respectable title. I found this phenomenon, which could be deemed as a career ladder or rite of passage for unprivileged women, absolutely fascinating and am thirsty for more.

But most importantly, these descriptions expose the strength of Valtesse’s character. It feels good to read about women with astounding bravery- cue Freddie Mercury’s The Show Must Go On… I don’t want to give too much away, but a young girl who shuns her entire upbringing to scale the city’s restrictive social circles – and succeeds tremendously- I mean, when’s the movie coming out? Not only does she have to sell her body, but she had to cultivate a whole new persona which encompasses charm, wit, intelligence and charisma.

Its all about character, and Hewitt guides us carefully through all the different people Valtesse has mingled with;  celebrated writers, artists and politicians. I can assure you there will be many recognizable names and events the courtesan is linked to, some very sensational affairs. It feels as if the book is one big networking party as she moves from one notable name to the other. I would have liked more descriptions about the sight and sound of Paris at the time to really cement the feeling of being there with Valtesse.

Hewitt writes about the courtesan with great certainty and admiration, as if she were a close acquaintance. She uncovers intimate details, like sexuality and its fluidity- not only of Valtesse but her peers, with confidence. But the juiciness of these topics only begins to unfold. I feel like we have just begun scratching the surface of Valtesse’s complex character. As Hewitt concludes, the courtesan likes to keep her audience guessing.

Great read. Many thanks to Stevie Finnegan at @IconBooks for my review copy!



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