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Archive for the ‘demi-monde’ Category

soubretteOf all the domestic employees in Paris, only a small percentage was the natives of the city. Parisians had always been naturally free-spirited and insubordinate. Employers seeking servants knew this and preferred to hire applicants from the provinces. These proved to be more dependable, obedient and steady.

Whether they come from Auvergne or Poitou, from La Vendée or Gascony, from Provence or even from Flanders, the servants of Paris scarcely ever lose the tone of their native places, the accent of their provinces, or the traces of their origin,” wrote Octave Uzanne in his book The Modern Parisienne (1912). Long working hours, little opportunity to socialize and the sense of being a miniscule clog in the crushing machinery of a metropolis forced the provincials to seek each other for moral support, to hang together, and to preserve their native culture. Of all the newcomers to Paris, servants were the least amenable to change their ways. Native Parisians, on the other hand—and pretty girls especially— sought to climb the social ladder.

The following excerpt from The Modern Parisienne , introduces us to la soubrette, the shrewd lady’s maid, so typical to Paris that no light comedy could do without one:

[A Parisian girl] will take a situation as maid, especially with the demi-monde, in the hope that through one of these ladies or her gentlemen friends she will make her fortune. She reflects that her mistress’s origin, probably Belleville or some other poor quarter, is no better than her own, and that she is certainly not any prettier or more charming. This hope is frequently realized, particularly if the maid is pretty and treats the guests with discretion. In any case, this kind of situation is only a stepping-stone, and very often the girl who begins her career as a maid in the chic quartiers may be seen subsequently figuring as a star at the Moulin Rouge, as a singer in a fifth-rate café or (the last resource of old age) the proprietress of some shady house at Batignolles or near the École Millitaire.

She has learnt from her mistress the great game of getting the most possible out of Monsieur, and she plays it with remarkable success – within the limits of the law. But in the first instance she is more of a soubrette than a maid-servant, the pretty smart girl who always has an answer for the Fantins and Scapins of the servants’ hall. She has the advantage over them of the natural duplicity of her sex, and the unassailable position of being in all her mistress’s secrets. She is her agent in trickery; she knows all her mysteries, her deceptions, her debts, her intrigues, her dressmaker’s bills. Nothing is hidden from her. She is on the watch, observes everything, and succeeds in accumulating sufficient materials to make her position absolutely secure. She is coquettish, scrupulously clean, scented, affects a superior accent, and seasons her conversation with a spice of racy slang. She is very sentimental, and loves, above all, the feuilletons in the papers. If she is not as successful as she hopes with her mistress, she tries her hand on some old bachelor, and becomes his confidential housekeeper.

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Again, let’s thank Octave Uzanne for his insightful book The Modern Parisienne published in 1912 :

If we are to believe the adroit matrons, the distinguished old ladies, the venerable grandmothers who preside over the destinies of certain houses of recreation which are famous in the gayer circles of the capital, which evolve about the boulevards or the elegant quarters near the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, every woman in Paris has her price. These ladies have at their disposal a floating staff which can be mobilised at any moment; they produce albums of photographs faithfully rendering the features, the smiles, and the attitudes of the actress, the fair unknown, or the disguised lady of the middle-class, for benefit of clients who have a well-lined purse. But beside all this, these agreeable and well-bred procuresses, whose gestures are as unctuous as their tongues are smooth, will tell you that—given a little patience—they are ready to bring to the arms of the sighing swain any woman whom he may happen to think particularly desirable.

They have an organization, they declare, which can “bring to reason” any woman in Paris whose fortune does not place her beyond the reach of temptation of certain character. They have, in fact, a troop of female agents or canvassers who have a prodigious address in these matters. They start out on the quest at an early hour and begin visiting the large shops, where they mark down the prettiest saleswomen or the most modest and attractive of the customers who appear to their experienced eyes to possess the necessary qualities. Then they visit and consult with their various accomplices – ladies ’ maids, fortune-tellers, perfumers, and hairdressers. From them their learn all necessary particulars about their intended victims. They dress with great elegance, and in the afternoon they frequent the grands couturiers, scrape acquaintance with the customers, and thus discover all about the jolies madames who are deeply in debt. All this they note down in the register of the exploitable part of Tout Paris. In the evening they go to the theatres, see the fair performers, and find out from their dressers all about the financial crises which oppress these charming creatures.

Once a catastrophe becomes inevitable, they advance to the attack with all the artifices of rhetoric. They promise a golden future if only the lady will be sensible and nice about it and respond, just a little, to the passion of an elegant gentleman who will be waiting on such and such day at such and such hour in a house to be indicated. The deepest secrecy and the most absolute discretion are assured.

Some of the procuresses give parties in their own houses, where “little ladies” assemble in full strength to meet foreigners of fashion, American millionaires, or provincial gentlemen in comfortable circumstances. At such gatherings there are tremendous bouts of baccarat. Roulette and other games are constant features and while the habitués are absorbed in play, the hostess is busy making her introductions in the more secluded part of the rooms, where she regulates the terms of her bargain with the sagacity and seriousness of a notary. She arranges marriages for fixed periods of three, six, or nine months, with power to renew at will, and duly charges her commission on the price. There are numerous agencies in Paris for left-handed unions of this kind, and anything you want can be provided according to the sum you are able to pay.

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From the Goncourt Journal

Text written in 1857

***

June 7th

Dinner at Asseline’s with Anna Deslions, Adèle Courtois, a certain Juliette, and her sister.

Anna Deslions, Bianchi’s former mistress and the woman who ruined Lauriston: thick black hair, magnificently untidy; velvety eyes with a glance like a warm caress; a big nose but sharply defined; thin lips and a full face—the superb head of an Italian youth, touched with gold by Rembrandt.

Adèle Courtois, an old, nondescript tart boosted by Figaro.

Juliette, a little pastel-portrait with her rumpled, frizzled hair worn low on the forehead—she is mad about low foreheads—a slightly crazy La Tour, a little blonde with something of the Rosalba picture in the Louvre, Woman with Monkey, partaking of the monkey as well as the woman. And her sister, a dried-up little thing and pregnant into the bargain: looking like a big-bellied spider.

And to provide a piano accompaniment to the evening’s festivities, Quidant, a bordello jester with a thoroughly Parisian sense of humour, a ferocious irony: hoarse-voiced, mealy-mouthed, red-faced, and slit-eyed.

Anna Deslions

The ladies were all wearing long white dresses, with hundreds of frills and furbelows, cut very low at the back in the shape of a triangle. The conversation at first turned on the Emperor’s mistresses. Juliette said:

“Giraud is doing my portrait, and this year he is painting Mme de Castiglione.”

“No, she’s finished,” said Adèle. “I have that on good authority. It’s La Serrano now. La Castiglione  and the Empress have quarrelled. … You know the witty thing Constance said? ‘If I resisted the Emperor, I should have been Empress.’”

Juliette was in a crazy mood, bursting in a nervous laughter without rhyme or reason, and talking with the spirited irony of a professional actress. Some name was mentioned and Deslions said to Juliette:

“You know, that man you were madly in love with and for whom you committed suicide.”

“Oh, I’ve committed suicide three times.”

“You know whom I mean. What’s – his – name . . .”

Juliette put her hand over her eyes like someone peering into the distance, and screwed up her eyes to see if she could not recognize the gentleman in question coming along the highroad of her memories. Then she burst out laughing and said:

“It reminds me of the Scala at Milan. There was a gentleman there who kept bowing to me over and over again.  And I said to myself ‘I know that mouth.’ All I could remember was the mouth!”

“Do you remember”, asked Deslions, “When we went out in that filthy weather to see the place where Gérard de Nerval hanged himself?”

“Yes, and I even believe it was you who paid for the cab. I touched the bar; it was that that brought me luck. You know, Adèle, it was the week after that. . .”

After dinner Quidant did an imitation on the piano of that thrill of cuckoo with one note missing. The ladies started waltzing, the blonde and the brunette, Juliette and Anna, dancing together, all white in a room lined in red rep. With a playful air, Juliette caught Anna’s necklace between her teeth and bit a magnificent black pearl hanging from the end of it. But the pearl was genuine and did not break.

In the midst of this merriment, there was an icy chill, an instinctive hostility between women, who would draw in their claws as soon as someone bared her teeth. Now and then all the women would start talking Javanese, following every syllable with a va. Prisons have got slang; brothels have got Javanese. They talk it very fast and it is unintelligible to a man.

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