This drawing of tarts in a low-class brasserie provides food for thought. In the Victorian era, destitute women had few choices for making a living: servitude, drudgery in sweat-shops or, failing that, prostitution. I think that in our time the four women in the scene could be a real-estate agent, a hairstylist, a marine biologist and a police officer. Or perhaps they’d be tarts again. Who knows? The difference is that women have more choices now.
In July 1865, one of the Goncourt brothers (more about them in a future post) records his visit to a brothel where both the surroundings and the women were a step above the previous bleak picture:
“Just past the Ecole Militaire, a front shop with white curtains. Another story above a large number on the door. The Big 9. A large room lighted from above by the van daylight. Some tables and a bar lined with bottles of liquor. There are Zouaves (*), soldiers, and workmen in smock and grey sitting at the tables with tarts perched on their knees. The girls wear white or colored blouses and dark skirts. They are young and pretty, with pink fingernails and their hair carefully dressed with little ornaments in it. Smoking cigarettes or drawing on a friend’s Maryland, they walk up and down in pairs between the tables, playfully jostling each other, or else they sit playing draughts. Singers turn up now and then to sing some dirty ditty in a bass voice. The waiters have big black mustaches. The girls call the pimp who runs the establishment “the old marquis”. A negress goes by in a sleeveless dress.
“One the first floor, there is a long corridor with a lot of tiny cells just big enough to contain a little window with broken blinds, a bed, a chest of drawers, and, on the floor, the inevitable basin and jug of water. On the wall there is one of those colored pictures entitled Spring or Summer that you win at a fair and, hanging from the mirror, a little Zouave doll.
“These twenty-sou women are not at all like the terrifying creatures drawn by Constantin Guys, but poor little things trying to ape the language and dress of the higher class prostitutes.”
Moving up the scale of prostitution to the very top, the Goncourts report the following:
“April 7, 1857
“Rose [Goncourts’ housekeeper] has just seen in the concierge’s lodge the night-clothes—or morning-clothes if you prefer—that our neighbor La Deslions (see the post Dinner with Courtesans) sends by her maid to the house of the man to whom she is giving a night. It seems that she has a different outfit for each of her lovers in the color that he prefers. This one consists of a white satin dressing gown, quilted and pinked, with gold-embroidered slippers in the same color—a dressing gown costing between twelve and fifteen hundred francs—a nightdress in batiste trimmed with Valenciennes lace, with embroidered insertions costing three hundred francs, and a petticoat trimmed with three lace flounces at three or four hundred francs each, a total of some three thousand francs taken to any house whose master can afford her.” (For comparison, the daily wage of a maid was one franc.)
(*) Zouaves: Body of light infantry in the French army, composed of Algerian recruits, popular for their exotic uniform.