Dumas Alexandre – Girls, lorettes and courtesans
Dumas Alexandre – Girls, lorettes and courtesans: “I warn those who will lose their time reading the following pages that they are not written for the girls who come out of the convent.” This complicit wink, addressed to a predominantly male reader, immediately gives the tone of this little book devoted to a widespread phenomenon in the 19th century since it affects all levels of society.
The work, published in 1843, at the moment when the author, already famous, goes from theater to fictional production, approaches the subject not from the angle of literature, but from science. To do this, Dumas broadly resumes the treatise of the French public health physician Parent-Duchâtelet-De la prostitution in the city of Paris, which made a lot of noise when it was published in 1836-, and divides the pleasure merchants into three classes distinct and ascending: public girls, close to the underworld, who solicit around the Royal Palace, on the boulevards or in brothels; the grisettes or lorettes, established in the current 19th arrondissement, around which gravitates a more bourgeois and bohemian clientele; finally the demi-mondaines, who recruit their rich protectors among the princes of the blood and the barons of finance, appear at the opera and the theater and live in sumptuous mansions where they receive the intellectual and artistic elite of their time.
This rapid exploration of the lowlands of Parisian society, embellished with anecdotes and historical digressions to flesh out the cold statistics of Dr. Parent-Duchâtelet, is the work of a talented popularizer who popularizes science as he will popularize more late history of France. The result is a colorful panorama in which Dumas reveals to his readers a parallel and obscure universe, which has its laws, its customs, its language and its social hierarchies. The scientific objectivity to which the author claims is, however, coupled with a strong phantasmic curiosity. If he has the eye of the sociologist and the anthropologist, his gaze remains that of the man of the world and the libertine who sees in these women that he dissects with a sharp feather that the specimens of a species exotic, but not quite human.
It is in reaction to this casualness, typical for the time, that Alexandre Dumas fils composed his lady with camellias. The novel, published in 1848, then brought to the scene in 1852, paid a vibrant tribute to the “courtesan with a big heart”. Verdi’s Traviata, premiered on March 6, 1853 in Venice, finished giving it its nobility, sealing forever the posterity of its emblematic heroine. [Sources: Charles Bernheimer, Figures of Ill Repute (Harvard University Press, 1989); Shannon Bell, Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body (Indiana University Press, 1994); Virginia Rounding, Great Horizontal (Bloomsbury 2003).]