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  • L'Imaginaire de la prostitution: de la Bohème à la Belle Époque by Mireille Dottin-Orsini, Daniel Grojnowski
  • Steven Wilson
L'Imaginaire de la prostitution: de la Bohème à la Belle Époque. Par Mireille Dottin-Orsini et Daniel Grojnowski. Paris: Hermann, 2017. 268 pp., ill.

France's first great modern surge of industrialization and urbanization provided the conditions for prostitution to flourish in the second half of the nineteenth century. Against the shifting cultural landscape from the 1830s to the turn of the century, [End Page 621] Mireille Dottin-Orsini and Daniel Grojnowski, in their co-written monograph, trace 'le sujet prostitutionnel' — '[qui] jouit d'une vogue remarquée durant la période choisie' (p. 9) — from its articulation in discourses of regulation to a point where social and sexual liberalization would allow for the closure of the notorious maisons closes. While the ubiquitous representations of prostitution in the literature of the time have received widespread scrutiny, Dottin-Orsini and Grojnowski note that the second half of the nineteenth century was also 'riche en archives, en œuvres et en documents de toutes sortes portant sur le sujet' (p. 9). Bringing together an extensive range of texts, including medical and police reports, journalistic faits divers, letters, songs, operas, drawings, and paintings, their book redirects attention onto many neglected elements of the 'composante culturelle' of prostitution (p. 11) — the discourses, savoirs, and forms of cultural expression that constitute the 'imaginaire de la prostitution' of the time. The authors recognize that the texts considered are 'de nature hétérogène' (p. 238), but the chief strength of the monograph lies precisely in the multiplicity of perspectives considered, for just as prostitution was a multifaceted activity (Alexandre Dumas's Filles, lorettes et courtisanes (1843) captures but three of the many identities of the prostitute), so there was a plurality of perceptions woven into depictions of prostitution in nineteenth-century France. The authors note, importantly, that the representations contained within writings on prostitution 'sont lacunaires et à peu près toutes médiatisées, c'est-à-dire passées par les filtres des institutions ou des expressions culturelles' that were dominated by the patriarchy (p. 10). The book attempts to break this 'domination masculine', particularly in Chapter 5 ('Paroles d'écrivains, paroles de filles'), which looks at the letters of prostitutes asking for work, or talking about their lived experience of prostitution. Disappointingly, however, the 'paroles d'écrivains' that tell of the realities of prostitution in this chapter all come from men: prostitute-writers such as Liane de Pougy and 'Mogador', the comtesse de Chabrillan, are not included. The book has some other limitations. The Avant-propos, although it makes reference to Alain Corbin's work, does not engage with the wider critical field of publications on prostitution in nineteenth-century France. In addition, while it covers an impressive variety of texts, the book occasionally privileges breadth over depth of analysis. An admittedly more trivial irritation is that no page numbers are given in references to most of the primary sources cited. Nonetheless, this study makes an important contribution to scholarship on prostitution in nineteenth-century France, bringing to light a compelling array of representations from a diversity of cultural expressions. It offers a reminder that the 'imaginaire de la prostitution' is, in essence, 'toujours pluriel', even if it forms part of 'un "tout" culturel communément partagé' (p. 238).

Steven Wilson
Queen's University Belfast


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pp. 621-622
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