- The Evolution of the French Courtesan Novel: From de Chabrillan to Colette by Courtney Sullivan
Courtney Sullivan's The Evolution of the French Courtesan Novel: From de Chabrillan to Colette explores the autobiographical fiction of nineteenth-century French courtesans—high class, expensive, stylish prostitutes—who were significant figures in the period's literary imagination. They provided sexual pleasure for men who could afford them, and (in life no doubt as well as fiction) they served to represent and embody the fantasies and fears of men and possibly those of women readers as well. Sullivan's book outlines the phenomenon of women who worked as courtesans and "wrote back" to the depictions of their lives by male novelists, presenting their lived experience of prostitution to counter the mythology so successfully established by men (p. 60). The fictional courtesans created by male authors fall mainly into two categories, of whom the most memorable representatives are Émile Zola's Nana (1880) and Marguerite Gautier of Alexandre Dumas fils's La Dame aux Camélias (1848, The Lady of the Camellias). If the Nana figure is desirable to the point of threatening male sanity, monstrous, devouring, narcissistically indifferent to the suffering she causes, the Camélias prototype is the fallen woman who acknowledges her own betrayal of the feminine ideal and sacrifices herself for the well-being of her lover. Either way, she is doomed and in most denouements punished by death.
The variation of the courtesan novel written by women was partially known from earlier feminist research—for example that of Janet Beizer, Melanie Hawthorne, and Sullivan herself—but had not been as clearly defined as it is now in The Evolution of the French Courtesan Novel. Sullivan argues for the existence of the female-authored courtesan novel as a subgenre, delineating its main features in her first chapter before going on to examine the work of Céleste de Chabrillan, Valtesse de la Bigne, and the better-known Liane de Pougy as an intertextual chain of courtesan writing, then turning to Colette's novels with their depiction of the demi-monde of the Belle Époque. Sullivan identifies the key attributes of this female-authored subgenre: courtesans are endowed with intellect and agency rather than being venal monsters or hapless victims, and in particular, they are portrayed as active readers. The novels articulate a critique of the sexual double standard and show how it, rather than a woman's own moral failings, led her to prostitution. Chapter three extends to male writers who attempted to co-opt the considerable success enjoyed by the courtesan writers through literary impersonation. Ernest Blum and Louis Huart's Les Mémoires de Rigolboche: Ornés d'un portrait photographié (1860, The memoirs of Rigolboche: Adorned with a photographic portrait) and [End Page 450] Victor Joze's Les Usages du demi-monde (1909, The customs of the demimonde), for example, were purported to be the memoirs of successful demi-mondaines but were in fact penned by professional male writers, motivated by an odd mix of commercialism and desire to parody and discredit the originals. Sullivan's final chapter on Colette—a bestselling novelist of the Belle Époque—shows how radically her portrayal of the world of sophisticated prostitution rewrites the androcentric mythology and how the seeds of this revisionary narrative were already present in earlier work by courtesan writers.
The argument for intertextual influence between these women authors is persuasively made, both in the sense that the earlier writers (Chabrillan, de la Bigne) are shown to have enabled and be reflected in de Pougy's more famous fictions and memoirs—thus indirectly also being echoed by Colette—and in the sense that the female writers can be seen to take issue in their texts with the powerfully mythified male-authored version of their own lives. The application of Suzette Henke's concept of "scriptotherapy" to the writing of these courtesans is also convincing (p. 17). Sullivan aptly demonstrates how these writers, despite the need to observe certain...