In reading about Ancient Greece one of the more interesting classes of people to learn of, are Hetaira. They were a class of prostitute who were among the few cultured and educated women. They were not sought simply for sex, but for intellectual conversation and companionship. They were admitted to the elite male environment of the symposium (a sort of ancient Hellenic salon) and because they controlled their own finances, they often accrued great wealth. In essence that is the courtesan’s gambit, by the sacrifice of giving up traditional respectability and gaining a title of some infamy, a woman could have the chance of a freer more varied life.
Novels about courtesans or literary works featuring a courtesan plot line abound across the centuries and across cultures. The story of a woman from a poor background who takes advantage of her youth, charm and good looks, to infatuate admirers and take herself into a world of wealth, fashion and glamour, before ensuing crisis sees her relegated to obscurity or die in romantic tragedy, is a tale so familiar one can scarcely say how many books or films one has read or seen that feature the plot line.
Most of these works have been written by men and are shot through with the fascination of men for women who exist in a world that is so at odds with the received conventions of religious morality, marriage and family. This has naturally led to the courtesan being seen from the outside, from the perspective of the disapproving moralist or the fascinated admirer. Liane de Pougy is the ideal author to give one the insider’s perspective, because of her famously dramatic life.
Liane de Pougy, is the name and persona invented by the woman born Anne-Marie Chassaigne. Born in 1869 in the Pays de la Loire region of North-western France she was educated at a nunnery until the age of sixteen when she eloped with a naval officer Armand Pourpe. The marriage proved to be a toxic one, Pourpe being violent and abusive and Anne-Marie feeling herself completely unsuited for being a mother to her son. She then had an affair with an aristocrat, the Marquis de Mac mahon. After finding them in bed together, her husband shot her with his revolver injuring her in the wrist. Abandoning her husband and her son she ran away to Paris where she quickly progressed from cabaret singer and prostitute to becoming one of the periods famed Grande horizontales, a self-explanatory phrase that feels like it could be an English invented phrase, part of the Anglo-Saxon stereotyping of perceived French pretentiousness and licentiousness.
In Paris she was a famed demi-mondaine, sought after by the elite of society, both male and female. It is here that she first called herself de Pougy, borrowing the name from an aristocratic lover. Many of her most famous relationships were with woman, the most famous amongst them with American writer Natalie Clifford Barney inspiring her novel Idylle Saphique (published by Dedalus as A Woman’s Affair), a temptuous lesbian love affair. Throughout her twenties and thirties she wrote courtesan novels influenced by her first hand experiences. In 1910 she remarried to a Romanian Prince Georges Ghika, becoming Princess Ghika. After the death of her son in the First World War de Pougy’s spirit turned towards the faith of her upbringing. A chance visit to a convent dedicated to caring for disabled children inspired her to sponsor the convent with donations for the rest of her life. After her husband’s death she became a tertiary of the order of Saint Dominic. She died Sister Anne-Marie de la Penitence. From the convent to the convent by way of two marriages, and the notoriety of the sinful life.
L’insaisissable (translated by Dedalus as Chasing the Dream) is the first of her novels. It tells the story of Josiane de Valneige, a beautiful young courtesan who has left her unhappy marriage for the glamour of Paris. Seeking excitement, fulfilment and love, she takes numerous lovers from amongst the rich, influential and famous of Paris. The novel is told in the form of letters Josiane writes to a former lover who has become a fascinated and supportive confidante. Wearied by the drama of her romances she retreats to the countryside where she finally does experience the love she has longed for. A young man, naive, inexperienced, but sincere and passionate. Sadly, he dies from fever, their love never consummated. The chance of a beautiful love has been taken away. The novel ends with Josiane hopefully speculating love will again blossom in her life.
Strongly influenced by her own life and rather conventional in structure, the novel is nonetheless so appealing because she is telling the tale of her own life. One does not suspect a lurking religious moral, or that a syrupy love triumphing over all romance is going to be the finale, where a man basically rescues her (rescuing the troubled beautiful woman from prostitution she has fallen into due an abusive upbringing/relationship is more or less the Pretty Woman plot). One empathises with a search for a different sort of life, a more exciting life, and can even admire the willingness to make the courtesan’s gambit. That the life of a woman who died in 1950 and who lived in one of the most prosperous societies the world has ever seen should have found herself seeking a freer life in the same manner as an Ancient Hellenic Hetaira is for a modern reader perhaps the most remarkable and damning aspect of the novel.