The Mistress of Paris
By Catherine Hewitt
reviewed by KV Marin
In the 19th century Paris was the place to be for entertainment and for anyone seeking pleasure of all kinds. The city was a non-stop party under the reign of Napoleon III which paved the way for the rise of the courtesan, à type of kept woman who used her wiles and all of her natural assets to attract wealthy lovers. The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt recounts the story of the Valtesse de la Bigne, arguably one of the most successful of the lot who rose from penury to the lap of luxury.
Louise Delabigne was born to a part-time laundress who supplemented her income as a prostitute. With few options available, young Louise worked brief stints as a shop assistant and then as a barmaid where she caught the eye of many à male client. It didn’t take long before Louise took up the family business.
But Louise was a shrewd survivor and she heeded her mother’s advice to never let herself fall in love. She cleverly renamed herself the Valtesse de la Bigne –a title she created by combining the words “Votre Altesse” (your highness) She rose to fame through her contact with Jacques Offenbach, was immortalized in paintings by Edouard Manet, and was the inspiration for the writer Émile Zola’s novel, Nana.
She became a very wealthy and accomplished woman, sometimes by manipulating a string of lovers, possibly including Napoleon III and Edward VII. She educated herself, was well-read, bold and she even became politically active (and respected!)
Hewitt sheds light on the rags to riches ascent of an extraordinary woman who led a very unconventional life. The Valtesse is at times not likable, but in the end, we want her to triumph, like an underdog. I found this book to be a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the backstreets, boudoirs and salons of the 19th century while I also learned a lot about the fascinating times from a social, political and cultural standpoint.