I've said it before and I'll say it again...working in the bookstore is an incredible goldmine of things I knew absolutely nothing about.
Last week I was reading "Balzac's Omelette," which talked about the invention of the institution of the restaurant and how you can learn about Parisian society by reading Balzac's novels and the tales of meals eaten in restaurants. I didn't quite finish it, so I went to see if I could find it again. I did, but my eye was drawn to another book on the shelf next to it. It was a little tome called "The Pretty Women of Paris," originally by "anonymous," (but in this English edition by Robin de Beaumont) which is marked "unexpurgated."
Naturally, I was curious. I took both the Balzac book and the other book to the desk, intending to just glance through the other book. Naturally, I read the whole thing and never made it to Balzac.
Not being in the market for information about prostitutes I have no idea if guides like this still exist in the 21st century, but I have a mental image of some tattered street newspaper being hawked near downtown hotels in San Francisco. This is the translation of a book written in the mid 1800s and sold to, presumably, wealthy men looking for female ...uh... diversion Companionship, shall we say. It's kind of the Montgomery-Ward catalog of upscale prostitutes. It also includes a listing of many of the houses of ill repute in Paris.
I really hadn't intended to read it, but I found it absolutely fascinating. Each entry always includes a physical description of the woman.
But the descriptions are sometimes absolutely poetic.
...her backside is remarkable for size and shape and we may declare without hesitation that she possesses one of the handsomest bums in Paris.
...she is thin as a hurdle, with rough skin and insignificant countenance. She is pale, with light hair and blue eyes. Looks well when dressed as a man but undressed is like a wooden doll -- very long, very hard, with a bust like a plank and an arse like a rabbit.
...Lea is a strong, fair, blue-eyed woman, full of health, with magnificent teeth and pale complexion; elastic, heaving, globular bubbies of the largest kind; chest and arms all firm, and of milky whiteness, and a waist which is surprisingly small.
...She is a young brunette, extremely stout, with a large pair of palpitating hemispheres that are always ready to burst out of their stays...
...Her teeth are regular and white and she takes great care of them. In order to accumulate wealth, she has never spared her sturdy frame, tremendous bosom and monumental backside. Consequently these charms are rather loose and flabby and all her dresses are lined inside with stout canvas so as to keep her big, unruly bubbies in their proper place...Her state of health is very good, although the dear creature suffers from constipation that sometimes degenerates into piles.
...A pleasant, little ball of fat, with a snub nose and lascivious eyes.
...Lavigne is very ugly. Her mouth is all on one side, her teeth are yellow, her face is pitted with the smallpox and her figure resembles a pair of tongs that have been twisted out of shape. She has no bosom and no belly, no thighs and no calves and she is knock kneed besides. (The entry went on to describe her personality and her popularity despite her physical features, in great detail)
...her belly is enormous, jutting out in front of her like Southport Pier.
But in addition to the descriptions there are glimpses, sometimes slight, sometimes quite extensive, of the life this woman has lead. For one thing it would seem that at least 80% of the women in this nearly 200 page book either are currently or were on the stage. They are singers, actresses, dancers, aspiring actresses, etc. The theater is often where they meet the men. I loved what was written about one actress:
She prefers baritones to tenors, as they are stronger, and bigger across the chest. Tenors, she says, are only fit for finicking jobs, and light fingering business.
At least half of the women in this book are lesbians or bisexual.
Her only fault is her lust for lesbianism, which she satisfies by close intimacy with her bewitching neighbour.
Many of them were first raped and then turned out by their families, or pushed into early marriages where they were beaten. In Paris they find a degree of respectability and often affairs of varying length with men such as Emil Zola, French and British politicians, and even the heir to the British throne (I can't remember which one).
The writer has little good to say about Jewish women or American women. One American woman identified only as "Mrs. Jackson" is the mistress of an "old financier" who bought for her the estate where the Dubarry whore, formerly mistress of Louis XV, and has spent millions in restoring it to the state it was in when inhabited by the royal pet a hundred years ago. He adds that men should beg for an invitation to the place and that They will find there everything antiquated and out of date, including the loose charms and withered skin of the ugly, pampered hostess.
While most of the women are in their teens to thirties, there are some old broads in the book too.
...Of all the glories of Napoleon the Third's corrupt court, she is the best preserved relic, and our concluding advice to all real judges of real female loveliness is -- hasten to enjoy her at once, ere it be too late.
...An old woman now, but she was one of the queens of prostitution some fifteen years ago, and when she passes in her carriage, a fearful wreck, we are forced to ask how it is that she could have accumulated the riches she possesses for she is very ugly and has always been so
It is also appalling how many mothers are grooming their daughters for the life. I thought often of the movie Gigi, which we all thought was such a delightful movie, which won an academy award, but which was really about a courtesan teaching her teenage daughter how to become a prostitute.
In addition to the comments regarding the women, I also increased my vocabulary. "Pelf" is a term for ill-gotten riches. And I learned the Banting System was developed in 1863 by W. Banting as a diet for reducing superfluous fat...and it sounds VERY MUCH like the Atkins diet. The dietary recommended was the use of butcher-meat principally, and abstinence from beer, farinaceous food, and vegetables.
And while you may have thought the Indians cornered the market on sexual pleasure with the Kama Sutra, you may not have heard of Aretino's Postures, which is Italy's own version, I Modi or The Sixteen Pleasures. These were engravings and--surprise, surprise--were destroyed the Catholic church.