Book artist Kate Rochester was browsing her boyfriend’s library when she came across a battered Wordsworth edition of The Pretty Women of Paris: a directory of courtesans for the visiting English gentleman. Anonymously authored and first published in 1883 by the Préfecture de Police, the volume was clearly for the curious traveller. It is painstaking in its descriptions of the sexual specialities and preferences of each featured lady, and comprehensive in the background detail it provides. The décor of the courtesans’ homes, the pets they kept and the jewellery they wore were all fit to be included. The courtesans were arranged by district, for optimal triangulation in the post-prandial stroll.
Rochester decided to give the courtesans new life in her hand-bound, limited-edition collection. She collaborated with artist Lindsay Brunnock, who produced original illustrations based on the text. Below are two of the entries, which show this nameless, bold author at his – or her – discerning best.
20 Rue Bremontier
A gutter wench of Belleville; low, cheeky, and rough; she used to be the idol of Eldorado Concert-Hall many years ago. Hervé was leader of the band; he wrote her songs, drummed them into her, and turned her up on the piano whenever it suited him. For the last fifteen years she has been richly kept by a Russian prince, who revels in her brutality, viciousness, extravagance and love of brandy. Mathilde cares not for her rich master, but scatters his roubles broadcast, sleeping occasionally with the first counter-jumper, hairdresser or corn-cutter who takes her mad fancy. Indeed, Mathilde says herself that if the prince was to leave her, there is not a man in Paris who would give her a sou to save her from starvation. She has always got her low relations around her draggle-tailed dressing-gown, and she swears and fights with them, but finally makes it up over a bottle, and slips a note in their democratic paws, that have never been known to earn an honest penny. If her temperament is not over warm, her imagination is depraved and deranged, and she is celebrated for the leches and whims that she has had, has got, and means to have. She keeps an open house, and her dining-room is always full of lords, dukes, swell-mobsmen, third-rate actors, comic singers down on their luck, lousy artists, sculptors out of collar and three-card men on the lookout for a cheap meal. She is continually changing her residence, and has resided in every quarter of Paris in turn.
In the Place Vendôme, the neighbours still remember the fire she once had, when dead drunk and clad only in her chemise she insisted upon helping the men at the engine, and pumped away for dear life.
Madly eccentric in the choice of her lodgings, of her furniture, and in her tastes and passions, she once had the mania to scour the low halls, in company with Leonide Leblanc, in search of big soldiers, and rumour says that they dried up every major of the garrison of Paris. Then she found the money for a theatre which failed, and going to Russia gave way to lesbianism, and stabbed one of her victims in a fit of jealousy. Mathilde does not make the slightest difficulty when her admirers turn her round, and show her how Socrates loved his pupils. This pederastic passion made her very ill, but she has not given it up, nor any other of her vices either. She is now about thirty-eight, and is a tall, fair woman with large blue eyes that seem to start out of her head, a straight, big nose and a silly look generally. Her walk is that of a big, unwieldy camel, but her careless Bohemian style has great charms for such palates that are blasé upon women who still know how to blush, and possess some vestige of womanly grace and shame. Lasseny has a large barrel-organ behind her bed, in the room adjoining, and she makes her maid turn the handle while she is enjoying her grind on the big couch, where she is often sprawled out in a drunken fit, flooding the lace-edged sheets with urine and vomiting over her lovers, of whom perhaps she has a brace together, performing the delicious sandwich feat, which is practised in the highest circles. Mathilde is mad.
Concert du XIXe siècle
This dear, finely moulded beauty is only twenty, and she sings charmingly, besides being a pianiste of no mean order. She first appeared at the Brussels music-hall, the Renaissance, in 1881, so that her adventures up to the present have not been very extraordinary. Her tastes are simple; she adores her work, her piano, flowers and birds, and the continual society of a vigilant mother. A rich lover in search of a tit-bit that has scarcely been nibbled at had better apply to the stern parent at once, as there are packs of wolves going about Paris to gobble up the little Red Riding Hoods, and Berthe is sure to be in great demand shortly.
All illustrations © Lindsay Brunnock
This edition of the Pretty Women of Paris is published by Hanbury Press
Featured photograph by Hernán Piñera