18 February 1847: Mary Duplessis’s belongings up for sale

Marie DuplessisOn this day in 1847 an announcement of the sale of the goods of the famed Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who had died only weeks earlier, appeared in Le Moniteur des Ventes. Viewing commenced at noon on the following Tuesday and the auction took place, in her apartment on the boulevard de la Madeleine, from Wednesday 24 to Saturday 27 February. Much of fashionable Paris attended the sale, fascinated to see the interior of an apartment few would have deigned to enter during the courtesan’s life. Among items up for sale were furniture, including pieces in rosewood and marquetry, wardrobes, beds, tables, dressing tables, armchairs, other chairs, mirrors and a piano by Ignace Pleyel, curios, including clocks and candelabras, clothes, silverware, diamonds, other jewels, curtains, carpets, books, pictures, horses and a carriage and its accoutrements. Despite the pecuniary difficulties she had been in before her death, which had led to her selling or pawning many of her more expensive clothes, Marie left a wardrobe of about 150 articles, including dozens of pieces of lingerie, 27 peignoirs, more than 30 gowns, masses of lace, boas and shawls. She also left a stash of invoices stuffed in a drawer, detailing the myriad purchases she had made over several years from dressmakers, milliners, restaurants, pastrycooks, florists, booksellers and other suppliers.

The sale realised just over 89,000 francs, of which nearly 50,000 went to her creditors, who had been waiting for her to die to claim at least some of what was owing to them.

The brief, turbulent life of Marie Duplessis is recounted in my book, Grandes Horizontales.

12 February 1850 – Baptism of Jeanne Sabatier

Notre Dame de LoretteOn this day in 1850, a baby was baptised at the church of Notre Dame de Lorette in Paris. The baby’s full name was  Fernande Ernesta Jeanne Sabatier (she would be known just as Jeanne) and her mother was Adèle, better known as Bébé, the younger sister of the famous courtesan and muse of the poet Charles Baudelaire, Apollonie Sabatier.

In 1848, at the age of only 16, Bébé had become the mistress of the artist Fernand Boissard, a development which initially came about through Boissard’s need for consolation after his previous mistress had left him for a Danish diplomat. In April 1849 Bébé and Boissard moved into a house together near the rue Frochot, where her sister lived, and in December Bébé gave birth, at her sister’s house, to her daughter Jeanne. Boissard, contrary to the expectations of all their friends, refused to acknowledge the child as his, though at Ernest Meissonier’s insistence he did agree to make some financial provision for her. Apollonie and Meissonier acted as godparents at the baptism. Bébé spent the next two years still hoping to marry Boissard, who kept stringing her along despite the fact that he was already becoming involved with a young woman called Edwina Broutta. Edwina was the same age as Bébé but belonged to a different world. She came from a wealthy family and was a musician, both qualities which appealed to Fernand Boissard who proposed to her in February 1852. The future looked uncertain for Bébé, who for the next few years continued to live in the shadow of her elder sister.

More about the world of Parisian courtesans, including the Sabatier sisters, can be found in my book Grandes Horizontales.

5 February 1847: Funeral of Marie Duplessis

Marie DuplessisOn this day in 1847 the funeral of the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis took place at the church of the Madeleine, a few hundred yards from Marie’s apartment. The mourners included Tony, the famous supplier of horses to elegant Paris, as well as several prostitutes who had been helped by Marie in the past. The funeral expenses came to 1,354 francs, and it is possible that some of Marie’s erstwhile lovers clubbed together to cover them. Her obsequies may also have benefited from the flowers and decorations provided for a grander ceremony, the other funerals taking place that day at the Madeleine being for the Countess d’Augier, the Count d’Escherny and an old man called Monsieur Ducamp de Bussy, who lived in the same building as Marie. The coffin was followed from the Madeleine to the cemetery of Montmartre by Edouard de Perrégaux, who appeared overcome with remorse.

Marie, who became the prototype of the virtuous courtesan through her portrayal as Marguerite Gautier in the novel by Alexandre Dumas filsLa Dame aux camélias, was only 23 years old at the time of her death. She had been born Alphonsine Plessis on 15 January 1824 in the village of Saint-Germain-de-Clarfeuille near Nonant in Lower Normandy, the younger daughter of a travelling pedlar called Marin Plessis and his wife Marie. In her early teens, her father placed her as an apprentice to a blanchisseuse, which can be loosely translated as ‘laundress’. Such an apprenticeship involved long hours of hard and repetitive physical labour. Emile Zola gave a detailed description of a laundress’s establishment in his novel L’Assommoir, from which it is possible to reconstruct an idea of Alphonsine’s working life at this time. First, piles of dirty linen would be sorted and washed, the actual washing sometimes being done at a communal washroom by a washerwoman, a lower level of worker than the blanchisseuse. Much of the work of a blanchisseuse consisted of ironing, which would be done at a large table covered with a heavy blanket, itself covered with calico. Several irons were heated on the large cast-iron stove, and it would be the job of the apprentice to keep this stove filled – always being careful not to overfill it – with coke. The room where the blanchisseuses worked would also be full of clothes hung up on wires to dry. On the floor there would be an earthenware pan, containing starch into which the linen would be dipped before being ironed. The blanchisseuse herself and her older employees would be busy ironing intricate objects such as caps, shirt-front, petticoats and embroidered drawers, while the apprentice could be put to work on the plain items, the stockings and handkerchiefs. The ironing would be done standing up around the table, a flat brick alongside each worker on which to place the hot iron. Work could go on until late at night, particularly on Saturdays, so that the customers would have their clean clothes to wear on Sunday.

Such was Alphonsine’s life when she was aged about thirteen to fourteen. Then one Sunday, her father, who had remained in touch with her, took her to visit an elderly acquaintance of his, a bachelor in his sixties or seventies by the name of Plantier. But more than taking her to visit, Marin Plessis left Alphonsine with Plantier; possibly he even sold her to him …

The story of how the young apprentice Alphonsine Plessis became the famous courtesan Marie Duplessis, including how she came to marry Count Edouard de Perrégaux, who followed her coffin to the grave, can be found in my book Grandes Horizontales.