The Real Thing!

Julian Barnes

  • Splendeurs et misères: Images de la prostitution 1850-1910
    Musée d’Orsay until 17 January 2016
  • Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
    Grand Palais until 11 January 2016
    Metropolitan Museum of Art from 9 February to 15 May 2016

In 1849 Flaubert was in Cairo with his friend Maxime Du Camp, a rising littérateur as well as the official photographer for their tour of the Middle East. On 1 December, Flaubert wrote to their mutual friend the poet Louis Bouilhet:

This morning we arrived in Egypt … we had scarcely set foot on shore when Max, the old lecher, got excited over a negress who was drawing water at a fountain. He is just as excited by little negro boys. By whom is he not excited? Or, rather, by what? … Tomorrow we are to have a party on the river, with several whores dancing to the sound of darabukehs and castanets, their hair spangled with gold piastres.

Flaubert’s attitude to prostitution was complicated, as one might expect. In 1853 he explained it to – of all people – his lover Louise Colet:

It may be a perverted taste, but I love prostitution, and for itself, too, quite apart from its carnal aspects. My heart begins to pound every time I see one of those women in low-cut dresses walking under the lamplight in the rain, just as monks in their corded robes have always excited some deep, ascetic corner of my soul. The idea of prostitution is a meeting place of so many elements – lust, bitterness, complete absence of human contact, muscular frenzy, the clink of gold – that to peer into it deeply makes one reel. One learns so many things in a brothel, and feels such sadness, and dreams so longingly of love!

‘Madame de Loynes’ by Eugène Emmanuel Amaury-Duval (1862)
‘Madame de Loynes’ by Eugène Emmanuel Amaury-Duval (1862)

Flaubert remained largely consistent in his views throughout his life; whereas Du Camp, as time, renown and social position took their toll, became increasingly conservative and moralistic. Twenty years after landing in Egypt, he began publishing his six-volume Paris: ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie (1869-75), a massive, Zolaesque account of the city, teeming with statistics and reportage, opinion and anecdote. In the third volume (1872), his chapter on the guillotine is immediately followed by one on prostitution. He defines the activity as one of ‘the chronic, morbid phenomena which are inherent in our species. The brutality of male passions, and the organic and moral weakness of women, have produced the same results, in every age and in every culture.’

In France at that time prostitution was of two main kinds: the ‘controlled’ sort, in which the state regulated the activity and carried out regular medical inspections on working women; and the ‘uncontrolled’, in which – throughout all ranks of society, up to the very top – money bought sex. For Du Camp, it was a question of essential moral collapse: Paris in the 19th century, like Venice in the 17th, had become a city in which the mind had repudiated its rights, leaving matter and the senses to take over. In middle-class society, men thought having a mistress just as much a fashionable necessity as ‘taking the waters, sea-bathing, and going to first nights’; while kept women, like ‘female minotaurs’, were ‘devouring’ France’s young men. There was also the practical, medical problem of limiting the spread of venereal disease. Du Camp knew what he was talking about: in Egypt he had endured three doses of VD to Flaubert’s one. And for all his moral disapproval, his attitude to ordinary working girls is much more sympathetic than to those higher up the social scale; he also reserves more scorn for the male than the female in their paid exchanges.

Luc Sante, in his recent The Other Paris: An Illustrated Journey through a City’s Poor and Bohemian Past, dismisses Du Camp as ‘an end-of-society hysteric’.[*] This seems a little over-robust; those six volumes were published during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune. When the war broke out, there had been many (including Flaubert) who wondered if the Prussian invasion was not some kind of necessary moral purge, a cleansing punishment for the vulgar iniquities of life under Napoleon III. (Fast-forward a century and a half, and an Isis spokesman is denouncing Paris as ‘the capital of prostitution and obscenity’.) The subsequent internecine horrors of the Commune suggested that society could equally be brought to an end even in the absence of external force. Nor, in the light of the French military collapse, was it irrelevant for Du Camp to point out the debilitating incidence of venereal disease among its soldiery. After the French capitulation, the Prussians demanded an indemnity of five billion gold francs, to be paid off within five years, with Prussian troops stationed in France until it was. But the victors had underestimated France’s wealth: the money was raised in half the time (indeed, the war did far less damage to the economy than the contemporaneous phylloxera epidemic in the vineyards). Moralisers’ warnings went unheeded, and the pleasure-loving part of France went back to its old prewar ways.

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[*] Faber, 320 pp., £25, November, 978 0 571 24128 6.

[†] Julian Bell wrote about Liotard in the LRB of 19 November.