The best books on France and women since the Revolution of 1789

Catherine Hewitt Author Of The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret
By Catherine Hewitt

Who am I?

My passion for 19th-century French art, literature, and social history was enkindled in academia, but when my doctoral research uncovered the remarkable story of a forgotten 19th-century courtesan, I set out on a career in biography. During the 19th century, the ‘woman question’ was marked by both radical change and fierce dispute. Based on careful research, my writing seeks to lift this history out of the dusty annals of academia and bring its characters and events vividly to life for the 21st-century reader. My books introduce real women, piecing their stories back together in intimate detail so that readers can really share their successes and frustrations.

I wrote...

The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret

By Catherine Hewitt,

Book cover of The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret

What is my book about?

Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne was a celebrated 19th-century Parisian courtesan. She was painted by Édouard Manet and inspired Émile Zola, who immortalised her in his scandalous novel Nana. Her rumoured affairs with Napoleon III and the future Edward VII kept gossip columns full.

But her glamorous existence hid a dark secret: she was no comtesse. She was born into abject poverty, raised on a squalid Paris backstreet. Yet she transformed herself into an enchantress who possessed a small fortune, three mansions, fabulous carriages, and art the envy of connoisseurs across Europe. A consummate show-woman, she ensured that her life – and even her death – remained shrouded in just enough mystery to keep her audience hungry for more.

The Books I Picked & Why

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France and Women, 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics

By James F. McMillan,

Book cover of France and Women, 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics

Why this book?

Every biographer needs a reliable social history, an authority that distils the essential, orders the chronology, and acts as a framework on which to pin all those facts. In his assured style, James F. McMillan artfully weaves the myriad strands of history into a seamless and engaging narrative. From prostitutes to housewives and from workers to salonières, the author spans the whole social spectrum to pinpoint not just what French women did, but why, and crucially, how their actions were received. The scrupulous research, swift pace, and crisp style make this comprehensive study a bible to anyone interested in the history of French women during the long 19th century.

Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives

By Gustave Flaubert, Geoffrey Wall (translator),

Book cover of Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives

Why this book?

No account of French women since the Revolution of 1789 would be complete without reference to this classic tale of a listless housewife turned adulterous thrill-seeker then suicide victim. Through his narrator and his characters, Flaubert offers a male perspective on the female condition in mid-19th-century France, exploring the way women were viewed, judged, pressured, and tempted. Even today, Madame Bovary remains a sobering lesson in the potentially devastating effects when expectation and reality diverge. In Emma’s case, the dreary monotony of everyday life fosters a ‘grass is always greener’ mentality which ultimately proves fatal. With her disappointment at marriage’s great anti-climax, her addiction to shopping and her insatiable quest for new sensations, Emma’s drama is at once historically revealing and uncomfortably timeless.

My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan

By Liane de Pougy,

Book cover of My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan

Why this book?

‘Father, except for murder and robbery, I’ve done everything.’ So confessed the notorious courtesan Liane de Pougy, and her diary offers a tantalising peek into the mind of a fast-living, turn-of-the-century ‘It’ girl. After a teen pregnancy, Liane was swiftly married, shot by her husband, then finally fled to Paris where she became a courtesan. Glamorous, forthright, and unashamedly vain, Liane turned herself into a fashion icon.  A social butterfly among high society, Liane’s address book reads like a literary Who’s Who of the roaring 20s (Jean Cocteau, Marcel Proust, the Rothschilds, and the poet Max Jacob all featured). From her spicy affairs – with men and women – to her marriage to Romanian Prince Georges Ghika and ultimate taking of the veil, ‘Princess’ Liane’s candid revelations make an eye-opening and unexpectedly moving read.

Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation

By Anne Sebba,

Book cover of Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation

Why this book?

Ladies, what would you take if you had to flee your home suddenly? Clothes? Food? Sentimental objects? How would you manage if you had your period when enemy soldiers took you prisoner?

These are the kind of blindsiding questions we catch ourselves asking as we read Anne Sebba’s engrossing study of the way French women lived and loved through the Second World War. Drawing on first-hand interviews with a range of remarkable women, Sebba’s skill lies in the way she focuses on intimate, everyday details to which we can all relate. The result is a book which reaches through time and makes us really feel these women’s predicament. Sensitive, passionate, and heart-wrenching, this vivid social history makes you see the war and its women from an entirely different perspective.

Célestine: Voices from a French Village

By Gillian Tindall,

Book cover of Célestine: Voices from a French Village

Why this book?

A dusty bundle of 150-year-old letters found in a deserted house in rural France forms the premise of this intriguing literary hybrid. Author Gillian Tindall beckons us to follow her on an enthralling, real-life detective story, as she uncovers the life and loves of the letters’ addressee, an obscure provincial innkeeper’s daughter named Célestine Chaumettte. As she pieces Célestine’s story together, Tindall breathes life back into a whole slice of history and a community now vanished. A rich cast of forgotten characters springs from the pages as we see, taste, and smell the many textures of rural society in 19th-century France, along with the seasons and cycles that governed it. This evocative, haunting account of a country girl’s experience and place within this world really is social history at its best.

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