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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Raffish Courtesans, Balzac and Elvis Presley

As readers here will know I have been flooded for a week or so with all things Dickens, the life, the novels, the biographies. I am still relishing the insights in Peter Ackroyd’s beautifully written, brilliant Dickens . Ackroyd is not just a great biographer but also a great novelist (se his Hawksmoor – an imaginative tour de force.

And I am now dipping my toes in the flood which is demi-monde Paris in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. As I say today on my writing blog reading the novels of a time are one wonderful way of accessing the feeling and spirit of a time – important if you want to writer authentically about that time.

There is no doubt that Paris at that time had a very raffish element of actors, artists, courtesans, fallen or rising women and exotic if shady people. There is no doubt that the great novelist Honore de Balzac observed this world at the time as part of hos encyclopaedic series of novels known as La Comedie Humaine . So, onto my Kindle, I download twelve of these novels (free!) as start to the research.

Having argued with my learned friend Sharon about what she sees as the dubious virtues of Dickens she is more sanguine about Honore de Balzac, my new passion, my denizen of the raffish Parisian Demi-monde, my spy, my informant for this planned novel. I remember reading three of his novels in French Pere Goriot Eugenie Grandet and La peau de chagrin,when I was seventeen but my Kindle versions are in English for speed, for research, to leave time to write….

I have also ordered (not free) a book called Writing with a Vengeance: The Countess de Chabrillan's Rise from Prostitution - a critical and scholarly consideration of the writer - a fascinating and scandalous woman who was a professional writer (extra scandalous!) writing in and of my heroine’s day. This book's more expensive than the Balzacs but great as a research resource flexing out my understanding of the Paris of my future novel.

Both Sharon and I are intrigued by the notion of raffishness She thinks that ‘… in an odd way, it was a sort of raffishness that existed even in this country up until the 1950s and possibly still does in a more limited way.’

Well, I was there in the 1950s and nothing raffish was going on around me. But then there was Elvis Presley. Would he count as raffish?

Now! I have to get down to that reading.

Later Post-script from the learned Sharon:

'Think back to the 1960s for instance - Christine Keeler, Lord Lambton, Profumo, were all part of that sort of set, that included photographers, gamblers, artists ,actresses and tarts. Even Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret
There always has been, still is now I guess, a sort of demi-monde where all sorts mix.  Now it would include people like  multi national busienss men - Philip Green, perhaps, politicans, writers, artists and celebs.  The sort of A list and B list people that will always form a world within a world that we know nothing about until scandal surfaces.'
Me: But it has evolved. Now because of internet, Utube and fast media any world within a world is exposed the next day, the next week. So the possibility of a world within a world, tacitly acknowledged in certain secion of society, existing and maintaining it own ambience is almost nil. Perhaps I should exclude the criminal/espionage/security complex from that notion.


  1. I've just been reading, for my own research into a new fiction venture, the 19th century memoir of Herculine Barbin - who was a famous hermaphrodite, brought up as a girl then told she was a man while still a teenager. Her story ended in suicide after she fell through the different levels of society. It's sad, but fascinating.

  2. So very interesting. I will definitely look her up. Exploration of sexual ambiguity is a self endowed freedom permitted - even encouraged - in these semi-private coteries - part of a revolt against an over controlling society. As with Herculine there can be tragic consequences. Look at pre-war Berlin! This is an every more exciting field. All power to your new fiction venture Kathy. wx