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While La Païva was often described as an overly ambitious upstart, excessive in her need for material goods and uncouth in her way of showing her fortune and possessions, I’d rather explore the reasons that might have led her to adopt certain behavior and what really fueled that determined ambition and drove her to build her extravagant Hôtel Particulier. She was, after all, a courtesan.
A courtesan’s life could be either romanticized or vilified. Some described this life as glamourous and luxurious while others considered courtesans as manipulative women who would stop at nothing to reach their goals. However, as we all know, life is never black or white.
La Païva, like the majority of courtesans, was a woman of meager earnings. She was born in 1819 in the Jewish ghetto of Moscow, to Polish parents, as Esther Lachman (She later changed her name to Blanche) and married a humble French tailor at 17 years old, with whom she had a son. Soon after, she escaped the mediocre and limiting life as an obedient, oppressed housewife, the only occupation she felt she could aspire to, to end up in Paris in 1839. These were very difficult times for women. Indeed, women of the 19thcentury had few to no prospects to gain financial security and social mobility.
Upon arriving in Paris, Esther became Thérèse and worked as a prostitute, a poor prostitute stationed in a cheap brothel. It is worth mentioning that the poor prostitutes’ life was filled with humiliation, abuse and constant persecution from the police and authorities. One can only image what Thérèse had to endure before establishing a strategy in order to get herself out of the misery and continuous threats hanging over her head.
If you like this type of stories, you can read about Marie-Antoinette and her beautiful home “The Petit Trianon” here!
It was reported that her understanding of social structure was simple: wealth was the only means to survive, dominate and gain independence. Consequently, becoming a courtesan and targeting wealthy men seemed to be the only available option, to her and to many other women in a similar position.
However, being a courtesan was a double-edged sword: courtesans were in their own class considered as the grandest, most elite of the prostitutes. They were given a status where they could afford jewel encrusted bathtubs and houses all over the country*. They benefited from the protection of wealthy men within enclosed, exclusive circles as these powerful men didn’t allow police to interfere with their affairs. However, courtesans were still, despite their exorbitant affluence, there for the purpose of male dominance*. They were simply considered a status symbol. Maintaining a courtesan provided the same prestige as owning a private mansion or a beautiful carriage. They were not totally sheltered from adversity as their financial security was tightly linked to the men who supported them.
As part of her strategy, Thérèse started investing in the latest dresses and fashionable accessories, bought on credit, in order to meet rich men in places such as concerts and theaters. Her plan started to come to fruition. This is how she met the successful pianist Henri Herz in 1841 while attending one of his concerts. They became a couple. Herz introduced her as his wife and Thérèse, who by this time had a new name Blanche, called herself Mrs Herz as if she wanted to establish status and respect. Thanks to her relationship with Herz, she came in contact with influential figureheads, musicians and authors. In 1848, Herz went bankrupt, Blanche was rejected by his family and she was again penniless. She then travelled to London where she managed to maintain a certain lifestyle thanks to her several affairs with rich lords. After few years, she came back to Paris and married Albino Francisco de Païva, an heir to vast wealth based in part on the opium trade. Though he was sometimes called a Marquis, Araújo was not an aristocrat and had no title, being the son of commoners.
Blanche became Marquise de Païva. With this title, she had found a new way to open doors for social climbing. In 1852, she met and pursued Count Guido Henckel Von Donnersmack, a Lutherian Prussian, eleven years younger than her. Guido and Blanche married in 1871 and Blanche de Païva finally became a Countess. With the help of Guido, she started work on her famous, extravagant mansion to which she gave her name.
Despite the impression one might have, Blanche de Païva was culturally educated and developed considerable talents. She spoke many languages, played piano, loved opera, was an avid reader and skillfully mastered the business world. She was perfectly capable of maintaining intelligent conversation with prestigious and intellectual guests. In her salon and during her dinners, she gathered around her, prestigious names such as Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Flaubert, Paul Baudry, the architect Hector Lefuel, her friend Théophile Gauthier and Alexandre Dumas.
Sadly, apart from her few closest friends, she was publicly, like other courtesans, despised. As was the case with other women, namely the wives or the “women of good virtue”, while she was secretly admired for her art of conversation and fashion style.
Unfortunately, the dream ended when war broke out with Prussia in 1870. Society began to look at La Païva with a suspicious eye. Her husband being Prussian, very close to the high spheres of power, was soon accused of being a spy in the pay of the enemy, as was she. Blanche was soon forced to exile in Silesia with her husband. She suffered badly from this forced removal and social degradation. The dream was over and the strategy had been played out. She died in exile in 1884.
I hope you liked this post!
Inass M. Jenner
- Blanche de Paiva, Lionne de Paris, Plume d’histoire.
- (*) Gender and Class Differences in 19th Century, French Prostitution, Mounica V. Kota Ms.