Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Grisettes and Lorettes

Near the bottom of the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, at the point where the Canal St Martin dives undergound, a curious scene has been played out for the last 100 years. On one side of the street sits the bust of the 19th century actor Fréderick Lemaitre, eyes and nose lifted towards the sky in defiance or perhaps contempt. Who is he trying to avoid? The answer is seemingly on the opposite side of the street where another statue is stood, this time of a young girl known simply as ‘La Grisette’. With a basket of flowers in her hands and a bun in her hair, she looks imploringly across the road towards the actor.

The path of true love never did run smooth, but what caused these two to fall into an eternity of loathing? The answer is possibly inscribed on the plinths - La Grisette, 1830, and Fréderick Lemaitre, 1800 – 1876. In Paris in the first half of the 19th century, the situation between men and women was a critical one. At the beginning of the century, there were 115 women for every 100 men, but by 1830 this figure was radically altered. With the influx of males to the city from rural areas attracted by work in the new industries there were now 90 women for every 100 men. Women were suddenly in a position of power, and in more ways than one they intended to make men pay.

Two female myths grew out of this period – the Grisette and the Lorette. The Grisette here in statue form, (made by the sculptor Jean Descomps in 1909) is simply a representation of a certain kind of female city inhabitant, typically a young factory worker or itinerant street vendor. The chosen position here was not an accidental one as many such girls would have lived in this area, selling food or flowers in the surrounding streets or working in one the factories along the canal. The actor Lemaitre (sculpted here by Pierre Granet in 1898) was also a regular of this neighbourhood, featuring mainly in hysterical crime plays on the Boulevards nearby. These two must surely have bumped into each other on numerous occasions.

In the popular consciousness of the time though, la Grisette was more than just a hard working girl. It is the French comic author Paul de Kock who has been credited with the creation of the Grisette myth, turning this innocent image into something far more alluring and exotic. As de Kock wrote, la Grisette;

“..est à la fois si folle, si gaie, si vive, si légère, si tendre, si romanesque, si mélancolique, si passionnée; cette femme…qui dépense en une soirée le fruit de huit jours de travail. Cette femme, mélange bizarre de vertus, de vices, de sensibilité, de caprices, de malices, d’inconséquences, de rires et de larmes“(1).
(..who is at once so mad, so gay, so lively, so superficial, so tender, so romantic, so melancholic, so passionate; this woman who spends the profits of eight days of work in one evening. This woman, a strange mixture of virtues, vices, sensibility, whims, mischievousness, inconsistencies, laughter and tears).

The Grisette was a girl who spent more than she earned, but who had an elder male ‘friend’, a shopkeeper or wholesaler who would pay her debts. Her other male friend, a much younger painter or student, was the weekend friend, her passion and the one who would take her to fashionable balls and restaurants. In many ways, she was the inspiration for Emile Zola’s Nana and Victor Hugo’s Fantine.

The actor Frederick Lemaitre was probably keen to avoid this girl because he set his sights higher, possibly towards the Lorettes, but who exactly were these ladies? This time they were the invention of an illustrator, Gavarni, who imagined them as fashionable young women, free from the pressures of men and financial worries. He named them after the district in which they were most commonly to be seen, behind the Notre Dame de Lorette church. Baudelaire later tried to describe Gavarni’s vision in one of his essays:

La Lorette est une personne libre. Elle va et elle vient. Elle tient maison ouverte. Elle n'a pas de maître; elle fréquente les artistes et les journalistes".
(The Lorette is somebody who is free. She comes and goes. She has an open house. She doesn’t have a master; she frequents artists and journalists.)

One of Gavarni's sketches. The accompanying text image read "Mon adoré, dis-moi ton petit nom" (My darling, tell me your pet name)

The crucial point and the one true element that separated the Lorette from the Grisette was the notion of independence. The Grisette had to work and to work hard, whilst other ladies were financially tied to one particular man. The Lorette though was not a kept lady, but one who managed to maintain several relationships at once with men who did not have the means to pay for exclusivity. The Lorette was free to follow trends and be seen at the most fashionable events. As the writer La Bédollière described(3), the swish of silk as she walked and the careful adjusting of clothing as she passed a mirror made her easy to recognise.

The once fashionable Rue St Lazare, home of the Lorettes.

The somewhat light-hearted image of these ladies did though hide a much darker side, touched on with Hugo's Fantine. She is abandoned by her aristocratic lover and is eventually forced into prostitution. This was clearly a route some of the grisettes took, but the Lorettes had another enemy - age. La Bédollière gave a list of the current situations of a selection of Lorettes twenty years later, the majority of whom were said to have died an early death. Others now worked in toilets, were cleaners or had gone mad. This list was surely humourous, but it was probably not too far from the truth either. As the 19th century progressed, the population ratios swang back towards a majority of women and the golden age of these women had passed. Those who had survived through this period and had not found a reliable husband were left to age painfully and desperately in an increasingly harsh city. It is no wonder then that La Grisette should still be looking so imploringly over towards a potential helping hand.

(1) Paul de Cock, “La Première Amie” (1842)
(2) Baudelaire, “Quelques caricaturistes français” (1857)
(3) Émile de La Bédollière, “Le Nouveau Paris, histoire de ses 20 arrondissements“ (1860)


Starman said...

Ah, romance. Is it already le printemps ?

PeterParis said...

Very interesting again ! What I find nice is that both the grisettes and the lorettes generally are described in a rather positive way ! Both took probably a path towards a certain freedom; the woman who was not only devoted to be a faithful wife or servant! Both were also more or less involved in the artistic world of those days! ... but obviously only the lorettes got their own church!

Gina V said...

It's curious that such independent working and non-working women were typecasted and pigeon-holed so tightly even though the sub-culture they enlivened was already fairly dissolute at the time. Such quaint reminders of a world where men called all the shots!

Adam said...

Gina - both of course were inventions of men, but in my opinion were invented because it wasn't them at the time who were calling the shots. Men have always been afraid of the independant woman and obviously needed to ridicule them (in a fairly gentle way it must be said) at that time.

CarolineLD said...

Absolutely fascinating - I hadn't come across these terms before. It's always good to be reminded that even in the 19th century, women sometimes got the chance of independence!

Gina V said...

Perhaps less afraid than threatened??... because "independent" women are/were deemed harder to control and subjugate!
From my experiences with certain frenchmen, some still seem to have the need to belittle the types of women who do not fit their idea of "ideal woman", whatever that might be! [but I still love them, evolved or not yet!]
[Of course I say all this with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek!!]

Anonymous said...

Lorette and Grisette-- fascinating post. Nana came to a rather bad end, but then she was determined to head for the cliff. Fantine was a victim as was Nana (look at how she was raised in L'Assomoir ! )

--- working in NYC I found there were men always harshly judging who was a "true woman" (worth their notice.) One man (born after 1960) I worked with would not even speak to women who did not wear makeup and have perfect manicures. (he was let go for his rudeness to co-workers eventually) Others lashed out at the -- the free women who preferred other woman, or were perceived as too outspoken. I found it odd how they blamed the victim, and men that expect their women to be that "saint & sinner" mix, but then being cruel about the sinner part after the fact.

It seemed unreal that they would feel contempt based on nothing, really. I will have to ask younger men who they think on this subject.


I've heard that La Bibliothèque is now referred to as La Médiathèque --or is it both now?

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Cergie said...

Grisettes et Lorettes... J'ai récupéré chez ma tante une très jolie jeune fille (pas une lorette je présume, une rosière plutôt) en biscuit coiffée d'une grisette....

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