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The Mistress of Paris

3.65  ·  Rating details ·  340 ratings  ·  48 reviews
Valtesse de la Bigne was a celebrated nineteenth-century Parisian courtesan. She was painted by Manet and inspired Emile 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 glamourous existence hid a dark secret: she was no Comtesse. She was born into abject poverty, rai
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published November 5th 2015 by Icon Books
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3.65  · 
Rating details
 ·  340 ratings  ·  48 reviews

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Nov 13, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
(I received this Advance Uncorrected Proof from the publisher for review.)

Valtesse de la Bigne was born in 1848 to a single mother who had to turn to prostitution to support her seven children. Valtesse, born Emilie-Louise, turned to prostitution herself as a teenager, encouraged (but not forced) by her mother. Valtesse, however, was not content with being a common prostitute - she had her sights set higher, and she worked her way up the social hierarchy ladder to become a well-know and much-res
Feb 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
“I am a courtesan,’ she announced, ‘and how I do enjoy my work.”
- Catherine Hewitt, The Mistress of Paris


When I requested a copy of The Mistress of Paris by Catherine Hewitt from Allen and Unwin, I didn’t expect such a fascinating read! The blurb sounded really interesting however I wasn’t prepared for just how enthralling it would actually be! The Mistress of Paris is a classic rags-to-riches story about a woman whose intelligence and charisma drove her from the poverty-stricken streets o
Feb 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
The beginning is a bit of a summing up of all her lovers, but once she is established at the top of the demi monde in Paris it becomes an interesting look at French social history at the end of the 19th century.
Simon Binning
What makes a biography successful? For me, it's finishing the book and feeling I understand something of the subject; not merely what they did or what they said, but who they were, what they thought. It's easy to recount the facts of a life; far harder to understand the person behind those cold details. And some subjects are easier to pick apart than others. Catherine Hewitt could hardly have selected a tougher character to write about; a woman whose life's work was to create a whole personna fo ...more
Helen Carolan
Apr 19, 2017 rated it liked it
Thought I was onto a winner here as this one started well,discussing why so many young women were flocking to Paris and finding the only means of survival open to them was prostitution. Sadly as the book went on it became frothy and gossipy more interested in jewels and fashions than telling us anything of merit. Disappointed.
Mar 15, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This biography of a 19th century Parisian courtesan reads like a cheesy soap opera and I soon lost interest in learning about every person she slept with in order to enrich herself. Totally bored with the subject matter, I got half way through this book and gave up.
Oct 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
A very interesting and detailed account of the life of a Parisian courtesan in the 19th century. I enjoyed reading this book immensely - the details of Valtesse's life and the Paris she knew are so well explored.
Jun 05, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
Whipsawed by this book's split personality - snooty Masterpiece Theatre or trashy Lifestyles-of-the-Rich-and-Famous? - I couldn't bear any more and gave up less than halfway through.
Dec 03, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is full of interesting details of life as a courtesan in Paris. It describes many artists and notable people of the day and give a real insight into a fascinating lady.
I’m a huge non-fic fan – especially when it comes to audio – and I was more than happy with this one. If biographies of fascinating, self-made women are your thing, look no further.

For the mini review and more, head over to The Pretty Good Gatsby!
Marguerite Kaye
Aug 07, 2017 rated it liked it
3.5 stars.

This was one of those books which was really well-written, entertaining and enlightening, but because I found the main protagonist, the legendary courtesan Valtesse, so unlikable, I struggled with it.

Valtesse was born in 1848, the year or revolutions, the illegitimate daughter of a laundry maid. Determined not to live the life of a drudge (and taught at an early age by her mother how to make the best of her assets) she took to the Parisian life of the demi-monde like a duck to water.
Mar 05, 2018 rated it it was ok
The historical aspects of this book were the only things that kept me reading it. You would think that a story about a 19th century courtesan would be interesting but it was incredibly tedious. Instead of coming to understand the character of the subject or given a view of any criticism of her, it feels as if this is a book report. It was almost as if the author had interviewed this narcissistic person and just wrote down every glowing thing she said about herself. She apparently did no wrong, w ...more
Sep 19, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book was riveting... until it wasn't. About halfway through, it seemed the author was struggling to find enough facts and events to keep the narrative moving. I wanted it to stay gritty and in depth. Instead, it became awkward, repetitive, and full of filler. So I kept it by the bed and fell asleep every 10-15 pages after that. It took me a month and a half to finish as a result. Do I regret the time spent? No. I learned a lot about this fascinating woman, late 19th century French/Parisian ...more
Dec 07, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Leave it to me to complain about art first thing, but the thing that most annoyed me about this book was that in the glossy art pages, the portrait by Jacquet (I think) was nowhere to be found, despite how often it was mentioned in the book. If you’re going to read about the same piece over and over, it’s annoying to not see it.

And, “over and over” was kind of how the whole book was. I understand why it was long - a relatively long life deserves its due page count - but so much of her long life
*sighs contentedly* Five stars is not enough for this book – I would give it TEN if I could. I am more than just a little obsessed with women living on the fringes of what is socially acceptable (I have a whole bookshelf here titled “Courtesans, Mistresses and More”, I mean really…). This book and the real woman profiled here was engaging and fascinating from start to finish. Valtesse rose from nothing and with charm and considerable brains, expertly managed her own rise to the demimonde of Bell ...more
Greg Guma
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
Catherine Hewitt’s brightly written biography is both engaging and full of myth-busting revelations. Focussing on the one of most extraordinary women of 19th century France, popularly known as Comtesse Valtesse, she has revealed a brilliant, complex figure who rose from poverty to the summit of society by the 1870s.

Known as a courtesan, and proud of that status, she was also much more — the author of a popular veiled autobiography before she reached 30, the subject of paintings by Manet and oth
Sep 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I'm not sure why I waited so long to read this. I've been a long time fan of the whole Belle Époque Paris scene - Natalie Clifford Barney, Liane de of course I knew of Valtesse from multiple biographies of Natalie, and the one biography of Liane I found which is only available in the original French and the Japanese translation (I read the latter since my French is nowhere near as good). But Valtesse had always just shown up as a somewhat shadowy figure, the older mentor of Liane who ...more
May 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biographies
Thoroughly enjoyable - yes - it is the ultimate rags to riches fantasy - and you have to think that perhaps it was not quite as smooth as portrayed - but still - thoroughly enjoyable. I was particularly impressed with the way that it was written so as not to actually put undocumented words in the main character's mouth, but still give a reasonable glimpse into her life, without ever guessing or presuming - without a caveat from the author. Very well done.

The reading was spot on - and a lot of t
Susan Ovans
Sep 27, 2017 rated it liked it
I was actually in Paris while reading this book and got to see the facade of the home Valtesse owned on Boulevard Malesherbes, so that added some fun to the text. And this does feel like an academic text in some ways, so if you're going in expecting a dishy tabloid read, you'll be disappointed. The self-styled Comtesse de la Bigne was a fascinating woman and it's interesting to understand how a dirt-poor girl vaulted herself to the most elegant circles of Paris in the middle 1800s, but a lot of ...more
Lauren Straley
Oct 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Sumptuous, glittering, and reckoning, The Mistress of Paris embodies all this and more. From the dirty streets of poverty-stricken Paris, a lovely and strong-willed woman was destined to change her life. Valtesse lived an eccentric life and Hewitt delicately introduces her to the reader. I can’t give this enough praise.
Aug 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
If I was dubious at first about reading a biography written about the ascent of a 19th century French prostitute into a celebrated courtesan, I admit that I am no longer. Hewitt managed to take what could have been an excruciatingly difficult read, and turned it into a beautiful, and quite frankly, inspiring biography.
Cece Shelburne
Jul 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
It's an amazing true story and kudos to the author for uncovering it. That said, I wonder why someone didn't assign her a better editor—particularly a copy editor. It reads as though the author resorted to over-frequent use of a thesaurus without really knowing what the implications of her word choice. Frequently, this makes the text read as though it's translated from another language.
Jane Mccrimmon
Aug 21, 2018 rated it liked it
Really a 3.5 rating. Originally thought this was an historical fiction book and then discovered it was factual. The Mistress of Paris was an interesting and enjoyable read. One gets a good picture of the life of a successful courtesan in the Belle Epoque. The artwork and pictures shown in the book help story to come alive too. A book to recommend.
Mar 31, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: book-club
Eh. The story into Valtesse's life was interesting enough, but the book read so. very. slowly. It was more of a history book, rather than a simple biography. I do give the author a lot of credit for all the research done on the politics, and social history of Paris and France over about 50 years.

It's good to note that the last 1/5 of pages are strictly footnotes and bibliography.
Olivia Hrusovsky
Sep 13, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
This book took quite awhile for me. The story was thorough and kept moving. Something odd that I noticed though was that every chapter had the same exact number of pages. This book definitely read more as an assignment or report and less as a story. Nevertheless, the subject was really interesting and covered well.
Jan 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting and pacy, well written and referenced.
Mar 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Probably more 3.5 but rounded up. Very interesting and well written biography about the Demi-monde in Paris.
Sep 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
Loved it! So well researched! I had never heard of Valtesse de la Bigne and her very colorful life. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Mar 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book. Nan gave it to me as a present. Amazing to read the life this woman created for herself.
Montessahall Montessahall
This novel reads more like an academic textbook than a biography.
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Catherine Hewitt’s academic career began with a passion for 19th-century French art, literature and social history. Her doctoral research uncovered the remarkable story of a forgotten 19th-century courtesan, and after being awarded her PhD, she set out on her career in biography. Catherine’s first book, The Mistress of Paris, was awarded the runner-up’s prize in the 2012 Biographers’ Club Tony Lot ...more