By: Fereshteh Priou
One of the characters in Proust’s book “In Search of Lost Time”, is Odette de Crecy, a woman of ill-repute who seduces Charles Swann, a rich man with strong connection to the French aristocratic society. He eventually marries her, after a long and tumultuous love affair filled with jealousy, obsession, and torturous fascination - and because she was pregnant. By doing so, he ostracizes himself from the high society. Nevertheless, their baby daughter, Gilberte, grows up to marry Robert de Saint-Loup, from the fictional Guermantes family, considered one of the most distinguished of the aristocratic society. Odette’s rise symbolizes a break in class distinction and the start of the obliteration of the traditional social classes. But Odette, referred to by the narrator as a courtesan, is a good example of how French society at the turn of the last century, viewed women of a certain class who dared to overstep the line that separated them from the elite.
A courtesan was originally referred to a member of the court who would act as a confidant to the king. The court of a monarch was usually the center of intrigue and constant plotting, so the royalty needed devoted attendants they could trust. But apart from that, courtesans were well-educated, independent woman of great beauty who were knowledgeable in art, literature, music, and dance. They were also well-versed and witty with good conversational skills. Therefore, they not only were confidants, but also good companions. In most instances, a courtesan was also the King’s lover, and whichever had the greatest access to the king was referred to as the Favorite. The term courtship or courting has its origin in the role of the courtesan. Some of the courtesans were married to men who would look the other way at the indiscretions of their wives and enjoy the special position offered to them in faraway places by the King, in order to keep them at a distance. Most courtesans would have not been able to get the position they held without compromising themselves.
After the monarchy was abolished, the term courtesan was used more loosely in reference to prostitutes of a higher echelon; the aim was to tarnish the reputation of women who gained importance and independence by associating themselves with the aristocracy, despite having no connection through blood lines. Odette was poor, but she was a smart, ambitious and beautiful young woman when she first met Charles Swann at the salon of Mme. Verdurin, who with her nouveaux riche husband was trying to gather a following in the Parisian society. Odette’s prospects were limited. She could either find a job as a shop girl and afford a certain degree of financial independence, or marry a man in her own station and lead an ordinary life of limited means. Both those options were not good enough for Odette. She would rather set her eyes on men of influence she met at the Verdurins. Les mauvaises langues even accused her of having an amorous relationship with Mme. Verdurin in order to gain access to her salon.
At the start, Swann was completely uninterested in Odette and paid little attention to her, but Odette took her time and catered to every one of his whims. She was always there when he visited and her presence became a constant in his life. So used he became to seeing her night after night, that he was despondent when one night, he visited the Verdurins and didn’t find her there. The habit of seeing her every evening at the Verdurins had become so much a part of his existence that her sudden disappearance made him miserable. She had finally succeeded in seducing him. Charles Swann, a member of the Jockey Club and a friend of the Prince of Wales was suddenly at the complete mercy of the fantastic Odette de Crecy, a mere courtesan. By pulling the strings of habit, she ensnared him; her presence became a second nature to him, to the extent that life without her was an impossibility. He nevertheless was aware that there was never a true attraction, because years after marrying her, he wondered why he married her since she was not even “his type.”
The class hierarchy that suddenly and violently came under attack during the French Revolution, crumbled further during the turn of last century by slow and invisible means. Charles Swann’s total surrender to a courtesan symbolizes the capitulation of the aristocracy to its one-time adversaries in the turn of last century France. Guided by Proust, we see that the fondness that comes from familiarity can move a man and therewith whole peoples.
Article by: Fereshteh Priou - January 2018