Blanche D’Antigny: Emile Zola’s Nana
In 1880, Emile Zola published a controversial novel about a French courtesan who lacked brains and charm but could draw her men into a dangerous and sticky web that would ultimately lead to financial ruin. The novel was called Nana, and Zola portrays the titular character as a wicked human animal, destroying everyone and everything around her.
Marie-Ernestine Antigny was born in 1840, worked as a part-time actress and singer, and certainly fits Zola’s description, which is why it is widely believed that she was the inspiration behind the novel. Her physique, her attitude toward men, her clawing her way through high society, and her painful death at a young age make her a perfect match. Blanche’s life was indeed eventful enough to inspire such a novel. When she was only 14, she left a convent and traveled to Romania with an aristocrat, returned to Paris, joined a circus, and then traveled to St. Petersburg alongside a Russian police chief.
In reality, Blanche wasn’t as morally indifferent as Zola’s Nana. She did rise from being a streetwalker to entertaining some of the most influential men in Paris, and it is said that her total number of lovers defies calculation. However, Zola never even met her, and he wrote his story after her death. Blanche did indeed have a taste for extravagance, throwing lavish parties and making public appearances draped in diamonds, but perhaps one of her greatest charms, not mentioned in the book, was her gullibility. After making love, she would fall into such a heavy sleep that her lovers could simply leave her bed without compensating her. Later in life, she fell madly in love with a poor tenor by the name of Luce and left her wealthy sugar daddy to be with him. She was faithful to Luce for two years until he died of tuberculosis, during which time she lost her fortune and was forced to live in modesty. She contracted consumption herself and died aged 34, all alone, just like Zola’s Nana.
Marie Duplessis: The Lady Of The Camellias
It’s a typical day in 19th-century France. A young man with a modest income and a good education meets a beautiful woman, courted by the majority of Paris’s aristocracy, known as The Lady of the Camellias. Marie Duplessis was born in 1824 from a poor family and was forced to beg on the streets from a young age. Her father thought it best to put her beauty to good use and sold her to an elderly man, with whom she lived, when she was only 14. By the time she was 16 and working as a seamstress, she realized there was much to gain if she accompanied wealthy men, both in the bedroom and in high society. She started off as a mistress to young students and was initiated in courtesanship by Duc de Guiche.
Marie was a petite woman with an enchanting smile and a great sense for fashion and elegance. Her candor made her even more attractive. Despite her humble background, she educated herself and owned as many as 200 books in her personal library. Her wits and ambition propelled her to the courts of Paris, where she became one of the greatest 19th-century French courtesans. Throughout 1844, Count de Stackelberg was her sugar daddy, a wealthy man much older than Marie who took a fancy to her because she reminded him of his departed daughter. Around 1845, she met Franz Liszt, who gave her piano lessons, both literally and figuratively speaking. By this time, she was already ill with consumption, also known as tuberculosis.
Marie was a heavy spender who knew how to take a hold of the little time she had on this Earth and live life at its fullest; it’s as if she knew that tuberculosis would claim her life at age 23. Charles Dickens himself attended the lavish funeral along with the cream of French society at the time. Alexandre Dumas, whom she’d met in 1844, was completely smitten with her. Although the affair barely lasted a year, he immortalized young Marie in his novel, La Dame aux Camillas, published six months after her death. Dumas turned his book into a play. On the opening night, Giuseppe Verdi stood in the audience. Moved by the story, he wrote La Traviata.