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The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret

Monday 4 April 2016

1 Hour


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First-time writer Catherine Hewitt tells the forgotten story of 19th-century Parisian courtesan Valtesse de la Bigne who inspired a painting by Manet, a novel by Zola and had rumoured affairs with the highest in the land.

De la Bigne was born into poverty and raised in the squalid backstreets of Paris. So, how did she rise to own a small fortune, three mansions, fabulous carriages and art that was the envy of connoisseurs across Europe? Rumoured affairs included with Napoleon III and the future Edward VII. She was painted by Manet and immortalised in Zola’s scandalous novel Nana. Hewitt explains how de la Bigne had to become cultured to raise herself above a common prostitute and able to choose her clients. And she explains how she rejected marriage in favour of her independence and having her own income.

Hewitt came across de la Bigne whilst researching her PhD. her proposal for the biography was runner-up in the 2012 Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Competition for the best proposal by an uncommissioned, first-time biographer.

Here she talks to writer and journalist Paul Blezard.

This event is part of the festival’s forgotten women of history theme and part of the festival’s women in society programme sponsored by HSBC.