Céleste Venard, born in a Paris slum, later became the famous courtesan “Mogador,” and then the Comtesse de Chabrillan. She was my presiding muse as I researched and wrote The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., and still, to think of her reminds me of the sure and steady spark she was.
At first it was only a few words, a snippet or two picked up in a secondary source. Even so, the emotional quality of her writing was evident – and striking as it was often lacking in the stilted, formal and self-conscious material of the 19th century. This was a woman living from, and working on, her soul – whether as a circus rider, a jilted lover, a card-carrying prostitute, a furious, vengeful (then remorseful) memoirist; later, a novelist and playwright who actually did marry the love of her life, Lionel de Chabrillan, to the great distress of his family. I called her most by the name she was born with, Céleste Venard, daughter of a hat maker mother. That’s who she was when she appeared at the Préfecture de Police to be inscribed as a prostitute: “My body was purer than my soul, and I fell,” she later wrote of this event. She threw herself to this fate because she was angry, she confessed in her memoirs, which to me, signaled something interesting about a woman’s choices when she is facing survival under stress. She found the strength to climb out of this abyss, which was rare enough; and went on to be self-reflective about it – even rarer.
If the contours of Celeste Venard’s life resonated first for me, Louise Michel proved stronger medicine. Known as “The Red Virgin” in her day, Michel was a school-mistress, a poet, a self-defined composer, and once she turned revolutionary, popular hero to many and thoroughly vilified by those who spoke for the ruling classes. She was perhaps the most vivid, individually, of a group of women advocating for women’s right to work and other basic civil liberties and social equalities at the time. A notorious public speaker (I wish I could have heard her) Michel was known for her statement that all have the right to eat and drink at the “great banquet of life.” She loved books, insisted on literacy and broad public education; she also armed herself and was prepared to fight to the death at the barricades for the Paris Commune – which did, after some internal struggle, endorse women’s rights. The Commune was inaugurated in March of 1871, at the miserable end of the Franco-Prussian war that was to turn into a civil and class war in France. After a two-month occupation of Paris, most of the Communards were gunned down by French government troops or like Michel, deported. She was granted amnesty in 1880 and now has a Paris Metro stop named after her.
These are two women we rarely hear mentioned during Women’s History Month, but who definitely deserve our consideration.
Guest contributor Carole DeSanti’s widely praised debut novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in hardcover March, 2012 and will be released in paperback on March 26, 2013.
DeSanti has held various positions in the publishing industry and is currently Vice President, Editor at Large at the Penguin Group, where she is known for her championing of diverse new voices and high-quality women’s fiction. Some of her notable acquisitions include National Book Award Finalist Bastard Out Of Carolina by Dorothy Allison; the bestselling Girl’s Guide To Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank; Special Topics In Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; the New York Times bestseller A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness and her highly-anticipated sequel Shadow of Night. DeSanti also works with author Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got her Groove Back, Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl With a Pearl Earring, and Booker-Prize winner Penelope Lively.
DeSanti is known for her pioneering work in bringing gay and lesbian voices to the attention of the publishing industry and the world, and in 2009 received the Publishing Triangle’s Leadership Award for her contributions. DeSanti speaks regularly on writing and creative process and the challenges and opportunities of publishing.
If you’d like to win a copy of The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R., leave a comment here and we will choose two lucky winners at random on April 10!