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Memoirs of a cocodette written by herself by Ernest Feydeau

January 24, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même by Ernest Feydeau (Published in 1878) I don’t think it’s available in English.

Feydeau_cocodetteIt’s better to read this billet after reading the one about images of prostitution in Paris from 1850 to 1910. It’s here. I have bought Souvenirs d’une cocodette, écrits par elle-même at the bookshop of the Orsay museum. It caught my attention because the blurb mentioned that Flaubert wrote that it was tellement lubrique et indécent qu’aucun éditeur n’a consenti à le prendre” (“it was so lecherous and indecent that no publisher agreed to take it”). What could be shocking enough to shock Flaubert? I had to know.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Ernest Feydeau (1821-1873) before. He was a stockbroker and a writer and he combined his two jobs in a book about his experience at the Paris stock exchange. Apparently he inspired Zola for L’Argent. He was also the father of the playwright Georges Feydeau. His second wife was a former courtesan and she wasn’t faithful to him. The rumor says that Georges’s real father might be the duc de Morny or even Napoléon III. These biographical tidbits are important because it shows that Ernest Feydeau knew the world he was writing about in Souvenirs d’une cocodette and even if his character is fictional, there’s a good chance that her story rang true to his contemporaries.

Souvenirs d’une cocodette are the fake memoirs of Aimée. She’s ageing and she relates how she was raised by a beloved but weak father and a beautiful but unfaithful mother. Her mother didn’t like Aimée growing up and becoming beautiful. She saw her as a threat and she eventually put her away in a convent.

After her years at the convent, Aimée gets married to the baron de C*** an older man who wanted her for her beauty. It is not a love match. He married her to possess a beautiful object and started playing dolls with her. He was fond of seeing her in gorgeous gowns and jewels. She started to spend a lot of money on her appearance and became the darling of the high society. She was admired, admitted to the best circles and launched fashion. She breathed fashion and had a lot of fun parading in new clothes. I guess that today we would call a cocodette a fashionista. Life was frivolous but sweet.

Unfortunately, her husband is not as rich as he pretended to be and all this spending led them to ruin. When Aimée realizes in what predicament she finds herself into, a woman comes to rescue her. She’s supposedly the baroness of Couradilles and she acts as the middleman between women who are willing to sell their charms against money. She says that a certain gentleman would be more than happy to pay for Aimée’s body and suggests that she gives herself away against the settlement of her debts.

What I wrote is PG-rated. The text is not so polite and soft. Let’s say that Aimée describes her sexual initiation with lots of candor. First lesbian experiences at the convent in study hall and then experiences with men. The men in her world are perverse. Affairs are common, sexual favors too. Her husband sounds a bit deviant and demanding; her lover as well. Everyone in Aimée’s surroundings is rather toxic, except maybe her father. He’s just turning his head the other way to avoid acknowledging his wife’s affairs. (Something that Ernest Feydeau seems to have done too. He, whose middle name was…Aimé)

I understand why the Orsay museum put this book on display. It illustrates perfectly the theme of the exhibit. It shows how sex and prostitution had infiltrated society. Ernest Feydeau describes a society where sex is a commodity, where appearances matter so much that keeping them was worth a lot of sacrifices. Aimée speaks according to the codes this exhibit helped to decipher. She writes in an honest tone, taking Rousseau’s confessions as a model. Feydeau tries not to be judgmental but Aimée’s statements are rather condemning:

Je ne veux point me donner le ridicule de faire le procès à la société, qui, vraisemblablement, ainsi que le disait mon père, ne vaut ni plus ni moins que celle qui l’a précédée sur la scène du monde ; mais je ne puis cependant m’empêcher de remarquer que c’est à qui, dans les salons, poussera les malheureuses jeunes femmes, de toutes ses forces, à se mal conduire. En y réfléchissant aujourd’hui, je ne me sens même point aujourd’hui aussi coupable qu’on le pourrait croire. Combien de femmes j’ai connues, mariées comme moi, mères, qui se sont vues un jour contraintes de se vendre, pour apaiser des créanciers impitoyables, et qui n’eurent même pas l’idée, comme moi, de racheter ce qu’il y avait de rachetable dans leur action, en sauvant leur mari de la ruine, sans qu’il pût soupçonner le moyen pour cela, le laissant honnête homme et considéré, et prenant le supplice et la honte pour elle.

I don’t want to be ridiculous and put society on trial; as my father used to say, it’s probably not better or worse than the one that preceded it on the world’s scene. But I can’t help noticing that there’s a tendency to push unfortunate young women to misbehave. With hindsight, I don’t feel as guilty as you’d think. How many women did I know, married like me, mothers, who had to sell themselves to appease merciless creditors and who didn’t even have the idea, like me, to find a way to make amends and see what was redeemable in their action by saving their husband from ruin, without his knowing the means to it, leaving him honest and respected and keeping the agony and the shame for themselves.


(my translation, clumsy I know but Feydeau’s prose is a bit bombastic)

She sounds like her actions are rather common. Aimée also picture life from a woman’s point of view: someone who’s always at the mercy of men. She goes from obeying to her father to obeying to her husband to putting herself under the orders of her lover. With hindsight, Aimée states:

Je le répète, je n’ai eu, dans toute ma vie, qu’une seule et véritable passion, celle de la toilette. Passion qui n’est point du tout inoffensive, car elle coûte cher.

Heureusement que je ne manque pas des moyens nécessaires pour la satisfaire sans me voir obligée de subir encore les manies des hommes : je suis riche. Je suis veuve. Je n’ai pas d’enfants.

I repeat myself, I only had one true passion in my life : clothes. A passion that is not inoffensive at all because it is expensive.

Fortunately, I have the means to satisfy it without bending over backwards to the odd habits of men. I’m rich. I’m a widow. I don’t have any children.

This reminded me of Notre Coeur by Maupassant. Madame de Burne has no desire to remarry. It would mean losing her freedom.  Although it is said in a candid tone, Souvenirs d’une cocodette is also description of women’s fate in the high society. They have no other perspective than landing a rich husband or a rich lover if the rich husband fails them.

It’s an entertaining read but when you start digging and thinking about what it really means, the picture of the society of the Second Empire isn’t pretty. On top of the explicit sex talk, it’s offensive for the high society of the time. No wonder Flaubert saw it as subversive and that it was only published after Feydeau’s death.

PS: One word about the book cover. ‘Why the hen?’, you might think. In French, a cocotte is a tart, according to the dictionary but it’s also a colloquial way to call a hen.

  1. January 24, 2016 at 11:37 pm

    I don’t know if I would like this book. The plot seems a bit simple, no? What might attract me is the description of all the sexual acts Aimée performs. Might be interesting to see what was tolerable to write about at the time.


    • January 25, 2016 at 9:46 pm

      It’s somewhere between Point de lendemain and Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées.
      He’s not a great stylist but it’s worth reading as a testimony of the times. (plus it’s like 130 pages long)

      Otherwise, it’s not Histoire d’O, so don’t expect too many details. It goes further than what Flaubert wrote in Madame Bovary. There was a “red room” at the exhibit with pictures that circulated among men and they were as explicit as something one could find now.


  2. January 25, 2016 at 12:08 am

    I’m thinking of Zola’s The Kill–that’s due to the woman who arranges the liaisons. BUT I really loved The Kill, and this one sounds well.. a bit like the sordid Adventures of Fanny Hill.


    • January 25, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      Zola is definitely a better writer. I thought more about Valerie in La cousine Bette.

      I had to look up the Fanny Hill reference and I can see the connection.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. January 25, 2016 at 7:16 am

    Excellent review. It makes me want to take a trip back in time through this work of writing. As I always I enjoy your insights and translations.


    • January 25, 2016 at 9:51 pm

      Thanks. Good for you, you can read the original!


  4. January 25, 2016 at 7:32 am

    Well I’m bilingual, with anglophone parents. I studied French Literature at Cornell University which was really just the beginning of a life filled with exploration of world literature. What I like about the 19th century novels – Russian, French, British – is the incredible descriptions of the times. The psychological portraits found in Dostoyevski’s works. The style indirect libre of Flaubert. Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine. The world as seen through the eyes of Henry James. Today’s novels are completely different, as are the times. Television, film, radio, online video have displaced the art of long, descriptive novels that paint a picture in the mind rather than providing a visual on screen or the audio waves so often accompanied by special sound effects or music.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 25, 2016 at 10:03 pm

      When you say you’re bilingual, does it mean that one of your parents speaks French or that your French is as good as a native’s from learning it in school?

      How do you fare with French poetry?
      I’m asking because I’ve just read poems by Keats and honestly, for me, it’s very difficult to understand poetry in English. Of course, the fact that the most advanced English classes I’ve taken required that I translate stuff from The Financial Times doesn’t help much with poetry.

      Regarding 19thC literature.
      I don’t know if they wanted to show the world with their writing and whether they needed lengthy descriptions to help people visualise things they’d never seen. There were a lot of magazines. I’ve seen an exhibit at the Orsay museum about fashion in the Impressionist paintings and they also showed fashion magazines. They were amazing, very detailed. There were also newspapers, almanach full of drawings.
      There was no TV but there were other sources of visuals.

      That’s maybe my education in translating FT articles speaking now, but I think there are pages and pages of descriptions for purely economical reasons. These novels were published in feuilletons and the longer they lasted, the longer the writer got paid. 🙂 (plus you had the triple-decker books in England. They had to fill 3 volumes…)


  5. January 25, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    Given that it won’t shock today, it sounds possibly a little slight. I also wondered if it was perhaps intended in part to titillate.

    Gunnar, oddly enough I was just talking the other day about how the 19th Century novel often aims to paint a mental picture of places the reader likely won’t have seen; while the contemporary novel can make a much surer bet that the reader may well have seen the place described either in person or on tv or film. There has been a noticeable resulting change in how description is handled in the novel since the 19thC.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 25, 2016 at 10:08 pm

      It’s not a major work of literature but it was interesting.
      It was never published while Feydeau was alive. Too explicit, I guess he wasn’t looking forward to the scandal.

      About 19thC literature. See my answer to Gunnar.
      I’m not convinced by the argument of creating mental pictures of places the reader had never seen.

      I’ll add two arguments:
      1) the readers were of upper classes and they had seen similar places
      2) Hemingway wrote in his “simple” style before TV entered our lives. For me it’s just a literary current of the times.


      • January 26, 2016 at 6:19 pm

        You make a good argument I admit. I’d say the readers also included the middle classes, who tended not to have left their country (hence all the popular seaside resorts), but noted re Hemingway.


  6. N@ncy
    January 25, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    Great review! Reminded me of Zola’s Nana: You have the cocodettes who wore a mask of respectability and virture which concealed their vices.
    The cocottes were the next level. The mask is off!
    The lionnes were well established courtisanes who lived in extreme luxury in their own ‘hôtel particulier’. I think if this is book is too ‘bleu’ for Flaubert….then I will just enjoy your review of the book!


    • January 26, 2016 at 2:29 pm

      I don’t think it compares to Nana. I think Balzac is more accurate.
      It’s really in the middle between Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées and Valérie in La cousine Bette in a libertine style like Point de lendemain by Vivant Denon.

      Liked by 1 person

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