Courtesans, Prostitutes and Streetwalkers

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality




In the 19th century, during the time of Hugo's Les Miserables, the differing categories of prostitutes were subject to varying degrees of social response, as well as distinctive depictions in both the art and literature of the day.


Fantine frontispiece, from illustrated edition of Les Miserables, Lynd Ward, c.1935

In the above image, we see Fantine clutching her child close to her chest, with all the possessions she has in the world. Fantine's face is turned down to the ground, suggesting a sense of despair. She is projected in a costive, sympathetic light, with light shining down on her from above. The image brings to mind Michelangelo's La Pieta {Madonna and child}. Fantine is walking away from civilization, which is covered with a dark cloud. She finds herself ostracized from society because she is unmarried and disgraced. The father of the baby, Tholomyes, is nowhere in sight--Fantine is abandoned and alone. Soon, she will find herself forced into prostitution, and a sympathetic portrayal of a figure so frequently excluded from society. There were hundreds of women just like Fantine in 19th century Parisian society.

The use of this image, from the 1935 edition of the novel, proves that the image of Fantine as a woman fallen from grace and more importantly, a sympathetic character. This particular representation is true to Fantine's character, and how Hugo felt about Fantine.

Many women just like Fantine were forced to walk the streets or work in brothels because they simply had no other choice. It is important to remember, however, that there were as many varying categories of prostitutes as there were social classes in Paris at the time. At the opposite end of the spectrum were courtesans, who were kept mistresses of the bourgeoisie and nobility, and often chose this particular lifestyle for its relative freedom and assured luxury. Though these women found themselves in a direct contrast, they were both subject to societal response via artistry. While the lower classes of registered and unregistered prostitutes found themselves regulated by the government and law enforcement, courtesans were virtually ignored by those in the government, who basically turned a blind eye to their existence. Double standard? You be the judge.


Ever wondered what it was like to be a prostitute or courtesan in Paris in the 19th century? (Admit it, you've thought about it.) In the following pages, you will get a behind the scenes look at the lifestyles of three distinctly different classes of prostitutes, through the eyes of the law, artists and writers.