The Grisette as the Female Bohemian

By Hanna Manchin (’00)

Brown University


The grisette is a central female figure in mid-19th century popular literature, associated with the bohemian subculture of the Latin Quarter.  The figure of the grisette is incompatible with the 19th century bourgeois vision of modernity (public and male) and femininity (domestic and self-sacrificing- or public and fallen woman).  I will explore popular representations of the grisette, the meanings and functions of the grisette in bohemia, and her significance for bourgeois modernity.  Why is it that she does not fit with traditional representations of 19th century women, and what does her difference mean?  I will argue that she should be interpreted from within bohemian subculture, a radical alternative to bourgeois social norms. The grisette can be understood as a cultural critique of bourgeois femininity, and a parallel figure to the bohemian artist.

In stark contrast to the bourgeois ideal, the grisette was portrayed as an independent young woman, living on her own and supporting herself by her own work. She was sexually assertive, quite willing to pursue her own desires, changing her lovers frequently. But even though she rejected the role of respectable bourgeois woman, in popular literature she was not treated as an outcast, but with respect, and she even appeared to be taken seriously as an independent, responsible individual, an equal partner to men.  As a modern urban figure, at home in the public of mid-19th century Paris, the grisette questions the validity of traditional historical accounts that do not allow a place for women in the modern or in the public.

The reason the grisette does not make sense in the context of traditional histories of the 19th century is that historians have often presented the bourgeois ideology of separate spheres as social reality, and accepted it as dominant throughout society, without examining resistance to it.  But Victorian culture was never a unified whole; there was possibility for dissent and the expression of an alternative understanding.  Investigations of popular culture allow us to move out of the world of bourgeois ideological constructions and examine different cultural ideals. Popular culture was much more unstructured, varied, and rich, and provided more freedom for individual expression than what bourgeois cultural representations and representations of bourgeois culture reflect.

Examining popular representations suggests that while women were excluded from the bourgeois vision of the public, they were central to the alternative public of bohemian subculture. And although marginal to bourgeois modernity, they were central in an alternative vision of modernity. This explains why they could be public and modern, and presented as respectable, although completely subversive of bourgeois values and morals.  Her figure suggests that popular culture did not accept bourgeois morality at face value, but questioned it and even ridiculed it. Representations of the grisette also call into question the assumption that the bourgeois ideology of separate spheres successfully permeated all of society.  The grisette problematizes the notion that the artist was constructed as male in the 19th century.  It was not in the original, popular cultural representations, but in bourgeois interpretation and reception that the artist’s identity was constructed as masculine.[1]   The figure of the grisette points to the necessity of exploring the meaning of the alternative modernity created within bohemian culture. Interpreting the social type of the grisette also makes necessary the re-examination of our understanding of bohemian subculture itself.

Introducing the grisette

The grisette was constructed as an explicitly urban, public and modern figure; Janin argues that the grisette simply cannot exist outside of Paris.[2]  But what exactly did contemporaries mean by the word grisette? How, when and why was her identity constructed in popular literature?  The word grisette existed since the late 17th century, but its meaning was modified in the 18th and again made more specific by the mid-19th.   The word “grisette” referred to a cheap dress made out of grayish material that women of the lower classes would wear.  It could also be used to describe the young and poor woman (who presumably wore it).  The 1694 edition of the dictionary of the Académie Française (DAF) described her as being of a “lowly condition.”  Interestingly, she was moved up to “mediocre condition” by the 1798 version.  By the mid-19th century, the context of my study, the meaning of ‘grisette’ came to refer not only to an economically and socially defined group, but more specifically to a culturally constructed image.  Grisette meant a “young working woman who is coquettish and flirtatious.” (D.A.F., 1835) It is in this latter sense, that is, referring to a social stereotype based on character traits and social interactions, as well as to social status, that ‘grisette’ is used in mid-19th century literature.

In the 1850s, Baudelaire suggested that it was Paul de Kock’s account of the grisette in the Nouveau Tableau de Paris, published in 1834, which had made the grisette fashionable. Baudelaire believed that women tried to model themselves after his description.[3]  Many more accounts appeared in the 1840s and ‘50s, all of them similar in their tone and interpretation.  Louis Huart’s Physiologie de la Grisette from 1841, Eugene Sue’s Rigolette in the Mysteries of Paris from 1842, Alfred de Musset’s Mimi Pinson, published in 1845 in Le Diable a Paris, Jules Janin’s La Grisette from Les Français Peints par eux mêmes, Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème from1851, and Fantine and her friends in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, 1862, are the most well-known descriptions of the grisette in the bohemian context. 

All of these writers were involved in some way in discovering and describing popular culture, and many of them also moved freely in bohemian circles. Their accounts offer a consistent picture of the grisette’s character; they depict her as part of bohemian society, but also as a free and independent woman with her own agenda. They present the grisette as young and pretty, usually in her late teens or early twenties, living by herself in Paris, supporting herself by work. The grisette is seen as being happy with little, managing her meager income to keep her apartment and her clothes perfectly neat. She is always charming; pretty, cheerful, intelligent, entertaining, but at the same time independent, original and mischievous. She has remarkably good taste, and an inborn talent for dressing well; she is the highlight of bohemian parties. Grisettes are often described as “charming artists”[4] who are romantic and have “instinctively refined and poetic natures”[5].  According to Janin, the grisette lives on love and romance, and also for Sundays when she can go to the suburbs with her lover.

The grisette is honest and frank in her relationships, and cares little about formalities and customs. In fact she ridicules bourgeois norms and customs and subverts them by redefining them on her own terms.  Grisettes do as they wish, and many of their adventures involve their questioning of social convention and inventing subversive pranks. They are the companions of bohemian men, but sometimes leave them for aristocratic or bourgeois lovers. Bohemians always treat them with respect and are never as fickle as the grisettes themselves. These accounts are sympathetic to the women; the grisettes’ whims and infidelities are presented as understandable and even fair, and they are equal partners to the men in all areas of life. They take part in the same activities together, and are friends as much as they are lovers. The figure of the grisette is modern, urban, and public, and in opposition to the bourgeois ideal of womanhood.

In these accounts, the grisette’s divergence from the bourgeois ideal of womanhood seems to be not only accepted, but even celebrated. Her roles are similar to those of male bohemians. The grisette is clearly a significant figure with ideological importance; but how do we make sense of her opposition to bourgeois culture?  Who was this image constructed for?

The grisette in bohemia

In 19th century literary representations, the grisette is consistently associated with the poor artistic and student subculture of the Latin Quarter; Murger’s Bohemian Life places her specifically at the center of bohemia.  I argue that it is through the subculture of bohemia that we can understand the significance of the grisette.  However, traditional accounts of bohemia give no significant roles to women. 

In Bohemian Paris, Jerrold Seigel limits the role of grisettes to a tool for understanding bourgeois male emotional/sexual needs. For Seigel, the idealized grisette was simply a romantic fantasy, “available, understanding, grateful, outside of bourgeois morality—the perfect answer to the needs of young bourgeois.”  Seigel, like some contemporary writers, believes that such a positive picture was contradictory to reality, where the relationships of grisettes and students/artists rested on “mutual lack of comprehension”, even exploitation.  Seigel fails to address the issues of particularities of the grisette as a character and her prominence in the literature on bohemia.  By limiting the grisette to male fantasy or to a simple working woman oblivious to her lover’s higher realm of ideas, Seigel’s definitions create a bohemia that is essentially male.

In literary representations, the grisette’s role could not have been further from that of a passive provider for the spiritual and physical needs of her men. Rather than being simply the lover of bohemians, the grisette was a central character to bohemian subculture, with a significant cultural role in the bohemian project.  I argue that the grisette is presented as a female bohemian; a transgressive subculture figure, challenging bourgeois modernity and providing an alternative to it.  The bohemian project is crucial to understanding the meaning and role of the grisette. At the same time, examining the grisettes role is crucial for providing a more complete picture of bohemia. My reading of the grisette points to the necessary revision of the traditional representations of bohemia as an all male, artistic space. It also points to the necessity of revising bourgeois visions of women as either respectable domestic creatures or fallen women.

                        Traditional theories of bohemia

The bohemian was the mid-19th century representation of the artist. This stereotype and ideological construction originated in the 1840s, with Murger’s short stories published first in serial format and then as a collection entitled Scènes de La Vie de Bohème.  Murger’s descriptions, which were written partly from his own experience and participation in bohemian culture, made ironic use of the word bohemian, which normally referred to gypsies or other marginal, shifting, displaced urban characters, the refuse of society, people without a respectable profession or social status.  Murger’s point was that these would-be artists of the Latin Quarter were marginal to respectable society, poor, that their social roles and status were ambiguous, and they led a shiftless, day-to-day existence. 

In cultural history[6], bohemia has traditionally been represented as a social space defined by artistic ambitions, pursued by young, slightly eccentric, middle class, male misfits. These romanticized and superficial images of bohemia focus on the care-free, passionate lifestyles of young artists, and their day to day existence, defined by poverty and the idealistic worship of art.  Besides social reality, bohemia has also been recognized as a nostalgic ideal, having no actual place or tangible existence in society. Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, Arthur Barlett Maurice wrote that “bohemia is less a region of definite situation and boundaries than a state of mind, a memory of youth and of the glamour of youth.”[7] Some have understood this to mean that bohemia is not connected to a time and place but is a mindset or phenomenon that reappears throughout modern Western history, from the German Youth movement to the hippies of 1960s America.

There were in fact some historians who examined the original bohemia of mid-19th century France. But most cultural histories of bohemia have been predicated on the assumption that because bohemia was a subjective category with no stable definitions, experienced and remembered differently by participants, it could only be interpreted through the experiences of individuals. Thus most of these works have assumed the form of explorations based on individual biographies, which preclude a systematic analysis of bohemia’s cultural importance. Due to the view of bohemia as a timeless phenomenon and an idealized cultural construction, historians have been unwilling to theorize it, or attribute to it a significant cultural role in society. 

Although Seigel admits that bohemia was a social phenomenon, he downplays its cultural potentials.  He argues that bohemia must be seen (as it was created) within the context of bourgeois modernity; the two “imply, require, and attract each other.”  Bohemia and bourgeois society are the opposite sides of 19th century modernity, and the difference between them is a matter of degrees, not a hostile opposition. Seigel believes that bohemia fulfils an important social function in bourgeois society as a sort of safety valve; it is a space into which young dissenters can retreat temporarily to explore alternatives to bourgeois life. Further, bohemia is important for defining its opposite, bourgeois society. Mainstream society’s ideals and moral ambivalence are taken to their limits in bohemia, probing the margins of bourgeois existence.  He believes that artists’ preoccupation with self-examination and self-development, although appearing in an exaggerated form, are symbolic of widely accepted values of liberal individualism and self-realization. 

Seigel argues that the cultural performance of bohemians restates and mirrors the social realities and tensions underlying bourgeois society. He does not, however, believe that it represents an alternative hypothesis, possibility or an important challenge to authority, with powerful influences directed back at society. Like most other characterizations of bohemia, his definition might be relevant socially, but it offers no systematic analysis of the cultural meanings and functions of bohemia. Bohemia’s role as a coherent and important subculture has not been sufficiently explored by historians.

The significance of bohemian subculture

Bohemia had more important and creative roles in society than Seigel assigns to it. It was a subculture that was public, communicative and performative. The bohemian was an artist of self-creation, of identity.  He imagined and perfected a lifestyle that not only rejected but gave an alternative meaning to bourgeois modernity.  They performed their identity in public, opening up and redefining public spaces.  Their identity represented their opposition to bourgeois society, a criticism of its values and customs, and at times an alternative to it.  Bohemia was centered on the questioning and challenging the authority of bourgeois life and values. Bohemians rejected bourgeois values of moderation, the work ethic, gender roles, and they invented a new version of the modern public.  Representations of the grisette helped to create this alternative modernity, and questioned the authority of bourgeois customs, values and morals.

Bohemia implies a state of constant struggle with severe poverty but also a space of freedom.  Although bohemian subculture was a conscious and active rejection of bourgeois values and the creation of new space, it was also a product of necessity. Young bohemians had no steady livelihood, and often lacked even basic necessities such as food, clothes, and firewood. Although they were poor and of working class background, they aspired to better living conditions; they cannot afford their tastes and lifestyles. They lived in “indulgent poverty” refusing to be circumscribed by their lack of resources.  These young men were not subversive because they were poor and had not the accessories for joining polite society; after all, half of Paris at the time was working class.  Being too poor was not the issue; it was being too poor and still assuming a position in bourgeois society, they were forced to enter it, but also believed that they had a right to participate in it. 

Bohemians were subversive because they imagined and created radical new spaces for performing their public culture, using bourgeois forms ironically to challenge the authority of verbal and behavioral routines, to undermine the authority of words, appearances and social conventions. From their marginal positions they offered transgressive reinterpretions of bourgeois customs, destabilizing the mechanisms of social and verbal intercourse.  Their project was a liberation of expression. Bohemians ridiculed middle class culture, transforming bourgeois customs in a changed context, giving them new meaning.  Their pranks, based on irony and social criticism were consciousness raising and intended to challenge the status quo. Their lifestyles and self-creation produced an alternative concept of the modern city. Popular literature in the mid-19th century presents the grisette as an important part of such a vision of bohemia.

The grisette’s role in bohemia

In popular culture, the figure of the grisette is presented in the context of the Latin Quarter.  I argue she needs to be understood from within the subculture I have just outlined, in which she played an important and integral role. The grisette supports and furthers the bohemian project in different (interconnected) ways, which I will examine. My analysis of her role is divided into four parts: first, the grisette is necessary for creating a complete and coherent subculture. She is presented as the ideological underpinning of bohemia, its driving force and justification. The presence of the grisettes and her approval and appreciation of bohemians legitimated their values and lifestyles. Without grisettes, bohemia does not exist, and when the women leave, bohemia ends.  Secondly, the grisette is presented as a parallel to bohemians, dramatizing the social role, position in society and fate that the bohemian is relegated to in bourgeois society.  Thirdly, both the grisette and the bohemian, occupying the same marginal and transitory social spaces, participate in the bohemian project, which was public, performative and communicative, and was based on subversive reinterpretations of bourgeois customs.  As an actor, through her transgressive behavior, she questions bourgeois norms. She not only takes part in the pranks of bohemians, but invents some rather spectacular ones of her own.  Finally, not only through their direct actions, but through their lifestyles and identities, the grisettes, like male bohemians, offer not only challenge to the bourgeois society, but, more importantly, also an alternative to it. They create and new, subversive modernity by challenging bourgeois notions of the city, public, gender, domesticity, and morality.

1. The grisette’s role in creating a complete subculture

The grisette made bohemian subculture complete and legitimized its project by her approval and appreciation for bohemian men. She made the bohemian community a complete society that was similar enough to bourgeois one so that it could be understood as a direct challenge and parallel alternative.  It was through the grisette’s preference for bohemians over bourgeois men that their alternative value system became legitimate. While respectable bourgeois society looked down on bohemians, and did not consider them real men, the grisette not only saw them as real men, but also appreciated what bourgeois culture scorned in them. She proved that the bohemians were only worthless from the viewpoint of bourgeois morality, that there existed an alternative value system outside of the bourgeois one in which they were vindicated. She rejected those who looked down on bohemians.

Far from playing a subordinate role as the men’s lovers in this literature, grisettes were a determining presence. The grisettes’ influence on the mens’ lives is emphasized throughout the accounts.  In Murger’s stories, the bohemian’s lives are centered around the women. Many of the adventures are about men’s attempts to meet these women, entertain them, or help them.  Bohemians lived for and lived on their love affairs with grisettes, they were unhappy and saw their lives as incomplete without them. In Murger’s stories, the grisettes give bohemians back their youth; (and as we shall see bohemia and youth are closely linked) the grisettes give them inspiration and a reason to pursue their activities in bohemia. 

The grisette was a crucial part of the bohemian art world; she was the artists’ model, but she was also his muse, his audience, his critic, and his patron.  The grisette is often presented, although ironically, as a connoisseur of true art. In Janin’s “La Grisette,” Jenny (the prototypical grisette) hates mediocre art, and (being a model) she refuses to trust her pretty figure to anyone less than a genius: “she has faith only in genius.” She appreciates the artists’ talents and believes in them when no one else does. When the favored artist has no money, Jenny gives him credit gladly and readily. “She herself has done more to encourage art than our last three ministers of the interior combined.”[8]  Although of course this is a joke, in a cultural sense, it is true. The grisette was a necessary counterpoint to bohemian men.  She was for them, as they are for her, an appreciative audience; it was for each other’s amusement that they performed their pranks and that they created their identities. [9]

This is clear at the end of Murger’s Scènes  de la Vie de Bohème, when Marcel and Rodolphe discuss their break with bohemia, they understand their reasons for leaving in terms of their relationship to women.  Before, whatever money they made, they spent it on entertaining or helping their girlfriends; their activities were determined by the whims of the grisettes. But in the end, their relationships ended, and the young men saw no more reason in living such a life.  They were going to pursue their art with the purpose of becoming successful in the market.  “We were not made and brought into the world for the soul purpose of sacrificing ourselves for those commonplace marins [their grisette mistresses]”  “Like the character who, at 20, he can follow his mistress to the Antilles without ceasing to be interesting, at 25 he would have forced her out of doors and would have been right.”

The fact that the grisette was presented as only truly happy with bohemian men can be seen as a justification for bohemians. Although popular accounts emphasize that the grisette also could have bourgeois and aristocratic lovers, it is only to prove that she values the bohemians more. She is attractive to bourgeois and aristocratic men, and she still chooses the bohemians. She “bravely declines” magnificent offers from rich but old or unattractive men.[10]  The grisette despises conventional, boring, foolish men, however rich they might be. She cares more about looks and personality than money, although she likes spending money if she can.  And even if she leaves bohemia for bourgeois men, she is portrayed as being unhappy and longing for bohemian life; in spirit she never breaks from bohemia.  She remains committed to her bohemian lovers, and the bourgeois husband or lover can never understand her completely, because her heart remains with her only true love, the bohemian. As Jules Janin put it, although the grisette can marry and move to comfortable bourgeois quarters, “art still has her.”[11]

Once the women leave bohemia, (Francine and Mimi die and Musette gets married to a bourgeois man) it is over for the men too. The men become depressed and talk only about how they are trying to forget their old lovers.  Marcel throws a bohemian party for his ex-lover Musette, who comes back to spend a week with him in bohemia before getting married. When it ends, both Marcel and Musette realize that their bohemian existence and their youth is over; the party that was supposed to be for her return turns into a farewell party to bohemia. When Francine dies, her lover declares that his “youth is over,” and it is with Mimi’s death that Rodolphe’s break with bohemia becomes complete.  The grisette can thus be seen as an important counterpart as well as a catalyst for bohemia, without her, bohemia loses its purpose as well as its audience.

2. The grisette as cross-dressing dramatization

It is possible to see the grisette as a female version of the bohemian in a direct sense. She is a cross-dressing bohemian; her figure is used to dramatize the relationship of bohemians to society.  The grisette’s position in society was in many ways analogous to that of male bohemians. Their identity and existence was transitory, socially marginal, and their lives were defined by money, and their relationship to the market.  She was depicted as transgressive in the same way that bohemian artists were. Just as the artist’s identity was ironically equated with that of bohemians (gypsies, shiftless social outcasts) to illustrate their position, it can also be identified with grisettes for dramatic effect.

Bohemia functioned as a transitory phase, both temporally and socially.  It was a time of youth that participants would eventually grow out of, and also an ambiguous middle ground between the middle class and lower class which had to be resolved by upward or downward mobility. It is described by Murger as a sort of testing ground, from which young artists launched their careers; “the preface to the Académie, the Hôtel Dieu or the Morgue.”  In Murger’s words, “bohemians are the true called of art, and if they have opportunity, they are also its chosen.”  Waiting and searching for this “opportunity” was the central purpose of bohemia. Young artists could learn to promote their work, in which case they became financially successful and moved out of bohemia, or, if they failed on the market’s terms, it led to financial, and, eventually physical ruin.  Murger argues that bohemians can only survive if they adopt a second (perhaps more cynical) identity that allows them to negotiate the market in their advantage.   They must “learn how to make their natures twofold, to have two different beings in their bodies”, become part artist, part artisan.  This interpretation implies that bohemia is more than a carefree, careless, and transgressive lifestyle, but rather it is a conscious project with the aim of financial success; genuine bohemians “know their goal, and any road is fine if it takes them there.”[12] 

Mirroring the nature of bohemian existence, the grisette was also a young urban type in an impermanent, transitional phase, occupying a liminal position on the fringes of bourgeois society.  Both bohemians and grisettes came from marginal backgrounds and lacked the support or supervision of parents.  Bohemia (youth) was a crucial time and space in which the further course of their lives would be determined.  The grisette’s position was transitory because she was by definition young, usually in her early twenties, unmarried, and pretty.  Over time, like the bohemian, the grisette inevitably fell out of the bohemian circle.  She, like the bohemian artist, had to learn how to negotiate the city to her own advantage in order to succeed and move out of the Latin Quarter and into bourgeois society.  Often coming from the countryside, she had to create an identity for herself that would grant her popularity and access to higher circles in which she could find lovers. For the grisette, ultimate success (the Académie, or establishment status for the bohemian) meant finding a permanent status, that is, an aristocratic or middle class husband, and failure led to prostitution and/or death. 

Neither for the bohemian nor for the grisette was there a truly happy way out of bohemia.  The bohemian’s success, defined as financial independence, success in promoting art in the market, meant a level of giving up ideals, and implied the split/dual character. For the artist, success was a compromise, a sort of selling out, a joining of the other side.  Financial security implied the necessity of adopting a different lifestyle, a transformation of status and identity.  Similarly, for grisettes, marrying a bourgeois man led to financial ease but also implied a giving up of a lifestyle and personal values.  She had to give up the freedom and independence she enjoyed.  She often married out of necessity, not love.  It is repeated in several of the sources that wealthy lovers were necessary for grisettes, for their health, but that they never renounce bohemia, and would gladly return if only their bohemian lovers could support them.  For both the bohemian and the grisette, there remained a nostalgic longing after the utopia of freedom and youth that bohemia symbolized.  

Failure for the artist meant financial ruin, and either illness and death or a new even less respectable occupation. If the artist did not find a well-paying permanent position, he had to resort to taking any work, that is, prostituting his talent.  The grisette also had two alternatives, she could either try to support herself by work, ruining her health, or she could support herself through prostitution, in which case she also became even more of an outcast. 

In La Vie de Boheme, Mimi, left by her aristocratic lover, returned to working. However, she could not live by her work, and, refusing to sell her body; during the long winter, the lack of heat in her apartment and malnourishment made her ill. When she finally asked for help from her bohemian ex-lover and friends, it was already too late to save her.  

Fantine in  Hugo’s Les Miserables illustrates the second alternative, prostitution. Soon after her student lover left the pretty young Fantine, in order to pursue a respectable career in his country home, she discovered that she was pregnant with his child.  Having supported her for over a year, her lover disappeared without warning and refused to answer her letters.  Fantine tried to go back to work, but having lost her business connections, she found it difficult to support herself, let alone her child.  She sold all her luxurious clothes, her furniture, and slept and ate little in order to save money.  However, she was soon deep in debt, and was forced to return to her home town, leaving her child in the custody of a family in the countryside.  After leaving Paris, her situation became even more devastating; work was even more scarce, and her independence was frowned upon. The only valuable thing she had left was her beauty; after she sold her long blond hair, and her front teeth, she lost her pride. She no longer cared about her looks and cleanliness, she gave up trying to dress respectably and was no longer treated as such. She became a prostitute, and died in the end of malnutrition and illness.

The grisette as a prostitute gave up both her own ideology and her social status and respectability.  At the extreme, the prostitute and the failed artist had to market themselves to an audience that they did not themselves respect, to a market in which success meant nothing but shame and survival. But there was a middle ground, and there were many different levels of prostitutes as well as different levels of recognition for artists. Thus, the career of the grisette mirrors the career of the young artist.

3. Challenges to bourgeois values

The grisettes, just like bohemians, were both insiders and outsiders to bourgeois culture. Through pranks and ironic reinterpretations of ideas taken from bourgeois morality, and performed in a subversive, subculture public their behavior and identity challenged authority both willingly and by necessity, and highlighted their opposition to bourgeois values and customs.

Although bohemians were marginal to middle class life, they were also participants in it.  They had connections to bourgeois circles, which were crucial for promoting and selling their art, a central goal for bohemians. They moved in and out of middle and upper class spaces, and by their familiarity with bourgeois customs and propriety and they became insiders.  The grisette, although working class, also gained a certain intimate knowledge of the polite society due to her work. She made luxury articles, usually fashionable and expensive clothing, and she was often portrayed as an insider to the world of fashion, although she herself had no part in its enjoyment.  Working among luxury and living in poverty, the grisette was said to have acquired her ambition through her work.  Through her lovers, who ranged from bohemian artists and students to young aristocrats, her social position was fluid and always changing.  Like bohemians, she also fit in well both in lower class and in aristocratic society.  Murger wrote about Musette that “girl of the people that she was, she would have been in no ways out of her element amid the most royal luxury.”[13]

On the other hand, it is exactly because bohemians and grisettes were in an ambiguous social position that they were able to mock bourgeois customs. Their irreverence for bourgeois norms was partly due to necessity, but it was the meaning that they made of their situation that made them subversive. The bohemians are often described as having no clothes to wear in respectable society; their clothes were always the wrong color or an unfashionable cut. In fact they even lacked warm winter clothes, or had to share among themselves; they often borrowed shoes and jackets from each other, or else they could not go out.  But they did not understand this as shameful, as bourgeois would; rather, they often managed to take the clothes off their bourgeois acquaintances, (either their clients or their admirers) turning their positions around. 

Compared to the carefully dressed bourgeoisie’s meticulously selected outfits, the bohemians seemed irreverent in their lack of concern for proper fashion.  But it is a grisette in de Musset’s Mimi Pinson who presents the most dramatic story of subversive dressing. Mimi had only a single dress, but when her friend fell ill, she pounded her dress to help her. Not even considering just staying at home, she created for herself a costume made of a skirt and curtains, which she managed to make into a shawl. But even in such an outrageous outfit, Mimi remained charming and pretty, more attractive, presumably, than bourgeois ladies, and her student friends soon got her dress back for her.

Bohemians and grisettes often imitated bourgeois customs, transforming the meaning into comedy in process. In one of Murger’s stories, the bohemian group decided to scrap together some money for a party, using whatever they had to create the semblance of a salon in their garret. In their rather formal invitation, however, they made sure to tell guests not to steel the candle stubs at the end. A suspended a canvas frame with candles attached from the ceiling to serve as a chandelier.[14] Guests were astonished to see a fire in the stove; at midnight, however, there was no more wood and it was very cold, so they drew lots to see who should throw his chair into the fire, and by 1, they had burned all of them.

Grisettes were also independent and active in creating their own lives and in performing bohemian subculture; some of the bohemians’ greatest pranks were their inventions. Musette enters Murger’s stories as a friend of one of the bohemians, and the lover of a young councilor of state, who offered her a nicely furnished apartment in a fashionable quarter. She gave parties in her salon every week, which became extremely popular, perhaps because they were rather unconventional. When her affair with the councilor of state ended, she was thrown out of her apartment, and her furniture was moved downstairs, to be pounded. Musette, reluctant to cancel her party, improvised a salon in the courtyard of her building, arranging her rugs and furniture and dressed up to greet her guests. The party turned out to be a huge success, no doubt in part due to its free spirited, subversive message and reinterpretation of bourgeois customs. Grisettes’ re-creations of bourgeois private homes and the rituals transformed the meaning of rigid customs and opened up new creative spaces.

Their marginal social status, between the lower class and the bourgeoisie, allowed bohemians and grisettes to effectively question and ridicule values central to bourgeois society, such as the bourgeois work ethic and the ethic of moderation.  Bohemians ridiculed it not only through their lifestyles and decisions, but through comic performances to each other. [15]  It was not only their poverty, but their irreverence of savings and material possessions that was antithetical to the principle bourgeois value of moderation. It was not just that they had no money, as they occasionally sold some piece of artwork or inherited some from bourgeois relatives; it was a question of how they used that money. To the bourgeois, it seemed easily earned and quickly spent.

If money happened to come their way, they frequented expensive restaurants; sometimes they worked only to spend all their earnings on a single exotic item; Rodolphe, (one of Murger’s bohemians) although cold and hungry, spent all the money he earned writing on white violets for a woman he was in love with but who did not care for him. Bohemians borrowed from anyone who would lend them to spend an evening in style with a respectable lady. The grisettes would blow an inheritance on a prank.  Just as the bourgeoisie used money to define their identities by purchasing the right objects and clothes, and gaining status through accumulating capital, bohemians purchased expensive entertainment while they hardly had food or clothes and showed irreverence for money as a way of defining their identity.  The grisettes were important in this practice of outrageous spending. They both did so themselves and are much of the reason behind the bohemians’ behavior.  The bohemians often spent lavishly to please their current girlfriends, and they threw parties for women. Alfred de Musset wrote in Mimi Pinson that the grisettes are virtuous because they are very thrifty, they are careful with the money they earn.  On the other hand, they it is true that often can be confused as spendthrifts and gourmets, but he assures readers that it is never with their own money that they spend so immoderately. 

In de Musset’s Mimi Pinson, two grisettes, after inheriting a sum of money from a bourgeois relative, decide to go to a theatre. There, some students make their acquaintance and propose to take them to dinner. But when they finally sit down at an expensive restaurant, the students admit that they have no money. The grisettes, paying no heed, order a huge feast. What is more, they only peck at things, complaining constantly about the poor quality, sending things back and making a general fuss. They and prevent the students from even tasting anything. But in the end, when the students go to the restaurateur to negotiate the bill, it turns out that the women had paid in advance. From then on, the grisettes pretend to be aristocratic ladies, and offer the students a ride home in a coach, but the latter are too embarrassed to give out their Latin Quarter addresses.

This incident demonstrates the grisette’s irreverence for money, their rejection of the bourgeois virtue of moderation, and their part in public performances that question social norms. In this prank, the grisettes ridicule the centrality of social status in bourgeois culture and turn power relations on their head, subverting authority.  The students judged the social status of the grisettes by their appearances, and felt confident in interacting with them based on the latter; the students approached the women and asked them to leave the theater with them, already sure of their success in coming to some agreement with these undemanding working women.  Soon, however, the grisettes assumed control; once the students had pretended to want to take them for dinner, the grisettes played along more than willingly, not leaving the students room to retaliate without public humiliation. (Without either appearing to desert their mistresses or admitting that they did not know the women they just sat down at a restaurant with.) The grisettes use bourgeois preoccupation with social status to change the power dynamics in this encounter. Once the women convince the students that they are aristocrats, they turn into active, powerful, intimidating pursuers of the men.  

Also, this story leads us to the examination of the bohemian alternative to bourgeois modernity, raising questions about the activities and roles these women assumed in the public, about male-female relationships in bohemian subculture, and about the relationship of grisettes to the bourgeois ideal of femininity.

4. An alternative modernity

Much of the bohemian alternative rests on the reinterpretation of public and private spheres which were central both to the bourgeois conception of modernity and its creation of gender roles. The home, the private sphere, was represented as a place of decency, morality, naturalness and domestic virtues, while the public was dangerous, polluted and polluting, and artificial, and the space of prostitution.[16]  For bohemians, naturalness was found in public, and in social relations outside of bourgeois constraints and artificiality. It was through the bohemians’ radically different relationship to the public, and through their subversion of gender roles (based on alternatives to domesticity and work) that they created an alternative modernity.

The bohemian public

The cultural context of the bohemian project was, in a larger sense, the modern city, the site of anxieties related to urban modernity, the separation of public and private spheres, development of strict gender roles, and the emerging market and consumer society.  Contemporary views on the city are essential in the new meaning for the urban identities of bohemians and grisettes. Bourgeois society was increasingly retreating into private life and the suburbs. At a time when the middle classes were increasingly moving inward and experiencing the public as impersonal, alien and dangerous, bohemia took over public spaces, transforming and re-creating them into places in which their identity could be performed.  Bohemian lifestyle and bohemian culture were aggressively public, and centered on the exterior.  At a time when the city was seen as a problem, as unreadable, bohemia offered a way of making it readable.  Bohemian life and identity were acted out in the streets, in coffee houses, and taverns, the bohemians took possession of the city.  Art as a way of life was closely connected to the city and performance, a way of re-creating a livable the city.

Bohemians met each other and made friendships, conducted their romances and had parties and gatherings in public. In a society which saw the city as dangerous, meeting people in public, even talking to strangers, was ill advised.  Eating from the same plate with them, let alone inviting them into one’s bed was seen as unthinkable.  The public became a place for bohemians to perform their art—that is, their collective identities.  But their public life was also important for their creation of a subculture of insiders. Moreover, they took possession of the city by making it their own community of friends. Because of their willingness to meet people in public, bohemians were able to create a valuable community which they used as a support network in times of need.    Mimi Pinson has no difficulty getting money for her dress, because she known to be reliable and is trusted by her acquaintances. In Murger’s stories, as well, bohemians are always able to borrow money because they have a vast network of friends, and are known to return the favor as soon as they can. This attitude towards strangers, especially neighbors, that created a community similar to that of an extended family, is exemplified in Eugene Sue’s description of Rigolette. She was very direct and friendly with her neighbors. She entertained them and they took her out, she was always ready to help them out, in turn they also helped her, for example to clean her apartment and wax her floor. Her male friends trusted her to the utmost and depended on her in times of need. She was intelligent and reliable, and willing to make sacrifices to help them.

Bohemians and grisettes lived in the public and saw the public as a source of friendships, romance, and opportunities for promoting their art; the public was their natural community. Bohemians transformed coffee houses and taverns into their personal salons and dining rooms; they often took over such places with their loud presence. They spent all day at cafes, and sometimes even work there. They used cafés as their studio, bringing in nude models of both sexes.  Eugene Sue, describing Rigolette’s attitudes and her undemanding nature, writes that after dinner, she would go strolling on the streets for entertainment.  Bohemians and grisettes or artists went on excursions together to the suburbs; if they had new clothes, they walked along the boulevards to show them off, they had rendezvous on the streets, and their idea of a fun time usually involved “going out.”  Even after prolonged dating and the establishment of a sort of domestic partnership, the public remained the most significant social space for lovers, as it was for friends.  When they were looking for one other, their apartments were the last place they checked. 

The ideal bourgeois form of courtship was completely rejected by bohemians and replaced with a much more spontaneous and free practice.  Bourgeois young women were closely supervised by their parents while receiving visitors, and did so within a narrowly defined and formal setting, mainly within the family home.  Courtship in bohemia, (which was more similar to a modern concept of dating) took place mostly in public. De Musset wrote about grisettes who, as shop assistants, spent all day looking at the crowds passing in front of the shop window.  For him, it seems natural that the grisette, encountering so many different people, changes her lovers frequently. 

Most of the couples in Murger’s stories met each other on the street or at parties or dances, and became intimate soon after that.  The adventures recounted by Engels in a letter to Marx offer a glimpse at these parties, and suggest that such representations were not far from real life in the Latin Quarter. Engels had been trailed by police agents for two weeks, and finally decided to take them partying; “Headquarters will have handed out of late a good many admissions tickets to the Bals Montesquieu, Valentino, Prado and the rest. I am indebted to M. Delessert for an acquaintance with some very lovely grisettes and for much plaisir.” [17]  In popular literature, these same places are mentioned as places frequented by bohemians and grisettes. In Murger’s stories, we encounter young artists trying to come up quickly with pickup lines, and de Musset gives an example of students approaching grisettes at a theater.  There was no need for formal introductions or prolonged periods of courtship, grisettes as well as bohemians were surprisingly frank and open about their desires.   Indeed, one-night adventures were not at all out of the question.

Even the end of the relationship is a public performance, a great prank, as it was in Fantine’s case in Les Misérables.  Fantine and her friends were invited by their lovers on a Sunday excursion to the suburbs, and were promised a surprise at the end. After a wonderfully happy and amusing day, passed walking in the countryside, playing and eating things, they have a feast at a restaurant. Finally the young men leave to get their lovers the surprise, which turns out to be a letter, handed to them by the waiter, telling the women that their affair is over, and that the students must go back to their bourgeois families in the countryside and pursue their careers.  The four grisettes laughed, and agreed that even though it was inconvenient for them, it was nonetheless a good joke, and praised their lovers for their wit and originality. 

Gender roles

Bohemians and grisettes were both marginal to bourgeois gender roles.  Victorian society saw social roles and sexuality as linked to biological sex; those who did not conform to the prescribed social roles were seen as unnatural or unsexed. The ideology of separate spheres mandated the types of work done by men and women, and created gendered space; that is, the public and most activities in the public were masculine, and the private was feminine.  Those who did not share bourgeois values related to work and the family, which were also strictly gendered, became transgressive sexually. Both the bohemian and the grisette questioned the social roles assigned to their sex, and offered a critique of the bourgeois ideal.

Because of their peculiar relationships to domesticity, work, and the public, which were contrary to bourgeois norms, bohemians and grisettes were of ambiguous gender.  Bohemia has been assumed to be a masculine space from which women were excluded.  However, popular cultural representations suggest otherwise; in this section I will examine masculinity and femininity in bohemia, an essentially public space. Gender is crucial in understanding bohemia, and it is also a central point and symbol of its dissent from bourgeois culture. 

Janet Wolff has argued that women are “invisible” in the literature of modernity, because women were symbolically excluded from the 19th century city.  A female version of the flâneur, an essentially modern urban figure, would therefore be unimaginable. The experience of modernity was equated with the experiences of men in the public realm, the male-dominated spaces of the factory, government, finance, and cultural institutions.  Bourgeois women’s geographic separation from the spaces of public was reinforced by the ideology of separate spheres, which was dominant throughout society.  Thus, although lower class- and working women were physically present in public spaces, they became unsexed or masculinized.  Wolff argues that the only female figures associated with the modern were those that were not only marginal but no longer “feminine”: the prostitute, the widow, the old woman, and the murder victim. Wolff argues that women have been excluded from the literature of modernity because modern was equated with public, and proposes a study of women’s experiences of modern in the private realm as well as in the public.

Griselda Pollock has found similar reasons for the absence of female artists from the art historical canon.  Rather than understanding the absence in representation as an indication of the actual absence of active women artists or to their supposed creative inferiority, Pollock argues that women are seen as less creative because of the contradictory notions of “woman” and “artist”.  With the patriarchal bourgoisie’s rise to social dominance by the 1830s, the ideological identities of “woman” and “artist” were constructed as antithetical.  Women’s legitimate roles became limited to those relating to maternal or domestic activities, and outside the family, middle class women were seen as unnatural, and became unwomanly and unsexed. Femininity was a bourgeois virtue, not a natural condition for women, and was easily spoiled by improper social behavior. The artists’ identity, on the other hand, was specifically constructed as both public and anti-domestic and therefore male.  Pollock argues that the bohemian was represented as anti-domestic and therefore identified as masculine, because women could not be anti-domestic and still remain feminine. 

Although historians have argued that the “artist” was a masculine identity and in its ideological construction excluded women, the bohemian artist, as represented in popular culture, was of ambiguous gender, and non-bourgeois women were an important part of bohemian culture.  It is certainly true that the bohemian artist was anti-domestic; but his female counterpart, the grisette, was also described as such. Although women were clearly penalized more harshly for appearing in public or anti-domestic roles, being anti-domestic did not make male artists any more masculine.

Bohemian subculture presented an alternative to the bourgeois ideology of separate spheres, questioned gender roles, and offered alternative visions of masculinity, femininity, and domesticity.  The fact that bohemian men did not conform to the bourgeois ideal of masculinity and were in fact seen as unsexed by mainstream society meant that bohemian subculture rejected a strict gender dichotomy, and offered more freedom for both men and women in constructing their identities and in their individual actions.  The freedom of the grisette from bourgeois femininity was partly made possible by the un-masculine identity of the bohemian men.

The artist was not constructed as masculine in popular literature; in Murger’s text, “poet” and “man” appear to be two antithetical identities of the artist who was successful.  He was both the poet, always dreaming of the lofty peaks unknown whereon the chorus of inspired sings, and the man, the artisan of his own life and able to knead his daily bread.”[18]   In this sense, bohemians, in that transitory space, were not yet men, but were being tested as such.  Paradoxically, they were learning to sell themselves in order to become men.  

In mid-19th century bourgeois culture, manhood was contingent upon social status and role in production, just as femininity depended on the woman’s activities and status more than on her biological sex.  Bohemian men were feminized by their rejection of bourgeois social roles and lifestyles.  Bourgeois society emphasized the values of the work ethic, capital accumulation, and moderation in all aspects of life, as well as the domestic ideal.   Men in bohemia were non-masculine because they did not fulfill the duties for good bourgeois men in being heads of a family and household and earning money to support a family.  Bohemians, unlike good bourgeois men, stayed at home, like bourgeois women, and worked at home, but usually did not work at all.  Because the private sphere came to be seen as feminine, working at home also became a less manly alternative to the dangerous, competitive public. Men’s worth became defined by their ability to produce, and to produce value in the market. In this sense, bohemians are worthless. Bohemian’s feminization is due also to the fact that they are unable to earn the money required to keep their women happy.  The women leave eventually for their health, and say that if only their bohemian lovers had a little more money they would have stayed with them.

Bohemians also had little of the strong will, self-control and rationality required by the bourgeois ideal of masculinity. Their emotional, erratic and undisciplined behavior would have been understood as weakness of character, and consequently associated with femininity.  In fact, the very nature of their pursuit of art, their refined tastes, their creation of aesthetically pleasing objects, and their dream-world existence, was seen as feminine, linked to women’s “duty” to be pleasing and beautiful. Finally, bohemians also often experienced their entry into the market as a prostitution of their talents; they had to offer and sell themselves to people they despised.  Bohemians’ feminization is satirized in the first story in Murger’s book on bohemia. The first bohemian we meet is the painter Marcel, who, because his apartment lacks heat, wears an ex-lover’s beautiful pink starred skirt at home. 

In other words, bohemian men were both seen as feminized because of their rejection of bourgeois customs and social roles, and also adopted and embraced this feminized identity, freeing themselves of cultural constraints.  Because bohemians did not feel the need to assert their masculinity in bourgeois terms, bourgeois femininity lost its purpose for bohemian women. Bohemian men did not see it necessary to assert their authority as heads of households or the only wage-earners, which allowed more freedom for their lovers as well. 

The figure of the grisette can be seen as a critique of bourgeois femininity. In a sense, the grisette is portrayed as a perfectly respectable woman, at least in appearance.  Her home is impeccably clean and tidy, and her decorating reveals refined taste. Her clothes, however cheap, are well made and neat, and her clothes and person are always immaculately clean and fresh.  She loves nice clothes and luxury just like every real woman does, and has an inborn sense of style.  These are superficial similarities, but they nevertheless help to present the grisette as not completely ‘other,’ but rather a reasonably respectable woman—that is, as an alternative to the bourgeois ideal.

The bourgeois ideal of womanhood was based on purity, and purity implied self-denial. It meant a denial of possessing a self, of control and self-determination, and a submission to male control.  A virtuous woman could not attain autonomy or independent selfhood, but was seen as falling “naturally under the domination of father or husband.”[19]  The only self she could have was the self of self-sacrifice.  In Balzac’s words, “woman is man’s equal only when she makes her life a perpetual offering.” Pure women were self-denying, asexual, and refused to take pleasure in sex, in fact, sex itself was a form of sacrifice.[20]  Physical weakness became a signifier of mental or inner purity, and respectable women had to be frail, weak, prone to early death. Their bodies were certainly not for their own enjoyment, but rather as a symbol of their weakness, their need for outside control, and their self-sacrificing nature.

 The grisette was subversive mostly because she was in control of her body and her life. She rejected male authority and was fiercely proud of her independence. The grisette is a coquette, changing her lovers frequently, and leading a public life. She is independent, immodest, and self-interested, in one word, vulgar.  Even more outrageously, she is sexual—she is assertive and enjoys sex, pursuing pleasure and choosing her own partners, often without any other interest than a sensual one. The grisette was presented as being in control of her own body, she was free to seek out and experience sexual and other forms of pleasure (there is a lot of emphasis on her being a gourmand, or at least she eats a lot).   She could sell her body to support herself, but she could also deny her body nourishment if she did not want to become a prostitute and had no way of earning money, finally, she could also decide to dispose of her own body.

Musette, a woman from Murger’s bohemia, for example, was very conscious and proud of her independence. She repeatedly asserted that she was not like other women in her romantic relations, she did not claim to be faithful but she was always honest, and followed her heart. She claimed she would never marry because that would imprison her, and believed that she always had to be free to follow her whims. All of the women believed that they have a right to sexual pleasure and were free to have affairs with whomever they pleased. Some of them were fickle but they were never calculating, and they were not ambitious.

Besides her sexual freedom, the grisette was also economically independent, (or tried to be) and she worked outside of the domestic setting. Respectable women were not supposed to work, not even in the home, let alone outside of it; working meant a loss of virtue and respectability. By working, the bourgeois woman was turned into an immoral, lower class, unfeminine woman. This notion, however, was transformed in the depictions of grisettes. For the poor young woman, working was much more ambiguous.  If a young woman worked, especially if she worked long hours in a shop or at home as a seamstress, her work distinguished her from prostitutes.  That is, it was precisely her work, (which was unacceptable for bourgeois women) which indicated that the grisette was virtuous. Although a single woman could not normally support herself by her wages, working nevertheless implied a certain degree of autonomy, especially as an alternative to prostitution. At the same time, certain types of jobs were associated with prostitution; Corbin argues that salesgirls, barmaids and flower vendors often doubled as prostitutes.  Furthermore, if a young working class woman had to support herself through work, this could also seen as a sign of her failure to attract a lover who would support her. 

Finally, I think it is inaccurate and insufficient to assert that bohemians were anti-domestic. Bohemian men associated not with prostitutes, which would be truly anti-domestic, but with free young women, and they were monogamous (if fickle).  It was not the idea of lasting male-female partnerships, but bourgeois marriage that they criticized.  And, based on their performative lifestyles, they not only rejected bourgeois domesticity but also created an alternative to it.  The bohemian alternative was subversive because it used bourgeois forms and language ironically to describe vastly different realities.

In Murger’s La Vie de Bohème, couples live together all the time. Murger insisted on calling some of their relationships “marriages”, the bohemians themselves refer to their friends “marriages” but not to husbands/wives, their apartments as establishments, and their mistresses as mistresses of the “house”.  They also ridicule the idea of dowries, describing Mimi’s dowry as her 18 years and 6 months, 2 porcelain cups and a cat.

In conclusion, we have seen that both bohemian men and grisettes rejected bourgeois domesticity and gender roles. They did so by their own choices, and also inadvertently, due to their social status and identity.  In bourgeois culture social roles and public and private behavior were so closely connected to gender, any subversive activity questioned gender identity, and domestic inclinations affected social identities.  Gender and sexuality which was non-bourgeois therefore served as a symbol of bohemians’ and grisettes’ rejection of bourgeois society and culture. 

Bourgeois morality

All of these popular representations of the grisette offer a sympathetic view of her.  Contrary to what the bourgeois ideology would imply for non-domestic public women, she is spared characterizations as immoral and abject- or victimized prostitute, or evil temptress and opportunist.  These popular accounts show that bourgeois categories and characterizations of the grisette are just as untrue as they are ridiculous and inappropriate. That is, that bourgeois values and moral standards are inapplicable to the grisette’s situation, because such standards become meaningless on the margins of society. The authors emphasize that she is perfectly happy with the “immoral” life she leads, for it is natural for her, and moreover it is completely understandable in view of her circumstances. And although it is partly her lack of financial resources that force her into the “immoral” behaviors she exhibits, she has her own agenda and is quite self-determining.

This argument, fundamental to all accounts, is articulated explicitly in de Musset’s “Mimi Pinson.”  De Musset ridiculed attempts to judge grisettes by middle class standards, and also attempts to instill in grisettes a (bourgeois) moral sense.  He did not think that they were incorrigible, but simply that it would not benefit them in any way.  The story of Mimi Pinson is framed by an argument between two students. The first student, who was something of a sensation because he disliked grisettes, saw them as “a separate race, dangerous, ingrate, and depraved, born to leave sadness and ruin in exchange for pleasure.” His friend, in turn, tries to convince him of the reasons grisettes should be praised, drawn up in 10 points, pointing out that their good qualities have little to do with bourgeois definitions of virtue, modesty, politeness, dutiful behavior, and the like. (They are virtuous because they spend the day making articles of clothing most indispensable for bourgeois modesty. They are frugal because they are only extravagant with other peoples’ money, not their own. They are never unpleasant, because they have to work all day and can’t run after their lovers’ like respectable women do).  Clearly, these bourgeois categories mean nothing in the context of working class life.  On the other hand, this does not mean that the grisettes are heartless and destructive as the first student believed.  In fact, the sympathetic student laments the fact that grisettes are so moral as they are, because he believes that their virtue leads them to suicide or illness and death.

Popular accounts questioned the universal applicability and benefit of bourgeois values and moral standards. They pointed to the irony in demanding the same customs and formalities in vastly different (and much simpler) circumstances.  Instead, they saw bohemian subculture possessing an alternative system of morality, one that is opposed to mainstream culture, but that remains more admirable because it lends people more freedom and more possibilities for fulfillment. 


I have argued that the grisette challenges traditional accounts of 19th century femininity as domestic, repressed and private, as well as traditional accounts of bohemia as a male artistic identity.  Examining popular cultural texts, it became clear that the dichotomy of public and private, of male and female, and of virtuous and fallen woman were creations of bourgeois ideology, and did not reflect the reality of urban popular culture, which was more varied and allowed for a greater degree of freedom of expression.  The bourgeois ideology of separate spheres remained contested, and there was room for dissent expressed in public on the part of bohemians and grisettes. 

I have argued that, contrary to bourgeois ideology, women did have a place in the modern public, although it is in the subversive, subculture public of bohemia, outside of bourgeois modernity.  Grisettes need to be understood as symbols of resistance to bourgeois morality, and a way of creating an alternative to bourgeois modernity.   Women played not only a subordinate role in a male, artistic bohemia, but rather, they appeared in representations as central and influential participants in this subculture. Furthermore, I have argued that traditional theories of bohemia cannot be complete without understanding the role of the grisette, who gave purpose to- and legitimated that subculture. Bohemian subculture presented a challenge to bourgeois modernity by creating identities and lifestyles that were outside of bourgeois respectability and by publicly performing their disregard for bourgeois values and morality.  Bohemia’s alternative vision of modernity became powerful because it questioned the core of Victorian social system, the belief that social and gender roles were mandated by sexual difference.  Grisettes’ and bohemians’ challenge to bourgeois gender roles lay at the center of their attack on bourgeois society as a whole.

Bohemia was a transitory space, and it was impermanent. Artists, if they became successful, moved out, and grisettes also left it for better or worse; it was a community that always broke up.  By the 1860s and ‘70s, the artists’ identity was no longer symbolized by the bohemian.  Outside of bohemia, the grisette could not exist either; she was dependent on the support and acceptance of bohemians just as they were justified by hers.  The relationship of the artist to mainstream society changed, and was no longer compatible with a performative, communicative public that bohemia presented. The grisette’s challenge to bourgeois norms, to authority and her subversive pranks were no longer possible outside of the community that bohemian subculture offered.

By the end of the 19th century, the image of the bohemian entered mainstream culture. Bohemian culture became appropriated by bourgeois society, and the superficial aspects of bohemian identity were assumed by the middle classes. The Latin Quarter became a fashionable place to live, and the rising rents eventually drove out the original bohemians. Bourgeois young men adopted this romantic, living-by-the-day lifestyle as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction with bourgeois social roles.  But there were no bourgeois women who moved into the Latin Quarter. In the end, the character of the grisette was not absorbed by bourgeois culture, she did not become part of the mainstream, in the way that the image of male bohemians did.  She did not challenge mainstream culture’s notions of the artist/creator as male, but remained radical.


Primary Sources:

Alhoy, Maurice. “Physiologie de la Lorette” (originally Paris: Aubert et Cie, 1841.)

Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life, and other essays. London: Phaidon Press, 1995.

Huart, Louis. “Physiologie de la Grisette  (originally Paris: Aubert et Cie, 1841.)

Hugo, Victor, Les Misérables, (originally published in 1861.) New York, NY: Random House, 1992.

Janin, Jules. “La Grisette from Les Français Peints par eux mêmes. Paris: L. Curmer, 1840-42.   (Also relevant are “La femme sans nom” “ La Ménagère Parisienne” “La Lionne” “Le Bas-Bleu” and “L’élève du conservatoire” from the same collection.)

Murger, Henry.  Scènes de la vie de Bohème, (originally published in 1851.) Paris: Calmann-Levy, no date.

de Musset, Alfred.  “Mimi Pinson” published in Le Diable a Paris  Paris: J. Hetzel, 1845-46.

Sue, Eugene. The Mysteries of Paris (originally published in 1842) Philadelphia: Henry Coates & Co. no date.

Secondary Sources:

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1999.

Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Gluck, Mary. “Theorizing the Cultural Roots of the Bohemian Artist”.  Modernism/modernity. Vol. 7, No. 3. pp351-378.

Jervis, John. Exploring the modern: patterns of Western culture and civilization. Oxford; Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Parsons, Deborah L. Streetwalking the Metropolis. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Pollock, Griselda. Vision and difference: femininity, feminism, and histories of art. London; New York, NY: Routledge, 1988.

Richardson, Joanna. The Bohemians. New York, NY: A.S. Barnes & Co, 1969.

Seigel, Jerrold. Bohemian Paris. New York, NY: Viking/ Penguin, 1986.

Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man. New York: Knopf, 1977.

Wolff, Janet. “  The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity.” In Problems of Modernity. Ed. Andrew Benjamin. London; New York: Routledge, 1989. 

“The artist and the flâneur: Rodin, Rilke and Gwen John in Paris. In The Flâneur. Ed. Keith Tester. London ; New York : Routledge, 1994.

According to the Victorian ideal women were supposed to be weak and fragile, irrational, emotional and childish, not fit for intellectual exertion or work outside the home, needing the protection and guidance of men. At the same time they were also seen as spiritual, moral, asexual, and self-sacrificing angels of the hearth. The only acceptable roles for bourgeois women were those of mother and wife, creating a home which offered a haven for men from the horrors of the competitive, immoral, dangerous public sphere of work, a home in which children were educated to be good Christians and responsible, moral bourgeois.  Women who rejected confinement to the private and domestic realm and entered the public became either masculinized, or became “public women” that is, prostitutes. Dijkstra agrees that (at least by the end of the 19th century) artists as well as scientists seemed to believe that a woman who rejected the domesticity stereotype had “inevitably regressed to the bestial, and was represented in the art of the time as a true ‘idol of perversity’ a ‘snake-encircled, medusa-headed flower of evil.”[21] 

[1] The grisette’s presence in the public realm and her experience of modernity both reinforce Wolff’s argument about the gender of modernity and complicate it.  The grisette is clearly not a middle class, but marginal.  At the same time, she is both respectable and transgressive. She is somewhere in between working class and middle class, but is also outside the social hierarchy because she has no fixed place in it. Her identity is public, and linked to the modern urban environment.  This identity had considerably more mobility and a wider range of interpretations than Baudelaire’s vision of women in modernity as discussed by Wolff.  That such a representation of this female type was even possible suggests that women’s roles in public were more varied, but the fact that she was radical and transgressive point to the limits of acceptable roles for women.

[2] Janin, “La Grisette” p 54

[3] Baudelaire, Charles. “Some French Caricaturists” in The Painter of Modern Life, and other essays. p 183.

[4] Janin, “La Grisette” p 46

[5] Murger, p 227

[6] Bohemia has also been theorized in economic or artistic terms. Gluck argues that theories of bohemia have been distorted by focus on its social and economic roles. Gene Bell Villada sees bohemia as the roots of a modern theory of art, the original conception of art for art’s sake. Connected to this same idea, but reaching opposite conclusions, Pierre Bourdieu sees bohemia as a social space in which art first came to be seen as a commodity, where artists first had to learn to integrate themselves into the market. But bohemia emerged in a specific cultural and social context, and played important functions; its cultural significance needs to be examined.

Maurice, Arthur Bartlett. The Paris of the Novelists. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1919. p 107

[8] Janin. “La Grisette” p 45

[9] Of course, it is true that bourgeois readers or viewers of the play also find bohemians’ pranks and lifestyles appealing as stories. But this is only the case when after these pranks become anecdotes; in their original versions, the jokes were usually on the bourgeois and authority figures, and it was only the grisettes and the bohemians who appreciated them.

[10] Murger, p 350

[11] Janin. La Grisette p 45

[12] Murger, preface, xiii

[13] Murger, p 348

[14] Murger, 97

[15] “Rodolphe assumed a theatrical attitude and with great solemnity of gesture and voice said to the artist, hark ye, Marcel…I have sworn to use [some money he inherited] to acquire by hard work an honorable position for a virtuous man.  Work is the most sacred of duties.” “Bah, and the horse the noblest of animals…what does this harangue mean, where did you get this prosy stuff? From the quarries of the school of common sense, eh?” “I propose to go to work in earnest, I shall set myself right in public opinion, in the first place I renounce bohemia, I shall dress like other people, I shall have a black coat, and I shall frequent the salons.” (115-117) Soon after this they proceed to spend all the money, not neglecting in the process to mock the idea of time thrift. They dine at outrageously expensive restaurants because it saves them a few minutes of walking--time better spent working.

[16] Jervis. p 119

[17] Benjamin. Arcades Project. p 507 

[18] Murger, p xviii

[19] Jervis 112

[20] Jervis 116

[21] Jervis, 115