Women: Muse or Grisette?

Main Page

















 Trilby poses for Taffy, the Laird, and Little Billee in this illustration by George du Maurier in his novel Trilby. Modelling was considered one of the most immoral careers a woman could have.

Bohemia was a man's world, a world from which women are conspicuously absent. The few women who do exist in the historic record and in artistic depictions are always defined by their relationships with men. Because schools were not open to women and careers such as art and writing excluded all but a few talented upper-class women like George Sand, women who desired a Bohemian life had to be content with defining themselves in relation to the men in their lives.

Two kinds of women are associated with Bohemian life: the grisettes and the lorettes. The grisettes were working-class women who had occupations such as sewing; the lorettes were "characterized by showy appearance and lack of an occupation . . . supported entirely by lovers" (Groos and Parker, 68). Often, the two sorts of women were quite removed from each other, except on some specific occasions, such as masked balls (Easton 101).

Grisettes, like Fantine in Les Miserables, were little better than prostitutes. Hugo wrote that the "streets of the Latin Quarter ... swarm with students and grisettes." In Sand's novel Horace, the title character disdainfully calls them "two-week bedmates" (19). This fleeting quality of the relationships between bohemians and grisettes was true in history as well; the artist Courbet declared that if he came across a woman with one good quality, he'd enjoy it today, then find another with a different quality to enjoy tomorrow (Easton 123).

Alfred Musett's work shows the similar disdain for the grisette. Easton describe's Musette's women: "The grisette herself is the very personification of idlesness, and, though she is easily amused and this gaiety is a gift of the gods, the author makes no excuses for the aimless course along which she is content to drift. And yet she has her moments of heroism, of remorse, and good intent, before death overtakes her. In spite of her vanity and idleness, she has cherished her lover and been faithful to him." (Easton 94.) Despite the fact that this was not written about Fantine, the description fits her well.

In Bohemian life, women performed several functions. To many artists, they were muses, sources of inspiration and of fleeting pleasure when the stress of being a poor artist was too much to bear. Some were models for the Bohemian's artworks. Modelling has always been respectable for men, for women it was regarded as the lowest legal occupation. A woman would rather be declared anything but a model. In contrast, in the 18th century, a male model of the Academy wore a uniform and carried a sword. (Easton 102.)

Other women were housekeepers for the bohemians, or employees of the cafes that they frequented. In Les Miserables, Hugo writes of the members of the Societe de l'ABC in the Cafe Musain:

"No woman was admitted into this back room, except Louison, the dish-washer of the cafe, who passed through it from time to time to go to the 'laboratory.'" (576)

Louison, taunted for her mispronunciation and not permitted to have any part in the ABC's revolutionary activities, acts as a foil to daring grisette Eponine, who gives her life to the revolution.

Whether grisette or lorette, housekeeper or model, the women of Bohemia faced abundant criticism from their male counterparts. When Henry Murger rode in a carriage with Anna Thuillier, an actress in the stage adaptation of Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, he commented: 'Ah, you don't know what it is to find yourself sitting for the first time next to a woman who smells nice!" (Easton 126.)