demimondaine n : a woman whose sexual promiscuity places her outside respectable society
a woman of the demimonde
- Russian: дама полусвета
Demimonde was a polite 19th century term that was often used the same way we use the term "mistress" today. In the 19th century it primarily referred to a class of women on the fringes of respectable society supported by wealthy lovers (usually each had several). The term is also used to refer to these women as a group, and the social circles they moved in. As a group, the demimonde did not form a 'society' any more than modern prostitutes form a society. But they did represent a social class of women in the latter half of the 19th century and into the early 20th century who were commonplace fixtures in the upper class of French, English and, to some extent, American society. In the United States and Britain, they were (and still are) also often referred to as courtesans, though that term in the 19th century applied to a profession (as the term "prostitute" describes a profession), whereas Demimonde/Demimondaine was used to describe a broader social class. The term is French, and means literally "half-world", implying those women existed on the fringes of the "real world."
Fictional demimondeDescriptions of the demimonde can be found in Vanity Fair, a novel which satirizes 19th century society written by William Makepeace Thackeray. Although it does not mention the terms 'demimonde' and 'demimondaine' (they were coined later), the terms were later used by reviewers and other authors in reference to three characters in it. Lady Crackenbury and Mrs. Washington White are demimonde characters, both of whom Captain Rawdon Crawley lusts after in his younger days. Becky Sharp is perceived as a demimondaine before she presents in court, and then becomes one when she travels through Europe after her husband abandons her. Colette's Gigi also describes the demimonde and their lifestyle. Gigi is schooled from childhood to be a kept woman, to stifle her feelings in return for a life of ease. "We never marry in our family", says Gigi's mother. But Gigi finds herself a misfit in the demimonde of Paris in the 'Gay Nineties', as she desires true romance with Gaston.
Real demimondeExternally, the defining aspects of the demimonde were an extravagant lifestyle of fine food and clothes, easily surpassing that of most other wealthy women of their day, because of the steady income they made in cash and gifts from their various lovers. Internally, their lifestyle was an eclectic mixture of sharp business acumen, social skills, and hedonism. Smart demimondaine, like the fictional Gigi's grandmother, invested their wealth for the day when their beauty would fade. Others ended up penniless and starving when age finally took its toll on their beauty, unless they managed to marry one of their lovers.
The most famous real-life demimonde was arguably Cora Pearl. During her life, she was the acknowledged Queen of the Paris courtesans. Her lovers, all wealthy noblemen, she called her 'chain of gold' - and included such notables as the Duc de Rivoli and even (she claimed) Prince Napoleon. Cora was so successful that she literally made and spent millions of francs during her life. But she was not a simple hedonist - during the Siege of Paris, she turned her mansion into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Cora's memoirs were discovered in 1982 in the hands of a German collector, and released by Granada Publishing Ltd in 1983, under the title The Memoirs of Cora Pearl: The Erotic Reminiscences of a Flamboyant 19th Century Courtesan. Her memoirs are, as the title declares, erotic reminiscences where she discusses in the most graphic detail the sexual prowess and tastes of her lovers, both famous and humble. Possibly the most titillating (and telling) scene describes her presentation at dinner, naked and decked in cream, as a final dish.
DeclineAs the 20th century dawned, evolving social mores regarding women's place in society (particularly the suffragette and flapper movements) caused the demimonde to fade. The term then became commonly used to refer to the class of 'starving artists' — painters, authors, poets and other bohemian or quasi-bohemian types — who were marginalized by their failure to achieve, or rejection of, material success.
Other uses of the term in fiction
In Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, the "demimonde" refers to a semi-tolerated, "off the net" society of commerce and education.
- The Memoirs of Cora Pearl: The Erotic Reminiscences of a Flamboyant 19th Century Courtesan edited by William Blatchford (1983). London; New York: Granada. ISBN 0-246-11915-2.
- Courtesans : Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman (2003). New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-06-620955-2.
demimondaine in German: Halbwelt
demimondaine in French: Demi-mondaine
demimondaine in Russian: Полусвет (общество)
demimondaine in Slovenian: Demimondke
demimondaine in Swedish: Demimonde