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Demi-monde is French for "half-world". The term derives from a play called Le Demi-Monde, by Alexandre Dumas fils, published in 1855. The play dealt with the way that prostitution at that time threatened the institution of marriage. The demi-monde was the world occupied by elite men and the women who entertained them and whom they kept, the pleasure-loving and dangerous world Dumas immortalized in the 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias and its many adaptations. Demimondaine became a synonym for a courtesan or a prostitute who moved in these circles—or for a woman of social standing with the power to thumb her nose at convention and throw herself into the hedonistic nightlife. A woman who made that choice would soon find her social status lost, as she became "déclassée". The 1958 film Gigi, based on a 1944 novella by Colette, vividly portrays the world of the demimonde near the end of its existence. Gigi's Aunt Alicia, a legendary courtesan now enjoying a wealthy retirement, trains her teenage niece in elegant manners and deportment and the value of jewels and tries to stir her interest in fashion, in order to prepare her for life in the demimonde, pleasing the gentlemen who will provide her with the means to live beautifully—or miserably.
For the men, the high life of the demimonde was isolated from the other world of wives and families and duties (if any). It embraced heavy drinking, drug use, gambling, attending the theatre and ballet and horse races, the pursuit of high fashion in every aspect of life—and, of course, sexual promiscuity. Lavish spending led to indebtedness, the promiscuity led to disease.
The twentieth century brought the rise of the New Woman, changing economies and social structures, as well as changing fashions and social mores, particularly in the aftermath of World War I. Prostitution and the keeping of mistresses did not disappear, but the label demimondaine became obsolete as the half-world changed.
Women called demimondaine
Externally, the defining aspects of the demimonde were an extravagant lifestyle of fine food and clothes, often surpassing that of other wealthy women of their day with a steady income of cash and gifts from their various lovers. Internally, their lifestyle was an eclectic mixture of sharp business acumen, social skills, and hedonism. Intelligent demimondaines, like the fictional Gigi's grandmother, would invest their wealth for the day when their beauty faded. Others ended up penniless and starving when age took its toll on their beauty, unless they managed to marry.
A famous beauty was Virginia Oldoini, Countess di Castiglione, who came to Paris in the 1850s with very little money of her own and soon became mistress of Napoleon III; after that relationship ended she moved on to other wealthy men in government, finance and European royalty. She was one of the most aristocratic and exclusive of the demimondaines—reputed to have charged a member of the British aristocracy one million francs for 12 hours in her company.
Another woman who doubtless influenced later images of the demimondaine was the dancer and adventuress Lola Montez, though she died before the term came into general use.
The actress Sarah Bernhardt was the illegitimate child of a courtesan; in her day all actresses were generally considered demimondaines. Her many lovers and extravagant lifestyle fit the type, though her genuine successes as an artist and innovator eventually gained her a kind of public esteem most demimondaines never achieved.
Descriptions of the demimonde can be found in Vanity Fair (1848), a novel which satirizes nineteenth 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 is presented at court, and then becomes one when she travels through Europe after her husband abandons her.
Possibly the most famous portrayal of the demimonde, albeit from before the word was coined, is in Verdi's opera La traviata (1853). The opera, in turn, was inspired by Alexandre Dumas the younger's La Dame aux Camélias; Marguerite Gautier, the heroine of the book and subsequent play, was based on Marie Duplessis, 1840s Paris courtesan and mistress to a number of prominent men, including Dumas. She would be famously represented on stage by the aforementioned Sarah Bernhardt.
In writing his 1924 play Easy Virtue, Noël Coward stated his object was to present a comedy in the structure of a tragedy "to compare the déclassée woman of to-day with the more flamboyant demi-mondaine of the 1890s."
Colette's Gigi (1944) 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 grand-mother. But Gigi finds herself a misfit in the demimonde of Paris in the 'Gay Nineties', as she desires true love with only one man.
In A Little Night Music (1973, Stephen Sondheim), the main female character, Desiree Armfeldt, is an actress whose mother, Madame Leonora Armfeldt, sings a song, Liaisons, which describes the material benefits of being a serially kept woman. For example, "At the villa of the Baron De Signac, Where I spent a somewhat infamous year, At the villa of the Baron De Signac—I had ladies in attendance—Fire-opal pendants." And: "At the palace of the Duke of Ferrara, Who was prematurely deaf but a dear, At the palace of the Duke of Ferrara—I acquired some position—Plus a tiny Titian."
Other uses of the term in fiction
In Henryk Sienkiewicz's Without Dogma (1891), the "demimonde" refers to the affluent, pleasure-seeking portion of society, unbound by morals, religion or tradition, and is loosely analogous to the "Jet Set" of modern times.
In Marcel Proust's Swann's Way (1913), Odette de Crécy is described as a demimondaine.
Françoise Sagan, in her novel Bonjour Tristesse (1954), uses the term 'demimondaine' to refer to the character Elsa, a young, stunningly attractive woman who leverages her appearance into support by wealthy men, which allows her entrance into the social-world of the upper classes.
The high society men in Peter Matthew Hillsman Taylor's novella The Old Forest (from the story collection of the same name, 1985) use "demimonde" to refer to a group of "adventurous" and intelligent young women in 1937 Memphis, Tennessee; in the story, it is common for the men to continue courting such "demimondames" right up until the time they are married to high society women.
In popular culture
- The English-language title of the Hungarian feature film Félvilág is Demimonde.
- The Showtime series Penny Dreadful recasts the demimonde as a spiritual dimension. It is also the title of the fourth episode of the first season.
- Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. "Le Demi-monde, a synopsis of the play by Alexander Dumas (fils)".
- Webber, Carolline (July 19, 2013). "'My Favors Cost a Great Deal': 'The Girl Who Loved Camellias,' by Julie Kavanagh". The New York Times. Retrieved July 20, 2013.
- Proust, Marcel (1981). Swann's Way. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. New York: Random House. ISBN 0394506448.: 205
- William Makepeace Thackeray (1848), Vanity Fair.
- Colette (1945), Gigi.
- William Blatchford (editor) (1983), The Memoirs of Cora Pearl: The Erotic Reminiscences of a Flamboyant 19th Century Courtesan. London; New York: Granada. ISBN 0-246-11915-2.
- Katie Hickman (2003), Courtesans : Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century . New York: Morrow. ISBN 0-06-620955-2.