Excerpt from Mademoiselle Victorine: A Novel
by Debra Finerman
We always seek out forbidden things
and long for whatever is denied us.
--François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1532-1564
Outside the tall bow windows of the Paris Opera ballet school, dusk embraced the city in a grayish pink veil, settling around spires of cathedrals and draping across bridges of the Seine. Inside the cavernous rehearsal hall, Victorine Laurent's fellow students practiced plies under the critical eye of their pudgy dance master, Monsieur Jules. The violinist yawned as he scratched out a listless Chopin nocturne. The girls' middle-aged mothers nested on folding chairs, gossiping and clutching tattered shawls against the evening chill.
In the bright vestibule, Victorine cupped her hands against the glass-paned French doors and scanned the room for Edgar Degas. Was she too late for their appointment? No, there he was in his sketching corner, but not alone. Another gentleman stood with him of[ to the side, observing the girls in the flickering gaslight. When Degas caught sight of her, he nudged his companion and nodded his chin toward her. Victorine smoothed her dark curls. She tugged the décolleté of her crimson taffeta frock just a touch lower, took a deep breath, and threw open the double doors, slicing the room with a shaft of light.
As she approached, Victorine's gaze riveted to the other gentleman.
Degas introduced her, and Victorine lowered her face in the charming way she had practiced a thousand times in her cheval glass. Then she glanced up at the stranger, held his gaze a moment longer than was proper. The shine of a silk top hat, the sparkle of a gold watch chain, and the polish of leather boots spoke to her of affluence.
"So! This is the gentleman from Marseille you told me so much about," she smiled sweetly, extending her hand.
There was a moment of confusion before Degas realized the mistaken identity. "No, no, this isn't the banker chap. This is Edouard Manet! He's an artist, Victorine. He wants you to model for him,"
She kept her smile, murmured it was a pleasure, then turned to walk away. Edouard Manet grabbed her wrist. "Wait a moment. What's wrong with artists? They can't afford to buy you a carriage and pair?"
So he understood where her priorities lay.
"I've never heard of you, Monsieur Manet. Have you exhibited in the Salon?"
"He has," Degas said. "Just not very often."
The yearly Salon competition sponsored by the prestigious Académie française held the entire city of Paris enthralled. It was ostensibly open to all artists, but everyone knew that the conservative jury was notable for rejecting work deemed too iconoclastic.
"I'd wager you've never seen paintings like mine." Edouard scribbled an address on the back of his calling card. "Come to the studio, judge my work, then decide." He watched her face closely. "I pay my models well."
A flicker of interest lit her eyes. "I'll consider it. But if I agree to model for you, I insist Monsieur Degas be present as chaperone."
"You flatter yourself, mademoiselle," Edouard laughed. "When I choose a model, it's for the music inside them."
She was taken aback by the poetry of his remark. "Do I possess music?" Her tone turned soft.
Victorine pulled her thin wool mantelet closer around her shoulders as she and Degas sipped crèmes in the cool morning air. They chatted under the green canvas awning of her favorite café near the cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, in the quartier where she and many young women of her social class lived. They were called lorettes -- not quite as debased as streetwalkers, not quite as exalted as courtesans.
"After boarding school, Manet could have followed his father's wishes and become a barrister or chosen a position in banking or the stock exchange," Degas said. "But he has a talent that will propel him higher." Degas sat back. "He has the hands of an artist coupled with the passion of a revolutionary. With paintbrush and canvas he's going to change the way the world's perceived." Degas named obscure artists Victorine had never heard of -- Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne -- who had chosen Edouard Manet as their Apollo. "Of them all, Manet has the cool, analytical intelligence to be a painter of his own time."
Victorine swirled the spoon in her cup, contemplating Manet. "Tell him I'll come tomorrow afternoon at three."
The next day at the scheduled hour, Victorine knocked at the black lacquered door of Edouard Manet's flat. As footsteps approached inside, she glanced down and noticed that her hem was splattered with the reddish brown mud of Paris's ubiquitous construction pits. And it was her best dress, the only one made of silk satin. Her side-laced ankle boots were caked with mud as well. Too late now to regret walking to save six sous on omnibus fare.
The door swung open and Edouard bowed with an exaggerated flair.
Victorine paused under the shimmering gas jets of the foyer chandelier to untie the lilac satin ribbons of her cabriolet bonnet and placed it with her fringed parasol on the marble-top bureau. She knew that even within the modest budget of a lorette she looked as delectable as a candy box in a confectionery shop; her luxuriant dark hair, swept back into a sophisticated chignon, had taken her hairdresser painstaking time to accomplish. The faux pearl and rhinestone earrings pulled the eye to her expertly powdered and rouged face, pink and white as a Fragonard galante, perfect in every feature. Except. Except for a cruel oval scar below her left cheek, which marred the flawless surface. Sensing Edouard appreciatively scanning her from behind, she swayed a bit more seduction into her hips, a cascade of lilac satin ruffles sweeping the dusty floorboards with each step. As she approached the parlor, she glanced at the fine upholstered furnishings, the damask drapes tied back with tasseled silk cords, the gleaming mahogany end tables, and puzzled over the incongruity of these treasures residing in an obscure young artist's studio in the seedy Batignolles district.
In the parlor, she met Degas with a quick kiss to both cheeks while two other gentlemen rose from the crimson velvet divan. The older, distinguished-looking one was a Corinthian column of a man exuding a powerful presence and intimidating demeanor. The other, a willowy chap with vaguely feminine features, was shorter than Victorine and slight of build. What a comical picture they created standing side by side.
Edouard introduced the younger man as André, the Marquis de Montpellier. He adjusted his cravat and slicked back a stray lock of fine, blond hair. The soft peach fuzz on his cheeks and the spray of freckles across his nose hinted that he could be no more than her age, seventeen, or eighteen at the most. She commented that her favorite shopping street in Paris was the boulevard de Montpellier, no doubt named for his illustrious ancestors? He replied that he was just a humble writer, and could take no credit for his family's storied past. Judging by his threadbare suit of clothes, Victorine surmised that the family had moved out of the ancestral chateau and into the caretaker's cottage several generations ago.
The older gentleman waited patiently for his turn. Edouard introduced him as Monsieur Baudelaire. She instantly recognized the name of Charles Baudelaire, the poet and author, esteemed as one of the greatest thinkers of the age.
"Monsieur Baudelaire, this is an honor. I'm a great admirer of your work."
Not one to be as inveigled as the young marquis by flattery, Baudelaire questioned her as to which, if any, of his "humble scribblings" she had read?
She wanted him to know that she had a good education, wasn't some vulgar cocotte from the streets. "I loved an essay you published recently about women. I committed a phrase to memory: 'Woman is a divinity, a star which presides over all the conceptions of the brain of Man.'"
"Quite right, my essay in Le Figaro last week!" He seemed impressed. He asked how Victorine had come to meet Manet.
"I pressed Degas for an introduction after seeing her in one of his pastel sketches," Edouard said.
"I can't blame Manet for being intrigued by your beauty." Baudelaire smiled at Victorine.
Reprinted from the book Mademoiselle Victorine: A Novel by Debra Finerman. Copyright © 2007 Debra Finerman. Published by Three Rivers Press; July 2007;$13.95US/$17.95CAN; 978-0-307-35283-5.
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