It’s always fun to immerse yourself in someone else’s life – and a great escape – even more so when the subject is as fascinating as Céleste de Chabrillan, the 19th century French courtesan, dancer, writer, and wife of the first consul to Australia.
Poor Céleste and her mother are living in poverty in Lyon and trying to escape Céleste’s criminal, abusive stepfather. When the two escape from to Paris, they almost find happiness until her mother takes up with a neighbour in their apartment building and Céleste must suffer the unwanted attentions of another stepfather. Her mother, motivated by the future security that a man can bring, chooses to believe the protestations of her lover over her daughter’s word, and so Céleste must flee her home.
But a young girl on the streets is not acceptable so, suspected of prostitution, Céleste is hauled off to prison where she languishes for a year until her mother finds her. In prison, she is initiated into her first pleasurable sexual experience –with another female inmate, who recommends a high-end brothel for when Céleste returns to outside life. Once outside, and on the prostitute register though, Céleste is hit by the reality that, while she might have escaped immediate poverty and the attentions of her mother’s lover, she now faces a lifetime of shame and debt to the brothel’s Madame. The clever and talented Celeste once again engineers an escape and, in search of love, excitement and income in Paris, she makes her name as a dancer (she is said to have invented an early form of the Can-Can) and as an impressive horsewoman, achieving fame with regular performances at the Hippodrome.
Despite some good fortune though, Céleste continues to be dogged by debts and the shame of her reputation, so that when she truly falls in love with the debt-ridden aristocrat Lionel de Chabrillan, she is not acceptable to his family. But Céleste is a determined woman and ahead of her times in many ways. She becomes friends with such luminaries of the time as Alexander Dumas, Bizet, and the Prince Napoleon and eventually, a woman of great success and influence. Once she finally manages to extricate her name from the prostitute register, she can hold her head up. Soon Lionel, continually terrible with money and dissolute, is down on his luck and heads to he goldfields of Australia to resurrect his fortunes. When Céleste joins him there it is a harsh journey, and even harsher at the new English colongy, but it could just be the making of them.
Roland Perry’s look at the life of Céleste is compelling. He tells the timeless story of an unfortunate fallen woman made good with flair and, while the book reveals real historical events, it’s as entertaining as a good historical novel. Céleste is a book that will keep you interested all the way, and with its Australian angle, is of particular to Australian readers.
Roland Perry Roland Perry OAM is one of Australia’s most prolific authors. His Books Include The Don, the definitive biography of Sir Donald Bradman, Bradman’s Invincibles, The Changi Brownlow, The Australian Light Horse, Horrie The War Dog, Bill The Bastard, Monash: the Outsider Who Won a War. Céleste Is His 30th Book.