Though male French authors plotted prostitution to make their names—mimicking the surveillance of municipal authorities—the sex workers in their books manage to evade efforts to contain them
While prostitutes in nineteenth-century Paris were subject to municipal laws that policed their bodies and movements, writers of the era enlisted them to stake their own claims on both the city and the novel as literary territory. Sex Work, Text Work: Mapping Prostitution in the Nineteenth-Century French Novel explores how prostitutes depicted by Émile Zola, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Edmond de Goncourt, Adolphe Tabarant, and Charles-Louis Philippe “write back," confounding civil and literary efforts to contain them in space and in narrative.
In city-regulated brothels, brasseries à femmes, Haussmannian boulevards, and the novel itself, working-class prostitutes served to reinforce the boundaries of social inclusion and exclusion. And yet, Jessica Tanner contends, even the novels that most explicitly aligned with the disciplinary logic of regulated prostitution make space for a distinctly literary form of resistance: these women elude or disrupt the mapping that would claim them as literary territory, revealing their authors' failure to secure their narratives as property. Tanner pushes back against the critical tendency to attribute agency only to courtesans who became published authors and forwards a new framework for understanding the political work novels engage in as they circulate. Observing that debates about the regulation of prostitution surfaced in tandem with racialized anxieties about the boundaries of the French nation, Tanner ultimately expands that framework to the history of French colonialism and the politics of immigration in the current day. This book shows that while sex workers have been recruited to mark the borders of civic and moral life, prostitution can also make space for more inclusive forms of community, both in the novel and in the world beyond its bounds.
Chapter 1: Unhomely Houses: Novel Nostalgia and the Tolerated Brothel
Chapter 2: "A Proletariat of Bachelors and Whores": Plotting Paris in the Brasserie à femmes
Chapter 3: Appropriating Paris: Zola’s Novel Houses of Ill Repute
Chapter 4: Occupying Paris: Street Prostitution and Novel Disobedience
Conclusion: Novel Politics: Biopolitics, Community, and Prostitution at Large
“A masterful book on the exploitation of the figure of the Parisian prostitute by male authors seeking to establish reputations in the nineteenth-century French literary field. Both well-known and lesser-known authors tied their ambitions to the provocative use value of one of the most geographically and sexually marginalized figures of the nineteenth century, but one that they were unable completely to control. Through a series of carefully contextualized close-readings, Tanner demonstrates how the ‘prostitute,’ as both historical category and metaphorized object, confounds municipal and authorial attempts to map her in such places reserved for her as the maison de tolérance, brasserie des femmes, and even the streets of Paris. An eminently literary study, Sex Work, Text Work also speaks to the cultural and political work performed by realist novels, and to the place of the reader in the worlds they construct.” —Gretchen Schultz, author of Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth-Century France
“At stake in Tanner’s fascinating book is a new understanding of how prostitution functioned as a privileged site through which Parisians attempted to come to terms with the effects of Haussmannization. This book ties together the historical and the literary in an exemplary manner.” —Maurice Samuels, author of The Betrayal of the Duchess: The Scandal That Unmade the Bourbon Monarchy and Made France Modern