Céleste Mogador: Lioness of the Hippodrome

Céleste and Louise in the chariot race, L’Illustration, 1846. Screengrab via Archive.org

Paris Review Daily have just published the fifth in my Écuyères series about the circus and hippodrome horsewomen of nineteenth-century Paris. It’s about Céleste Mogador, who was so many things it was hard to cram it all into the essay, not least because she left so much of her own life writing behind. Please go on reading about Céleste – she deserves every eyeball. I’ve added my sources here.

Here’s Jana Verhoeven’s account of her serendipitous rediscovery of Céleste’s lost last memoirs, and what we know of the busy decades at the end of her life.

I wasn’t able to read Françoise Moser’s 1935 biography, Vie et Aventures de Céleste Mogador, Fille Publique, Femme de Lettres et Comtesse, but have only heard good things about it.

The entrance to the Hippodrome, 1846, L’Illustration. Screengrab via Archive.org.

Carol Mossman’s Writing with a Vengeance: The Countess de Chabrillan’s Rise from Prostitution (2009) helped me get a grip on Céleste’s life and understand her place in literary history, as did Courtney Sullivan’s The Evolution of the French Courtesan Novel: From de Chabrillan to Colette (2016).

You can read Céleste’s unexpurgated memoirs in French at various out-of-copyright archives. There is a much-abridged translation, Memoirs of a Courtesan in Nineteenth-Century Paris, by Monique Fleury Nagen, but I don’t think it captures the spirit of the original.

I also combed Gallica, as usual, for reports of Mogador’s performances and sightings of her in the city over the decades. I found stories and even books about the heydays of the Bal Mabille, plenty of humorous caricatures of Hippodrome girls and lorettes, and some images of Mogador herself (she, too, was photographed by Studio Nadar).

Jill Harsin’s Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Paris was invaluable for understanding the “infernal book” and the trap in which working-class women found themselves.

“So! You didn’t want to be in the chariot?”
“Me? No. It stops me showing myself to as many men as possible when I’m scantily dressed.”
Caricature of Hippodrome girls, Pour Rire, 27 August 1853. Screengrab by Gallica.

I kept track of the Franconi dynasty via these circus history pages: one and two.

And a note about lionesses: “Lionne” was one of many words that nineteenth-century France used to categorise women – something that culture seems endlessly fond of doing. It’s also a term whose meaning evolved during Céleste’s lifetime – probably in part because of women like her. I wanted a little clarification and found it in Miranda Gill’s Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination, which traces the transition of “lioness” from eccentric, George-Sand-esque rebel to courtesan of likely lower class origins by the time of the Second Empire (1852–1870). She quotes a disapproving Comtesse Dash:

“‘[Lionnes] became female centaurs, they smoked cigars, they adopted the manners of horsemen and they were happy to be treated in an offhand manner…. The result is what we now see: a motley intermingling of all social spheres, an assembly of monstrosities in which we can no longer recognize one other.’”

You can read the other essays in the series here, and the behind-the-scenes blog posts here (Selika), here (Sarah l’Africaine), here (why I write these essays) and here (Jenny de Rahden). The last essay in the series is written and will follow Mogador.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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