The New York Times Book Review
An Empire of Her Own
‘The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.,’ by Carole DeSanti
By Nancy Kline
Everyone in Second Empire Paris knows the name of Zola’s celebrated courtesan, Nana, “with all the lilting vivacity of its two syllables.” Not so her sister under the skin, the fallen heroine of Carole DeSanti’s provocative historical novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. Forced to labor in the same vineyards as her flamboyant contemporary, Eugénie does so in obscurity. She’s no celebrated “grande horizontale,” even though she shares the name of France’s empress — and even though one of her lovers makes her famous with a painting that wins a prize in the Salon of 1861. His picture’s title: “An Unknown Girl.”
DeSanti’s narrator is but one of thousands who arrived in the city “as I did, . . . followed their desire and need into the world and through the Paris walls. Hiked up skirts over the street debris; pulled meager shawls around their shoulders, and defiance and passion even closer. . . . And then the fun began — the real game of cat-and-mouse, the one you play for your life.”
Eugénie comes from a village in the southwest of France, where it was her task to force-feed the geese so their distended livers could be harvested for “the dish of kings,” foie gras. Toward the end of the process, she tells us, “burdened by their size,” the birds “just fluffed down on straw — flapping fighters turned into complaisant creatures. During their last days they could not even stand; just swiveled their necks and opened their beaks for the corn buckets.”
Later, when we see her after a night’s work in a “maison de tolérance” in the Marais, dragging her “tender, insulted body” to the attic for a few hours of sleep, this earlier vision of grotesquely abused animals returns. And later still, promoted to trafficker herself, it’s handy that she “knew how to bring a fatted duck to market.” Although now it’s a different species she supplies to “the empire’s appetites; feeding the dragon’s maw and avoiding the flames myself with a system ill-founded and corrupt to its heights.”
It’s hard, at times, to love DeSanti’s version of a Mother Courage figure as she out-procures the procuress who first registered her as a prostitute at the prefecture, which “meant erasure from the world of possibility.” But DeSanti also makes us understand that Eugénie is as trapped as any fatted bird in this society that reeks, like the “business parlor” where the madams interview their employees, of the “sweet, mothy odor of bank notes; the acrid tang of silver.” In a culture that prides itself on being civilized but treats women and the poor (often synonymous) barbarously, it’s no accident that one of Eugénie’s protectors is a Confederate slave owner from Louisiana.
What helps save her, beyond her own resourcefulness, is the community of women in which she finds herself — unlike Zola’s Nana, who is an isolate and a destroyer. By the end of Nana’s career, Zola writes, “like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes.”
DeSanti’s voice and vision are less apocalyptic and more feminist. If Zola’s book is, as he claimed, “the poem of male desires,” hers is the poem of female desires: sexual, artistic, political, intellectual, maternal. And all these unfold amid a richness of historical detail, rendered in elegant 19th-century-style prose that convincingly transports us beyond the date when Nana disappears, at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, through the siege of Paris and the fall of the Second Empire, to the hope-filled yet tragic Paris Commune and beyond.