Céleste: The Parisian Courtesan Who Became a Countess and Bestselling Writer.
Courtesan, countess, bestselling author - the tempestuous true story of a woman far ahead of her time ... The true story of the Countess Céleste de Chabrillan is a rich and tempestuous tale of an extraordinary woman.
Born in the gutters of Paris in 1824, Céleste made her name as a dancer in the Parisian dance halls, where it is said she invented the can-can. Then, as an equestrienne at the Paris hippodrome, her daring feats on horseback thrilled the crowds. However, it was as the city's most celebrated courtesan that the young Parisian found genuine fame and fortune.
Strikingly beautiful and charismatic, her lovers included famous novelists, artists and composers, not least Georges Bizet, whom, many believe, based his free and fearless Carmen on Céleste. But when Céleste married the Count de Chabrillan, a prominent member of the French aristocracy, Parisian society was scandalised. And when the pair turned up in far off Australia, where the count served as the first French consul, Melbourne society was scandalised in turn. Later a bestselling memoirist, novelist, playwright and librettist, the remarkable Countess Céleste de Chabrillan was, indeed, a woman far ahead of her time.
A Picture History of Céleste
Power peak. Céleste, age 30, photographed around the time she married Count Lionel de Chabrillan. She had achieved fame in Paris as a celebrated courtesan and chariot-rider at the Hippodrome. Her published Mémoires enhanced her notoriety in the mid 1850s.
The poet, the artist and the courtesan. In 1833, aristocrat Alfred de Musset wrote his most renowned poem, Rolla, about a prostitute in the high-class brothel he patronised. Six years later, 16-year-old Céleste was his partner of choice at the same place. Decades afterwards, artist Henri Gervex depicted the pair with his painting, also entitled Rolla. (Gervex had read Céleste’s memoirs and knew her well.) The man shown in the painting is de Musset, the young woman is Céleste.
The cancan’s precursor. Céleste was a star of the Paris dance halls, where she improvised with the waltz, performing a high kicking adaptation, which emerged decades later as the cancan. This poster was designed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec towards the end of the century.
World-famous author Alexandre Dumas Sr was Céleste’s greatest inspiration. They had an affair before she met Count Lionel, but their friendship never waned. He suggested she work at her fiction, instructing her on an approach, and did much to help her realise her books as plays, thus adding other dimensions to a brilliant career.
The chariot-rider. Already well known as a dancer and courtesan, in 1845 Céleste joined the Hippodrome as an equestrienne. She became a daring Paris superstar, performing as a courageous chariot-rider for several seasons, until she nearly lost her leg in a race.
Carmen’s inspiration. Historians claim composer Georges Bizet used his close friend Céleste as the basis for the feisty, independent main character in Carmen, his most-celebrated opera. Céleste encouraged and patronised Bizet through his lean years and asserted that their relationship was platonic – she was 15 years his senior.
Melbourne, circa 1855. Living in Melbourne in the mid 1850s allowed the couple to develop a relationship without the strains of class divide, his disapproving family and Parisian society. It also gave Céleste the opportunity to observe a very different environment and the time to develop her writing skills.
Lola Montez , heartbreaker. Renowned Irish exotic dancer and courtesan Lola Montez is depicted leaving Europe on a swan as a group of sad high-society paramours wave her farewell. Arriving in Australia in 1855, Lola toured around the country, shocking some observers with her spectacular Spider’s Dance, and she developed a friendship with Céleste.