Professor Colin Jones ‘French Crossings IV: Vagaries of Passion and Power in Enlightenment Paris’

23 November 2012

Presidential lecture, Gustave Tuck lecture theatre, UCL, 23 November 2012


This paper examines female libertinism in eighteenth-century France, highlighting the hybrid identity of actress, courtesan and prostitute of female performers at the Paris Opéra. The main focus is on the celebrated singer, Sophie Arnould. She and others like her achieved celebrity by moving seamlessly between these three facets of their identity. Their celebrity also allowed them to circulate within the highest social circles. Feminists of the 1790s such as Olympe de Gouges and Théroigne de Méricourt had pre-Revolutionary careers that were very similar to those of Arnould. It is suggested that understanding this kind of individual in Ancien Régime France can help us to identify a neglected libertine strand within Enlightenment culture, that merged into proto-feminism in the French Revolution. The paper offers a new approach to some of the origins of modern French feminism.