By Jenifer Roberts

Amberley Publishing. 276 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-1-4456-7719-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Has anyone ever written a novel about Yolande Duvernay? And if they have, I wonder if it managed to exceed, in terms of its outrageousness, her real-life story? Truth is often stranger than fiction, and it could well be an accurate way of referring to her adventures and misadventures.

She was born in Paris in 1812. Her father was a teacher of dance, and her mother had been a performer of one sort or another. Yolande was destined for the stage and was enrolled in the School of Dance when she was six years old. The training was hard, some might say even brutal, and Jenifer Roberts provides a few graphic descriptions of what the petite rats, as the young trainees were called, had to put up with. As they got into their early teenage years they also had to accept that they would, in many cases, be marketed for the attentions of older men. Yolande’s ambitious and mercenary mother (Roberts says she was “happy to pimp Yolande for her own financial gain”) “sold” her, and by the time she was sixteen she was pregnant. Did she have the child? No record of it exists.

A liaison with Louis Véron, director of the Paris Opéra, proved advantageous, though it was obvious that other factors, such as her beauty and her talents as a dancer, played a part in her success. She used the stage name of Pauline Duvernay.  And she had quickly learned how to be manipulative where men were concerned. Who can blame her? If they used her she was determined to use them in return. She had become adept at employing tears as a means of getting what she wanted.

With the number of English visitors to Paris her fame had spread to London. Thackeray had written about her in glowing terms, and she was hired to appear at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane for six weeks in 1833. The young English aristocrat, Lord Ranelagh, was so taken by her appearance and performances that he pursued her to Paris, where she rejected his advances. A little later she did accept a proposal from Edward Ellice, who offered her “£2000 down and contracted to pay her £800 a year”. It was said that Captain Gronow, a noted MP and duellist, had negotiated these terms with her mother. The arrangement fell apart when Ellice saw her flirting with the Duke of Devonshire, objected, and was told by Yolande that she could do as she pleased.

Some of the pleasures that arise from reading this book are the asides and anecdotes that stimulate curiosity. That reference to Captain Gronow acting as an intermediary between Ellice and Yolande’s mother is one of them, and makes the reader wonder at a strata of society that saw such arrangements as perfectly acceptable. Another is when Roberts recounts how Louis Véron planned a boycott of Yolande’s performance by the claque, an organised group of men who sat in the stalls and would applaud when given a signal to do so. Véron’s object was to hit back at Yolande’s mother for suggesting that she didn’t need his help for her daughter to become a star. It’s of interest to note that Daumier included a claquer in a series called “The Bohemians of Paris” that he produced for the  publication, Le Charivari, in 1841 and 1842.

Yolande didn’t only use tears as a means of obtaining what she wanted. Suicide, or feigned attempts at it, could also draw the attention she craved. She tried to poison herself when she thought Véron was losing interest in her, and made a similar suicidal gesture when she found that another lover, Félix de la Valette, who always had an eye for the main chance, was about to marry a wealthy heiress, despite his protestations of love for Yolande.

She returned to the London stage and caused a sensation with a new Spanish dance called the Cachucha. Roberts uses the words of one of Yolande’s admirers to describe what aroused so much excitement among men in the audience: “those movements of the hips, those provocative gestures, those arms which seem to seek and embrace an absent lover, that mouth crying out for a kiss, that thrilling, quivering, twisting body…..that shortened skirt, that low-cut, half-open bodice”.

It was little wonder that she attracted the attention of Stephens Lyne Stephens, a thirty-five year old heir to a fortune. He was not an aristocrat, and the family money had come from trade, a significant factor when questions of status within English society were raised. And there was a problem in that Yolande wasn’t particularly keen on him as a potential lover. On the other hand he was rich in a way that couldn’t be ignored, especially by Yolande’s mother and her male partner.

Stephens, whose father spoiled him by providing a large allowance that enabled him to live a “life of indulgence, extravagance and pleasure”, seems to have failed at most of the things he tried, such as the army and politics. He clearly thought that having someone like Yolande as his mistress might bring him the admiration and respect of the type of persons he habitually associated with at the Garrick Club, Crockford’s, and Newmarket racetrack. He was advised to contact Yolande’s mother, and, again, someone stepped in to act as a go-between.

Count D’Orsay, known as “the king of the dandies,” soon came to an arrangement with Madame Duvernay to persuade Yolande to agree to a relationship with Stephens. Money changed hands, of course, with the mother receiving a lump sum of £8,000 (today’s equivalent would be £800,000, according to Roberts), and the daughter an allowance of £2,000 per year, which would convert into an annuity in 1840 if she remained faithful in the meantime. There were other conditions, including Yolande being willing to give up her career as a dancer.

There was almost a hitch to the final arrangements when Félix de La Valette turned up in London and attempted to renew his affair with Yolande. Reports suggested that they “passed a delicious night together”, but when La Valette tried to see her next day at the theatre he was stopped at the door of her dressing-room. There was talk of a possible duel between Stephens and La Valette, but in the event the latter, after a meeting with Yolande, returned to France. The relationship didn’t quite end there and flared up again in 1841 when Yolande was in Paris without Stephens.

With Yolande in place as Stephens’ mistress, he could enjoy showing her off to “his hunting and gambling friends”. He had installed her in a house in Kensington, complete with a cook, maid, and housekeeper, and a carriage, coachman, and horses. A high-spirited lady like her might have been expected to look for some diversions, but she “occupied herself by giving dancing lessons to the children of the aristocracy and the middle-classes”. But there were always restrictions on her activities. It was acceptable for Stephens to entertain his friends at Yolande’s house, but she was never going to be invited to their homes to meet their wives.

Stephens eventually agreed to marry Yolande in 1845, though the new situation still didn’t make her acknowledged in polite society. The couple travelled, collected paintings and other items, and developed various properties. He died in 1860. His health had been badly affected by his smoking, drinking, and over-eating. His death left Yolande with a large estate, in both cash and property, at  her disposal. There were immediate repercussions as the terms of the will were disputed, with lawyers and trustees thinking it “inappropriate that such a large fortune should have fallen into the hands of a woman who was not only foreign but also a Catholic”. The Court of Chancery became involved with the inevitable results of long legal delays and large fees for solicitors and the like. Roberts mentions that at one court hearing there were nineteen barristers in attendance.

Yolande didn’t speak English well, nor did she have a great understanding of the English legal system. The large estates she had inherited needed managing properly. She obviously needed advice and assistance, and it arrived in the shape of Colonel Edward Stopford Claremont, the British military attaché in Paris. He was forty-two, “slim, fit and with a military bearing”, and six years younger than Yolande. He was also married and had six children. Claremont had a good military record, and an interesting background, being the illegitimate son of General Sir Edward Stopford and a French actress. He had lived with his mother when young and spoke French. An affair soon developed between Claremont and Yolande. He knew many prominent people in French society, and unlike in England, she was not ostracised by them.

Did he take advantage of her? There is no doubt that, as a soldier with a large family and insufficient pay to support it and keep up appearances as an officer, her money was an attraction.  After resigning from the army he became Yolande’s financial and business adviser. She would have liked him to get rid his wife and marry her, but Claremont, afraid of the scandal it would cause, refused to consider a divorce. His solution was to move himself, and his wife and three of his children, to live with Yolande. If Yolande had been ostracised before, this new development was hardly likely to improve her standing in the eyes of the local bourgeoisie.

The relationship with Claremont continued until his death in 1890. Over the years Yolande had taken little interest in his children, apart from one of his sons, Teddy, who turned out to be less than reliable and accumulated large debts. She had given him money, but tended to ignore the other children.  She did donate large sums to the Catholic Church, in particular relating to the construction of a new church in Cambridge.

As she grew older Yolande became more demanding, and Roberts says that she was “spoilt, imperious, and irritable”. After Claremont’s death she lived alone in a large house with fourteen servants (“a butler, housekeeper, cook, French lady’s maid, three laundry maids, three housemaids, a still-room-maid, a dairymaid, and two footmen. Living in cottages on the estate were a coachman, two grooms, four gardeners, and a lodge-keeper/carpenter”.).

One of Claremont’s sons, Harry, did try to help her, but she had changed to a “bitter self-absorbed and bad-tempered old woman who had become miserly with small amounts of money”. A young solicitor, Horace Pym, was involved in the legal management of the Lyne Stephens estate, and befriended Yolande until she became dependant on him for guidance when she had a decision to make. From what Roberts says, he appears to have done well out of the association with Yolande and her affairs. The Pym family (Yolande left bequests to his wife and children as well as Pym himself) received a total of £92,000 (astronomical in today’s terms) from Yolande’s will, “in addition to his legal fees for administering the estate”.

Yolande died in 1894, and more than ninety people came forward to make claims on the estate. It took years to verify them.

I have to admit to reading much of The Beauty of Her Age with a kind of near-incredulous fascination at the contortions people were prepared to put themselves through where money was involved. As for Yolande, despite knowing how she behaved in old age, I couldn’t help feeling a great deal of sympathy for her. Used and abused as she was when young, it was only to be expected that she would look for assurance through financial security. She was always exploited in one way or another by various men. I had the feeling that even most men of the cloth only cultivated her because she could make large contributions to church funds. An intriguing story, if a sad one in many ways.