THE BEAUTY OF HER AGE : A TALE OF SEX, SCANDAL AND MONEY IN
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
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
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
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
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
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
The relationship with
As she grew older Yolande became more demanding, and Roberts says
that she was “spoilt, imperious, and irritable”. After
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.