The Beauty of Her Age: A Tale of Sex, Scandal and Money in Victorian England by Jenifer Roberts

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The Beauty of Her Age: A Tale of Sex, Scandal and Money in Victorian England by Jenifer Roberts

Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The story of Yolande Stephens, born into poverty in Paris, later an acclaimed ballerina and then the mistress and wife of one of the richest men in England, makes for a very entertaining read with its background of life on both sides of the English Channel, especially with its glimpses of Parisian society during the turbulent times around the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: July 2016
Publisher: Amberley
ISBN: 978-1445653204

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The name of Yolande Stephens (nee Duvernay) is not that well-known in the annals of Victorian England, but behind it lies an enthralling rags-to-riches saga. How did a young girl born into poverty in Paris become one of the most celebrated ballerinas of her time in England, and after that one of the richest women in the country, with a fortune on her death which rivalled that of Queen Victoria?

Born in 1812, Yolande's early life was an unpromising one. Yet she had the mixed blessing of being born to a woman who had been a dancer with the Paris Opera in her youth. The ambitious and domineering parent was determined that her only child should be destined for the stage as well, becoming one of the 'underfed, poorly clad little girls in the School of Dance known as the petits rats'. Under her controlling mother, her early career soon became that of one of a mistress to several men in turn, leading to the birth of two children who were given away, and subsequently one of the most accomplished stars in contemporary ballet.

At the age of twenty she came to England, and after appearing in London she was much praised for her grace, beauty and style on stage. She became a favourite of the young Princess Victoria, later Queen, and of William Makepeace Thackeray, who called her the 'fair brimstone'. Even so, at around this time she had a couple of unhappy love affairs and two botched attempts at taking her own life. At the age of twenty-five she gave up dancing as she no longer needed to work for a living, having just become the mistress of Stephens Lyne Stephens, son and heir of the man who was the richest commoner in England. Later she manipulated him into marriage, although with his poor health and lifestyle he died only fourteen years later, leaving her a life interest in his very considerable fortune, resulting in an income worth more than £6,000,000 at today's prices.

As a comparatively young and lively widow, her life was by no means over. Returning to Paris just as the Second Empire under Emperor Napoleon III was at the height of its splendour, and where her rather loose morals and past history were not held against her as they were in the more censorious Britain, she was in her element. Having seduced Colonel Claremont, the British military attaché in Paris, she was soon part of an unashamed menage à trois, the deeply hurt but self-effacing Frances Claremont bowing to her husband's insistence that she stay with him. It remained a comfortable and relatively happy existence (for two of them, at least) until his death in 1890, with both wife and mistress following him to the grave within four years.

A chronicle of one woman's life in nineteenth century England and France, this book makes a very entertaining read and period piece with its background of life in both countries, especially with its glimpses of Parisian society during the turbulent times around the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Nobody could pretend that Yolande Stephens led the most virtuous or indeed useful of lives, but as a window on the existence of one woman who seemed to have led an extraordinarily charmed life after an unpromising start to her days, one cannot help feeling that maybe she deserved many of the good things that came to her, even if the price was in part the happiness of someone else's wife.

For more unconventional if less fortunate contemporary lives, Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise is also recommended.

Booklists.jpg The Beauty of Her Age: A Tale of Sex, Scandal and Money in Victorian England by Jenifer Roberts is in the Top Ten Autobiographies and Biographies 2016.

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Buy The Beauty of Her Age: A Tale of Sex, Scandal and Money in Victorian England by Jenifer Roberts at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Beauty of Her Age: A Tale of Sex, Scandal and Money in Victorian England by Jenifer Roberts at Amazon.com.


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