A confluence of thoughts, about how women are always criticised for whatever they wear and how incomers are always blamed for rises in bad behaviour, prompted this look at the career of Mademoiselle (or Madame) Parisot, a dancer who shocked and enthralled a generation of London theatre-goers. It also chimes nicely with my earlier blog on 18th-century caricatures of female fashion.
The bishop took the present occasion to observe, that the French rulers, while they despaired of making any impression on us, by the force of arms, attempted a more subtle and alarming warfare, by endeavouring to enforce the influence of their example, in order to taint and undermine the morals of our youth.’ 1
Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham, speaking in the House of Lords, told the assembled that he knew who posed the greatest threat to British culture — ‘[French] female dancers, who, by the allurements of the most indecent attitudes, and most wanton theatrical exhibitions, succeeded by too effectually loosening and corrupting the morals of the people.’
The ‘wanton theatrical exhibitions’ Bishop Barrington had in mind were those where the dancer pivoted en pointe, one leg extended and raised just over 90 degrees, a position affording obvious opportunities for voyeurism and made possible only by the invention of the pointe shoe, a flat ballet pump with a block of wood in the toe, tied on the foot with ribbons, by Charles Didelot in 1795. 2
Mademoiselle Parisot, who worked frequently with Didelot and his wife Rose, not only pirouetted beautifully but also wore flimsy revealing dresses with extremely decolletée necklines. She was sometimes depicted in cartoons with one breast exposed; whether this was by design or by accident is not known.
Bishop Barrington was not the only one to be outraged by Parisot’s style. George Hanger, 4th Baron Coleraine, a reformed roué who was now content to be a mere eccentric, went one step further. He wrote about her — somewhat alarmingly — in his memoirs: 3
I most sincerely wish that Satan would renew his frolics, and appear once more, in propria persona, on our stages; but particularly at the opera-house, amongst those wicked and immodest dancers, that they might be seized with distraction; for I much fear, nothing else will prevent a continuation of their immoral and indecent gestures: and that wicked jade, Mademoiselle Parisot, would meet with no more than her just deserts, if he were to give her ten or a dozen hearty smacks with his tail, to make her remember those attitudes, so repugnant to modesty, which she so wantonly displays. This is my most devout wish…
Parisot made her London debut aged 18 or 19 on 1 February 1796 at the King’s Theatre in a production of Piramo e Tisbe and immediately caused a sensation. Critics praised her for her ‘face full of expression’ and ‘beautiful figure’, but it was her balance (‘positively magical’) and the one-leg-up pose that entranced them. It meant that she could turn ‘her person… almost horizontal while turning as on a pivot on her toe. From the specimen of last night, she is a great acquisition to the Theatre; and if her talent for acting be equal to her dancing and figure, they will be able to give us ballets in good stile.’ The caricaturists were quick to seize on the comic and erotic possibilities of Parisot’s performances. Robert Newton, Isaac Cruikshank and James Gillray produced scurrilous prints poking fun at both her provocative display and her lascivious observers.
But Parisot was not just about dirty dancing. She also developed a series of dances that she made her own. One style was to strike a series of attitudes similar to Emma Hamilton’s famous poses resembling those seen in classical artworks and old paintings, and representing famous mythical and historical stories and characters. The dancer’s skill was to transform from one figure into another.
Madame Parisot is not one of those elegant dancers who captivate by neatness of step; … her merit consists in the astonishing display of attitude, of which nothing more various and ingenious has even been exhibited; her figure, which is tall, and finely proportioned, seems exactly suited to her style of dancing. She possesses considerable taste, and, by singular adjustment of her arms, which are to her what a rope-dancer’s balance is to him, she indulges in all the fantastic positions which art and fancy can suggest. The Morning Chronicle, 10 February 1796
There was also her famous ‘shawl dance’. In 1838 William Gardiner reminisced that ‘The ballet of La Belle Laitière, by Steibelt, drew crowds to the theatre through a whole season. In this piece are the celebrated shawl dance, then so inimitably performed by Parisot, and the buffo dance, which has not been equalled for spirit and sportive humour.’ In 1805 The Monthly Mirror noted that ‘The Parisot dances a serpentine hornpipe in her usual style of sportive neatness.’ Sheet music for Parisot’s shawl dance and Parisot’s hornpipe were in print long after her departure from the stage.
But who was Mademoiselle Parisot? Where did she come from?
No one really knows. Some sources say her first name may have been Rose or Céline and that her father may have been a sculptor in Paris or a journalist guillotined in the Revolution. 4
Wherever she sprang from, she landed, aged 14, on 20 December 1789 at the Théàtre de Monsieur in Paris in a production of L’Infante de Zamora. At this stage the Revolution was only just over seven months old and Louis XVI was still nominally on the throne (although he had been demoted to ‘King of the French’) and martial law had been declared. Perhaps the horrors of the Terror, including the guillotining of her father, prompted her to decamp later to London.
In Paris, it was not her dancing skill that attracted attention so much as her youth and rather engaging gaucheness that the Gazette National 5 remarked on.Although Parisot was much in demand and made good money, the moralists had not given up the fight. In 1805 the Bishop of London ordered that theatres must drop their curtains before midnight on Saturday nights or they would lose their licence. To comply with this, at midnight on 15 June 1805 at the Opera House, Mr Kelly, the stage manager, brought down the curtain in the middle of a pas de deux danced by Mademoiselles Deshayes and Parisot. The audience were furious and ‘screamed, hooted, yelled, threw all the chairs out of the boxes into the pit, tore up the benches, broke the chandeliers, jumped into the orchestra, and smashed all the instruments of the unlucky musicians.’ 6
By 1807 Parisot’s dancing career was over. Aged 32 she married ‘Mr J. Hughes’, an ’eminent florist-worker’ of Golden Square and never again appeared on the stage. In 1827, the Morning Chronicle reported that she was running a business at 324 Oxford Street in London selling French perfume and flowers and ten years later The Musical World 7 said she was living in Paris. The date of her death is unknown.
- The Annual Register, Or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1798. (1800) London: Dodsley’s. p. 230. The Bishop was speaking in the House of Lords. ↩
- Didelot also developed a ‘flying machine’ which lifted dancers up, allowing them to be supported as they left the ground. ↩
- George Coleraine, The Life, Adventures and Opinions of Col. George Hanger, written by himself (1801). New York: Johnson & Stryker for J. W. Fenno. Why the Devil would beat Mademoiselle Parisot for doing his work, Coleraine did not explain. ↩
- Two men known to have been executed during the Terror and to be either of an appropriate age or of indeterminate age may have been Mademoiselle Parisot’s father: François Parisot, on 3 May 1794; P. H. Pariseau, a 41-year-old journalist, on 10 July 1794 (Genéalogie60, comp. Les 13 045 Guillotines Pendant la Terreur. Compiègne, France: Genéalogie60, 2006-2009). ↩
- Gazette nationale, ou Le Moniteur universel, 1791, Vol 1. ↩
- London Society, an Illustrated Magazine of Light and Amusing Literature. Vol VIII (1862). The theatre manager (and part-owner) Francis Goold later tried to prosecute some of the ringleaders but had to settle for an apology and compensation for those who had been injured. ↩
- The Musical World, A Weekly Record of Musical Science, Literature and Intelligence, Vol VII (1837). p. 126 ↩