The life of the celebrated French ballerina Yolande Duvernay is one of the most dramatic rags-to-riches stories of the 19th century. Born in poverty in Paris, she inherited one of the largest industrial fortunes in Europe and became the richest woman in England, even richer – it was said – than Queen Victoria.
The fortune that would eventually become Yolande’s was made in a glass factory in Portugal by Englishman William Stephens, the illegitimate son of a schoolmaster and a Cornish servant girl. He survived the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and scraped a living during the next 14 years burning lime to provide mortar for rebuilding the city. In 1769, he was asked by the Marquis of Pombal, first minister and effective dictator of Portugal, to reopen a derelict glass factory 90 miles north of Lisbon.
Pombal gave him ownership of the factory and granted him a number of lucrative privileges: exemption from all taxes; a monopoly of glass supply in Portugal and its colonies; freedom to set his own prices; and free use of fuel from the royal pine forest. The minister fell from power in 1777 when the king died and was succeeded on the throne by his eldest daughter, Maria I, who loathed Pombal and all his policies. In an effort to retain his position, William set out to woo the new queen – and he charmed her so successfully that she not only renewed his privileges, she also made two visits to the glass factory, the second of which lasted for three days.
Maria was an absolute monarch who ruled by divine right [she believed that her authority to rule was derived from God]. Yet she was happy to sleep for two nights in the house of an Englishman, a man who was not only low-born and illegitimate, but also a Protestant, a heretic in the eyes of the Portuguese. As William’s sister wrote a few days after the visit: “My brother has attained what nobody else in the Kingdom can boast of, the honour of entertaining the Royal Family and all the Court for three days, and given universal satisfaction to everybody from the Queen down to the scullions and stable boys.”
These royal visits added prestige to the factory and ensured that William retained his privileges for a total of almost 40 years, enabling him to build up an enormous industrial fortune. After he died, unmarried and childless, his wealth was bequeathed to a cousin in London, Charles Lyne, who applied for royal licence to take the name Lyne Stephens.
Charles’s inheritance was a cause célèbre in England and his only son and heir, Stephens Lyne Stephens, found himself in great demand by families with unmarried daughters. But Stephens, an unassuming young man whose interests were confined to shooting parties and hunting in Melton Mowbray, showed little interest in women until, in the winter of 1836, a young French ballerina arrived in London to dance at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.
“The most ravishing woman you could wish to see”
Yolande Duvernay (stage name: Pauline Duvernay) was 23 years old and a huge celebrity. Described as “the most ravishing woman you could wish to see, with charming eyes, an adorably turned leg, and a figure of perfect elegance”, she was a beautiful – and very sexy – young woman.
Born in Paris in December 1812, Yolande was enrolled in the School of Dance at the age of six, becoming one of the underfed and poorly clad ballet pupils known as the petit rats. Under the control of their mothers, the rats spent their days in the School of Dance and their evenings in the opera house appearing in a variety of juvenile roles. As they grew older, their mothers were also in charge of their sexual availability. Men who frequented the Opéra kept an eye on the ballet pupils and, through their mothers, made assignations with the petit rat of their choice.
After the revolution of July 1830 toppled the Bourbon monarchy, Yolande became the mistress of a new director of the Paris Opéra called Louis Véron. He took her out of ballet school and, bypassing the normal route of the corps de ballet and the junior grades, cast her immediately in leading roles. Soon she was the star of the Opéra. One of her admirers wrote: “Each evening, the name of Duvernay was acclaimed by a thousand voices.”
Yolande’s celebrity increased over the next few years, both in Paris and London where she became the favourite dancer of the then Princess Victoria. “Mademoiselle Duvernay danced and acted quite beautifully, with so much grace and feeling,” Victoria wrote in her diary after watching a performance of The Maid of Cashmere (Le Dieu et la Bayadère) on 19 March 1833. “She looked quite lovely … and I was very much amused.”
The young William Makepeace Thackeray fell deeply in love, writing: “When I think of Duvernay prancing in as the Bayadère, I say it was a vision of loveliness such as mortal eyes can’t see nowadays. How well I remember the tune to which she used to appear! Kaled [said] to the Sultan, ‘My Lord, a troop of those dancing and singing girls called Bayadères approaches’, and, to the clash of cymbals and the thumping of my heart, in she used to dance! There has never been anything like it – never. There never will be.”
In the winter of 1836-7, Yolande danced the role of Florinda in the first London production of The Devil on Two Sticks (Le Diable Boiteux), in which she performed an unusual Spanish dance, the cachucha. This catapulted her to even greater fame. Alone on stage, castanets in her hands, wearing a pink satin dress trimmed with wide flounces of black lace, she added a provocative twist to the curious steps of the dance. One of her admirers wrote breathlessly of “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”.
This was the first time that Stephens Lyne Stephens had seen Yolande on stage – and as he watched her dance the cachucha, an idea began to take shape in his mind. Over the years, she had been the mistress of a succession of men and she was besieged with admirers in London, with men of all ages eager to buy her sexual favours. The price was high – but the unassuming Stephens outbid them all.
The richest commoner in England
In an arrangement negotiated between Count d’Orsay (a friend of Stephens) and Yolande’s mother, Stephens paid £1.5 million in today’s money to buy the 24-year-old Yolande’s favours for just three years, a sum so large that the story set tongues wagging on both sides of the Channel and filled the gossip sheets for several months. And two-thirds of this went to her mother, a venal, bossy, domineering woman who had sold her daughter for sex since the age of 15.
Stephens provided Yolande with a comfortable lifestyle. Except for a few short months when she resumed a liaison with a previous lover, she remained his mistress for eight years – until she thought up a cunning plan to trap him into marriage. Their relationship had been scandalous enough in an increasingly straitlaced society; their marriage was perceived as even more shocking. Ostracised by most of his friends, Stephens left London and moved with Yolande to a villa in Roehampton. When his father died six years later, he became known as the richest commoner in England. And when Stephens died in 1860, he left his widow full use of the entire Lyne Stephens fortune.
So, the young ballerina, brought up in poverty in Paris and sold for sex from puberty, became the richest woman in England. Her name was famous throughout the English-speaking world as newspaper articles about her husband’s will were printed and reprinted around the globe.
One example was the Moreton Bay Courier in Australia: “By far the most fortunate, so far as sterling fortune goes and a great many other things too, of all enriched stage favourites is the long-time belle of all ballets, unparagoned tripper on the lightest of all fantastic toes, the once superb and still sumptuous Yolande Duvernay, wife and now widow of the late millionaire Lyne Stephens.”
The income on Yolande’s fortune – about £6.5 million a year in today’s money – was more than she could possibly spend, even with three grand houses in England and Paris, thousands of acres of land, and hundreds of servants and ground staff. The money in her own name began to accumulate and she soon amassed a fortune of her own. But Yolande was ill-equipped to handle her financial business or deal with her husband’s lawyers and trustees who were treating her with very little respect.
She needed someone to take charge of her affairs and she found him in General Edward Claremont – British military attaché in Paris, friend of Napoleon III, and a man held in high esteem by Queen Victoria. Still beautiful at the age of 49, Yolande seduced him soon after her husband’s death. When Claremont fell from grace after the Franco-Prussian War, Yolande persuaded him to live with her in a ménage-à-trois, together with his unhappy wife who (according to one of their neighbours) “disliked and resented the dependent position bitterly”.
The ménage-à-trois lasted for 20 years, and as she grew older Yolande gave huge sums of money to the Catholic diocese of Northampton. She paid for the building of several churches and chapels, but she is most famous for the enormous church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge, a landmark of the city which she built – as she explained to the bishop – “to indulge my own taste and fancy”.
There is a rumour in Cambridge, still prevalent today, that Yolande’s late husband made his money through the invention of moveable eyes for dolls. This had its roots in the words ‘Dolls’ eyes for idols’, a catchphrase used by Protestants offended at the building of such a large Catholic church in the city. The words referred to the manufacture of glass, the source of the Lyne Stephens fortune, and the legend became enshrined in literature when EM Forster’s novel, The Longest Journey, was published in 1907: “They waited for the other tram by the Roman Catholic Church, whose florid bulk was already receding into twilight. It is the first big building that the incoming visitor sees. ‘Oh, here come the colleges!’ cries the Protestant parent, and then learns that it was built by a Papist who made a fortune out of moveable eyes for dolls. ‘Built out of dolls’ eyes to contain idols’ – that at all events, is the legend and the joke. It watches over the apostate city, taller by many a yard than anything within, and asserting, however wildly, that here is eternity, stability, and bubbles unbreakable upon a windless sea.”
Like many such rumours, this story has no basis in fact: Stephens never worked for a living and had no interest in inventing anything. Another rumour may have been closer to the truth – that Yolande built the church in honour of the children she failed to conceive with her husband. There was a secret from her past which no one in England ever knew. During her youth in Paris, she had given birth to two children, the first when she was just 16 years old, the result of one of the assignations arranged by her mother. The second was born seven years later when she was the mistress of a louche young man, the self-styled Marquis de la Valette. These babies were given away and formed no part of Yolande’s life. But in her will, she left a legacy to a Home for Incurable Children in Paris – a clue perhaps to the fate of at least one of them.
Yolande died in 1894. The obituaries referred to her great wealth and her building of churches; only a very few remembered her years on the stage. In the words of the Pall Mall Gazette: “To ninety-nine per cent of the present generation, the names of Duvernay and Lyne Stephens convey nothing whatsoever; yet the lady who bore these successively and who passed away last week at a very ripe old age was, more than sixty years ago, the subject of much comment and the object of much admiration with our grandfathers, who crowded old Drury Lane to see her.”
An elderly journalist remembered her cachucha: “I wonder if there are many people who know that this venerable lady was, prior to her marriage to Mr Stephens Lyne Stephens, famous throughout the civilised world as the enchanting operatic dancer, Yolande Duvernay. This wondrous ballerina made her first appearance in Drury Lane … but it was in a pas seul – the Spanish dance of the cachucha – that I especially remember her. I can see her now, in my mind’s eye, in her pink skirt with black lace flounces and hear the merry clatter of her castanets.”
With modern technology, we can see the dance as it was performed at the time. There are videos of ballerinas dancing the cachucha to the original choreography and music, and wearing the same pink satin dress trimmed with flounces of black lace. It is almost as if we are watching Yolande herself on stage – as she catches the eye of the young man who was destined to become the richest commoner in England.
Jenifer Roberts is the author of a biography of Yolande Lyne Stephens, The Beauty of Her Age (Amberley Publishing 2016)