Yolande Duvernay was born in December 1812 in Versailles. Little is known about her youth, apart from the fact that she was brought up in poverty. Her domineering mother, only known as Madame Duvernay, had been a dancer in her youth and steered her six-year old daughter into the same direction. An underfed and poorly clad girl, she was enrolled in the School of Dance where pupils were known as petits rats de l’Opéra.
Under control of their mothers, the rats spent their days in school and their evenings on the stage of the opera house, appearing in a variety of juvenile roles. Dance may have been a career for some in the end, for most girls it was an instruction into coquetterie and a pathway into the shady world of sex and abuse. Men of society kept an eye on ballet pupils and, through mothers who ‘managed’ their daughters, made sexual assignations with the young rat of their choice. The school was a stage where mothers ‘auctioned’ off their daughters. Some girls did make careers and Yolande fared particularly well. She was described as an elegant young woman and a graceful dancer. Aware of the situation, Madame Duvernay was intent to exploit her daughter’s eye-catching presence. In 1831, Yolande became the mistress of Louis-Désiré Véron, the newly appointed director of the Paris Opéra after the toppling of the Bourbon monarchy. He took her out of ballet school and promoted her straight into leading roles. She made her début in Jean-Baptiste Blache’s neo-classical ballet Mars et Vénus ou Les fillets de Vulcain (1809). Having adopted the stage name Pauline Duvernay, she became the star of the theatre.
Her fame crossed the Channel where Princess Victoria loved her performances. Young Wiliam Makepeace Thackeray was in awe of her and, according to fellow dancer and friend Antoine Coulon, she was the ‘idol of all the dandies’ in London. In October 1836, Pauline performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where she danced the role of Florinda in the first London production of Le diable boiteux. Published as a novel set in Madrid by Alain-René Lesage in 1707 (translated as ‘The Devil upon Two Sticks’ in 1708), the story was turned into a ballet by Jean Coralli in 1836. Her performance of an unusual Spanish-Cuban solo dance, the ‘cachucha’, catapulted her to unequalled fame. Alone on stage, castanets in her hands, wearing a pink satin dress trimmed with black lace, she added a provocative twist to the curious steps of the dance (captured in a hand-coloured lithograph by John Frederick Lewis in February 1837). Society went wild. Men of all ages were eager to pay for the privilege of being near to her. The price (set by Madame Duvernay) was high. All rivals in the ‘sale’ of sexual favours were outbid by a self-effacing, but immensely rich man. His name was Stephens Lyne-Stephens. His wealth was inherited.
Protestant glassmaker William Stephens was the illegitimate son of Cornish schoolmaster Oliver Stephens and servant girl Jane Smith. In 1746 he travelled to Portugal where one of his relations worked as a merchant. In 1755 he survived the Lisbon earthquake and during the next decade he made a living out of burning lime to provide mortar for rebuilding the city. In 1769, he was asked by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mel, 1st Marquis of Pombal, Secretary of the State of Internal Affairs in the government of Joseph I and its de facto head, to re-open a derelict glass factory which was located some ninety miles north of Lisbon. Such was the urgency to stimulate commercial activity that he was granted a number of lucrative privileges: exemption from all taxes; a monopoly of glass supply in Portugal and its colonies; and free use of fuel from the Royal pine forest. Joseph I died in 1777 and was succeeded by his eldest daughter Maria I who hated Pombal and his policies. The latter lost his position, but Stephens held on to his status and build a good working relationship with the new queen. That in itself was remarkable. She was a Catholic monarch who believed that her authority was derived from God; he was an illegitimate and foreign Protestant ‘heretic’ – and they enjoyed each other’s company. William retained his privileges for almost forty years and build up an enormous fortune. After he died, unmarried and childless, his wealth was bequeathed to a cousin in London, Charles Lyne, who applied for Royal license to take the name Lyne-Stephens. Charles’s inheritance made him the richest commoner in England. It became a cause célèbre and his only son and heir, Stephens Lyne-Stephens, found himself in great demand by families with unmarried daughters. But Stephens was an unassuming young man who showed little interest in the company of women – until the day he encountered Pauline Duvernay on stage at Drury Lane.
At that time she was the mistress of the diplomat Charles, Marquis de la Valette, but in an arrangement negotiated between Count d’Orsay (a friend of Stephens and himself a colorful French figure in British high society) and Yolande’s greedy mother who took two-thirds of the cash deal, Stephens paid a considerable amount of money for the pleasure of ‘owning’ the ballerina. Stephens provided Yolande with a comfortable lifestyle and a property in Kensington, whilst he remained at his father’s estate in Portman Square, Marylebone, to keep up appearances. In 1837, he persuaded her to retire from the stage and live with him at his father’s house. The latter felt uncomfortable with the arrangement (she demanded that he addressed her in French) and, in June 1843, he acquired Grove House in Wandsworth. Pauline remained Stephens’s mistress for eight years. In 1845, out of the blue, the couple married at St Mary’s Church in Putney for an Anglican service, followed by a Catholic one at Cadogan Terrace chapel in Chelsea. To keep a mistress in Victorian society was quietly accepted, but to marry in a mixture of religion was considered a social disgrace. Ostracised by relations and friends, London became a prison to them. When his father died in 1851, Stephens became the richest man in Britain. He bought Hôtel Molé, a grand mansion in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, acquired Lynford Hall near Thetford (Norfolk), and built up a celebrated art collection. The couple settled at Grove House.
The Grove estate was re-designed and built in the later eighteenth century by James Wyatt for the Dutch immigrant merchant and financier Joshua van Neck (the name was later anglicised as Vanneck). At his death in 1777, he was one of the richest men in Europe. Yolande settled in an environment of traditional wealth and she acquired her share of it. When Stephens died in 1860, he left his entire fortune to her. She became the nation’s wealthiest woman, richer – it was rumoured – than Queen Victoria. She owned three grand estates in England and Paris, thousands of acres of land, and employed hundreds of staff. Yolande continued to live at Grove House, building a Romanesque mausoleum in its grounds. In addition, she acquired the 1863 sculptural group Fighting Bulls by Jean-Baptiste Clésinger which was sited in the gardens of Lynford Hall also as a memorial to her late husband.
Not equipped to handle her financial obligations, she befriended Edward Stopford Claremont, a former British military attaché in Paris and friend of Napoleon III, to help her out. Yolande persuaded him to join her at Lynford Hall and live in a ménage-à-trois with his tragically unhappy wife. The arrangement lasted for two decades. Then the past started to trouble her. There were dark secrets and two abandoned children in Paris. Religion took hold of her. She gave huge sums of money to the church and financed the building of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge, one of the biggest Catholic churches in England. With the tallest spire in the city, the building remains a landmark sight.
Yolande Duvernay died on 2 September 1894. She rests in the Grove House mausoleum, next to her husband. Since the marriage had been childless, the trustees put the contents of Lynford Hall and most of the furniture and paintings in Grove House up for sale. The auction took place at Christie’s in May 1895 and lasted nine days. A whole day was devoted to pictures, including portraits of Philip IV and the Infanta Maria Teresa by Velazquez; paintings by Albert Cuyp, Bellini, Veronese, Watteau, Murillo, Claude Lorrain, and others. The furniture was French, mostly Louis XIV and Louis XVI; there was a large quantity of (Sèvres) porcelain; and a wide variety of exclusive objets d’art. Day nine was exclusively dedicated to silverware and jewelry for which a separate catalog was issued for this day (17 pages, 158 items). The sale attracted buyers from Paris, Vienna, Berlin, New York, and elsewhere. The proceeds of the sale were mind-boggling. It was a classic rags-to-riches story with an immigration twist: a young rat who had been ‘auctioned’ by her mother in Paris setting a record art sale at Christie’s after her demise as Britain’s richest widow.