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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The power of seduction, and the seduction of power -- they have been constants throughout history. Susan Griffin's The Book of the Courtesans has a terrific theme as its subject: the social history of the women who were the lovers of some of the most privileged men in Europe and America. But this is, fortunately, not a book about those men. Rather, it's about the magnetic and mesmerizing women who loved them, accepted their favors, and lived the high life both at the heart of society and at on its fringes.
Some of the most famous "kept" women in Europe are included: Madame Pompadour, Jeanne du Barry, and Veronica Franco. Key figures of the 19th-century French demimonde are also part of Griffin's tale: La Belle Otero, Mogador, Marie Duplessis (the Lady of the Camellias), and Sarah Bernhardt. Griffin also tucks some Americans into her narrative, such as Marion Davis and Klondike Kate. The narrative sweeps from the Italian Renaissance to the Roaring '20s, moving through the drawing rooms, palaces, and courts of Venice, Paris, New York, and Hollywood.
As a writer in postfeminist America, Griffin provides a particular context for the lives and careers of these women: They were pioneers of sexual liberty, exerted an influences on artists and writers, and were often writers or performers in their own right. In many cases, their lives provide bleak testimony to the limited opportunities available to ambitious women in prefeminist society. Nevertheless, these women were not mere prostitutes; often, they were power brokers.
The Book of the Courtesans is an engaging read. It's also an important contribution to our growing understanding of the roles of women throughout history, and the harsh challenges many had to face in order to find a place in the smoke-filled rooms and corridors of power. (Elena Simon)
Elena Simon lives in New York City.