Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century

Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century

by Katie Hickman
     
 

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During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a small group of women rose from impoverished obscurity to positions of great power, independence and wealth. In doing so they took control of their lives — and those of other people — and made the world do their will.

Men went to great lengths in desperate attempts to gain and retain a

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Overview

During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a small group of women rose from impoverished obscurity to positions of great power, independence and wealth. In doing so they took control of their lives — and those of other people — and made the world do their will.

Men went to great lengths in desperate attempts to gain and retain a courtesan's favors, but she was always courted for far more than sex. In an age in which women were generally not well educated she was often unusually literate and literary, and courted for her conversation as well as her physical company. Courtesans were extremely accomplished and exerted a powerful influence as leaders of fashion and society. They were not received at court, but inhabited their own parallel world — the demimonde — complete with its own hierarchies, etiquette and protocol. They were queens of fashion, linguists, musicians, accomplished at political intrigue and, of course, possessors of great erotic gifts. Even to be seen in public with one of the great courtesans was a much-envied achievement.

In this riveting social biography, Katie Hickman focuses on five outstanding women — Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead, Harriette Wilson, Cora Pearl and Catherine Walters — each of whose lives exemplifies the dazzling existence of the courtesan. She reveals their extraordinary exploits — including their stints in Paris, New York and California — and offers insights into the glamorous history of courtesan life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nothing quite catches the eye like the promise of sex. This tease of a book (a pleasing companion to Virginia Rounding's more scholarly Les Grandes Horizontales, published earlier this year) follows five prominent "fallen" Englishwomen across the long 19th century, tracing individual lives and changing societal attitudes. Patterns emerge of how women entered and left the profession, along with insight into the comparative public lives of men and women, the legal status of many long-term relationships, and the interesting habit of "kept" women taking the name of their first major client, oddly like slaves of the American South taking their masters' names. All through, Hickman (Daughters of Britannia: The Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives) seems as interested in the finances of the demimonde as many of her subjects are, but it's unclear whether she intends this as a measure of courtesans' value in a market or whether she has simply become as fascinated as contemporary observers were with dinners, jewels and fashions. Her chatty footnotes catch the reader up on the gossip and personalities of the time and elaborately link characters across the different narratives. Occasionally, her central figures get lost in the discussion of their associates, rivals, clients, cooks and dressmakers. Her account of Elizabeth Armistead, in particular, lingers as much on Armistead's famed protector and later husband, the Whig politician Charles Fox, as on the woman herself. Hickman addresses issues of attraction and sex appeal as best she can from her sources, but frankly, one is left wondering what happened in the bedroom. Was all of the courtesan's charm in the seduction? 16 pages of color photos not seen by PW. (Dec.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780066209555
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
11/25/2003
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.21(d)

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Courtesans
Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century

Chapter One

Sohphia Baddeley
1745-1786

The Actress Courtesan

'We now began to think of the masquerade,' wrote Eliza Steele comfortably in her long and gossipy memoir of the life of Sophia Baddeley, 'and we settled it that Mrs Baddeley should go in the character of Juliet, and I in that of the Nurse. Her dress made up upon this occasion was a rich white sattin, beautifully pucker'd with a veil of fine gauze, trimmed all round with a broad rich point-lace, which had a pretty effect. Upon the whole it was so elegant, that I can venture to say, so beautiful a Juliet, was never before seen ... Before we entered the Ballroom, I begged the favour of Mrs Baddeley not to unmask, and for some time she obliged me. Our dresses were much admired, but no sooner had she her mask off, than she attracted the attention of the whole room; even the ladies that night could not help saying many things in her praise.'

It was 1771, the same year in which Sophia Baddeley attended Samuel Foote's The Maid of Bath at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket, the year in which her celebrity and her fortunes were at their height. Despite her 'equivocal character' -- to use an eighteenth-century euphemism -- Mrs Baddeley was determined 'to go to every public place of resort, frequented by the nobility and people of fashion', and the masquerades at the Pantheon, a vast concert hall in Oxford Street which had opened in a blaze of publicity earlier that year, were then the very height of glamour.

A detailed description in the Town and Country Magazine of two of such masquerades, one at the Pantheon, the other at the equally fashionable Carlisle House, the home of Mrs Cornelys in Soho Square, gives some idea of the scale of these entertainments. Even though tickets were by private subscription only, two thousand guests (each of whom had paid two guineas for the privilege, the equivalent now Of £120) crammed into the brilliantly lit and decorated rooms at the Pantheon. The refreshments and the supper were abundant, 'the wine was good and in great plenty'. The most striking display of all, however, was the guests themselves, whose wit and inventiveness on that night have been preserved, like tiny insects in amber, on these pages. Amongst the most striking masks and fancy dresses were:

Two female Conjurors, Lady N-wdigate and her sister Miss C-onyers, who supported the characters with great propriety. Pan, Mr John M-rris. A silken harlequin, the lord proprietary of Maryland. The Man in the Moon, Mr D-ere of the Temple. A group of dancers, exhibiting the bearers and attendants of a May Day Garland, Sir Watkyn Williams W-nne, and others. The dancing Stockwell clock, Mr T-lbot of Lincoln's Inn. A Sultana, with an astonishing quantity of diamonds, supposed to the value of thirty thousand pounds, lady V-llars. This lady was infinitely the most splendid figure in the room.

Famous faces from politics and the arts -- the Duke of Grafton,* Stephen Fox (brother of the more famous Charles James Fox), Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr Goldsmith -- rubbed shoulders with ladies of the aristocracy. The mask of the Duchess of Richmond, 'in the character of Zobeide (dressed as Mrs Yatest)', was particularly striking; 'beauty, elegance, and grace, were happily blended in her grace's figure without affectation'. Most striking of all to a modem reader, however, are the number of women who dressed themselves as men.

A great many of the ladies of rank and beauty chose to adapt the male dress in domino, and appeared as masculine as many of the delicate Maccarony* things we see swarming everywhere, to the disgrace of our noble patient British race. There was this difference, that they looked lovely and charming, and were justly admired, while every person of sense despises the ridiculous Billy Whiffles of the present age. The most distinguished of these belles, clad en-homme, were the duchess of Anc-r, lady Mel-n, lady B-n Bro-n, the Hon. Mrs John D-er, Mrs Hod-s, and Miss B-ke.

At Mrs Cornelys's the following week the doors of Carlisle House were opened at about ten in the evening, from which time, the Town and Country Magazine tells us, 'an unbroken line of coaches and carriages continued advancing till broad daylight'. The file of carriages passed through crowds of 'inquisitive and impertinent idlers, who insisted on each glass of the different vehicles being let down, that they might be afforded an opportunity of fully seeing every mask; and these unwelcome spectators were not sparing of those rough and indecent observations which characterise the mobs of most free countries'.

By midnight 1200 guests -- some still mysteriously masked, others now exposed to view -- capered, skipped, flirted, slouched or swaggered, according to character, through Mrs Cornelys's elegantly arranged rooms. The air became sultry with candle heat and the perfume of flowers. More wine was drunk, practical jokes were played, and supper -- the tables for which were arranged on an ingeniously constructed sloping false floor in the ballroom, 'beyond all description striking and splendid' -- was eaten. The festivities lasted until dawn.

At seven o'clock in the morning the guard of thirty men, attending 'by the king's own permission' at Mrs Cornelys's, cleared the rooms of company. 'Festivity, mirth and licentiousness reigned as much without doors as within,' the Town and Country tells us, capturing that mixture of haut ton refinement and rowdiness which characterises late-eighteenth-century society. Several bottles of wine were thrown out of the windows to the mob still waiting below, together with 'whole pies and temples of pastry. And the scramble for this plunder created infinite pleasantry.'

For all her celebrity, Sophia Baddeley was by no means certain that she would be granted admission to the Pantheon ...

Courtesans
Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century
. Copyright © by Katie Hickman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Katie Hickman was born into a diplomatic family in 1960 and has spent more than twenty-five years living abroad in Europe, the Far East and Latin America. She is the author of three previous books: A Trip to the Light Fantastic — Travels with a Mexican Circus, which was one of the Independent's 1993 Books of the Year and was short-listed for the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Quetzal Summer, a novel set in the Andes, for which she was short-listed for the 1993 Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award; and Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon — a Journey into Bhutan. She is featured in the Oxford University Press guide to women travellers, Wayward Women.

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