Like its author, Oxford-educated writer and editor Jane Billinghurst, this book is in a class by itself. Of several works that have been written on the subject of famous courtesans, temptresses, and hussies in history ("Seductress" by Prioleau, "The Book of the Courtesans" by Susan Griffin, or the wonderfully titled "Famous Hussies of History" by Albert Payson Terhune), this is clearly the book to own.
Beautifully illustrated (the book won the 2004 Alcuin award for excellence in Canadian book design), it contains a wonderful selection of relevant paintings (works by Rackham, Waterhouse, and John Singer Sargent appear side by side with discoveries by less familiar artists such as John Collier (who painted the wonderful rendition of Lilith on the cover), Papety, Gennari, Dury, and Henry Bone. Add to this a fine selection of still photos of Claudette Colbert (a luscious Cleopatra), Jane Russell, Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth, etc., and the visual appeal of the book is irresistible.
The early chapters offer an excellent concise sampling of sensuality in art, literature, and fable from classical antiquity to the middle ages. The later chapters tread on more familiar territory (film and the music scene), but are always insightful as well. The work skillfully avoids the pitfalls of the Prioleau and Griffin books -- too much feminist jargon in the former, too much purple prose in the latter.
Comparable works -- "Encyclopedia of Mistresses" by Dawn B. Sova, the Trevelyan book ("Hussies"), and "Courtesans" by Katie Hickman -- also have their charms, but the unillustrated Trevelyan book (a great read) appears to be out of print, while Hickman's focuses on the lives of five relatively anonymous "courtesans" rather than the more flamboyant sisters-in-arms that Jane Billinghurst so delightfully captures.
The book would be a bargain for the lavish artwork alone, but the author (who judging from the back flap is a bit of a temptress herself) has really outdone herself in providing an entertaining and perceptive study of the temptress phenomenon. The book is recommended for women's studies courses or human sexuality reference collections, but it is far more than that -- it is a delightful, informative, entertaining volume that is a real pleasure to own. Get a copy it and see!