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3.9 out of 5 stars18
3.9 out of 5 stars
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The book charts the lives of 5 women, who in this modern day would be classed as prostitutes, call girls, take your pick. They did indeed sell their favours for money, but these were not women of easy virtue, far from it. They had far more to offer to the men in their lives than mere sexual favours.

They were talented women, the fashion icons of their day. Intelligent and well read. Musicians and even linguists. Yes they were erotic, had the faces and the bodies that attracted men to them, but they were a far cry from the women who frequented taverns and the back streets of London selling their bodies to anyone and everyone who had a few coppers to spare.

These courtesans had an agenda and that agenda was to lure a rich patron into their web. Their attributes could help to give themselves a wonderful life. A life that they would probably never have experienced without the use of their feminine wiles and the gullibility and weakness of men.

Katie Hickman gives a compelling account of the lives of these five women. A glittering life that most people in the 18th and 19th century could normally only dream about.
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I stumbled upon this book whilst looking for Harriette Wilson`s memoirs and decided to order it, as one chapter was about her.

Hickman`s book is actually a very well researched study of five English courtesans dating from the Regency period to the Edwardian; though I knew quite a bit about Wilson and Cora Pearl the others - Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead and Catherine Walters were less familiar.
The chapters deal with each woman in chronological order; while Hickman provides a fair bit of contextual detail which helps the reader understand both social mores and the day-to-day conventions of each period, there is occasionally some divergence from the main topic when her source material runs thin; this results in anecdotal material and a few meandering passages exploring interesting, if rather secondary subjects.
Pearl and Walters spent much of their time in France so a good deal of the primary source material is delivered in French, mercifully with a full translation in most cases.

This was a pretty good and informative read despite some minor padding; an interesting set of biographies, certainly a worthwhile book on a subject conventional histories of women either ignore or condemn through ignorance, prejudice and projected modern values that are not particularly valid or relevant to the people and times under scrutiny.
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on 30 December 2013
This book is only one of quite a few read by myself on the subject. It began with a book by Nancy Mitford about Madame Pompadour, this led inexorably to others of the genre. I have enjoyed everyone of them, each has had it's trials and tribulations, faults and brilliance so, one cannot dismiss any of them This book answers questions regarding the courtesan of the 1800's, there are so many of them,so to pick up on just five is a feat unto itself. Each page has something interesting, the pictures add to the fuller picture, so, I reckon this book counts as a decent read, about a largely forgotten part of history and culture.
We still see how a woman, individually, can be lauded by the populace, to be praised by the 'celebrity culture' today and, just like the courtesans, not much has altered over the years. The petty minded people who, largely are simple jealous folk, cast aspersions on people who have got somewhere, who are now recognised, just like the 'demimodaine' of yesteryear. Situations and circumstances change as the world changes, but the 'oldest profession', whether upper, or lower class, still continues today, maybe in a different manner, but still an interesting subject for the armchair psychologists amongst us.
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on 1 June 2008
This is a great book to introduce you to the world of the courtesans & the demi-monde. If, like me, you have read about individual courtesans before, this book will provide some understanding of the background & social mores which made the existence of these women possible. On the other hand, if this is your first foray into the demi-monde, it is a good way to get to know this very complicated world. But you need to put your 21st century feminist principles firmly to one side, if you are to view these women as they were seen (& how they wished to be seen) by thier contemporaries. I particularly liked the fact that the writer didn't dwell too much on the ultimate demise of these women, as I have found some other biographers tended to. As if they had somehow got the ultimate come-uppence for their lives of dissipation! You only have to read about the deaths of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire or Mary Wollstonecraft to know that disease & death were particualrly nasty back then. My only disappointment was that there were no photos or portraits in my book, but then it was an old copy that I got for a bargain price. Other good reads on this subjest are the 'Courtesans Revenenge' & biographies of Emma Hamilton or Perdita Robinson.
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on 9 June 2004
If like me you've become an obsessive reader of books about 18th century figures then you will enjoy this book. The worlds of the 'ton' and the 'demi-monde' operated side and by side sometimes colliding disastrously and ocassionally successfully. Katie Hickman's book looks at the lives of four courtesans and their contemporaries with a modern eye but a keen understanding of the mores and givens of the time. You feel she really likes the women she portrays, warts and all, and excels at those gossipy details beloved of home historians like me. I used to want to be Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire but now I think Harriette Wilson, the 18th century's 'Material Girl' was having much more fun!
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on 18 July 2011
I bought this book in a travellers' book exchange shop in Vietnam, and loved it so much I carted it home in my backpack. It tells the stories of five British courtesans whose lives span The Georgian period through to the early twentieth century. Each had a very different personality yet reached the pinnacle of success. The only thing I felt at the end was that I could have read a full book about each of them.
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The book charts the lives of 5 women, who in this modern day would be classed as prostitutes, call girls, take your pick. They did indeed sell their favours for money, but these were not women of easy virtue, far from it. They had far more to offer to the men in their lives than mere sexual favours.

They were talented women, the fashion icons of their day. Intelligent and well read. Musicians and even linguists. Yes they were erotic, had the faces and the bodies that attracted men to them, but they were a far cry from the women who frequented taverns and the back streets of London selling their bodies to anyone and everyone who had a few coppers to spare.

These courtesans had an agenda and that agenda was to lure a rich patron into their web. Their attributes could help to give themselves a wonderful life. A life that they would probably never have experienced without the use of their feminine wiles and the gullibility and weakness of men.

Katie Hickman gives a compelling account of the lives of these five women. A glittering life that most people in the 18th and 19th century could normally only dream about.
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on 16 January 2006
Like one of the reviewers below, I confess up front to being a junkie for the Restoration period up until the Victorians. So this book - all about racy women in great frocks - was always going to be right up my street. I read it over Xmas with the flu, and thank god I had it to distract me from feeling rotten. It was a wonderful read with lots of period detail and great real-life stories about a set of women who trod a very difficult/different path to the norms of the time. They didn't always make it work, but by god they had a great time trying! I missed it when I finished it, so I'm off to see if there's anything about this period that I haven't read yet...
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on 10 August 2005
'Courtesans' presents the lives of 5 high society prostitutes over a time span of 150 years. It surprises the reader for its eloquent re-construction of attitudes to such women in Paris and London and also sensitively and accurately records the considerable changes in sexual mores that took place for example between the Georgian and Victorian ages. The 5 women had in common with each other then and with western women in general today a determination to keep financial and sexual freedom as a right. The price that they paid then and the price we pay today is well worth meditating on. An excellent read !
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on 1 January 2015
I found this racier than The Lives & Times of Diplomatic Wives and again a handy book to keep as these women certainly left their mark one way or another!
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