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Courtesans Hardcover – 18 Aug 2003
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Praise for Daughters of Britannia:
‘This is a delightful and exceptionally well-written book, funny, lively and warm-hearted.’
Philip Ziegler, Daily Telegraph
‘This is a lovely book: affectionate, celebratory and as conscious of the glory as the hardship. These women lived; they saw dolphins in the Bosphorous at dawn, took tea with empresses, watched eclipses in Turkistan. And they were so lonely that they wrote it all down.’
Libby Purves, Sunday Times
This title tells of the extraordinary lives and times of a small group of women who, during the course of the 19th century, rose from impoverished obscurity to become some of the most powerful, independent and wealthy women the world had ever seen. These were women who took control of their lives - and those of other people - and made the world do their will. Men ruined themselves in desperate attempts to gain and retain a courtesan's favours, but a courtesan was always courted for far more than sex. In an age in which women were generally not well educated, a courtesan was often unusually literate and literary and so was courted for her conversation as well as her physical company. Courtesans were extremely accomplished and, in the 19th century, exerted a powerful influence as leaders of fashion and society. They were not received at Court, and inhabited their own parallel world - the demi-monde - complete with its own hierarchies, etiquette and protocol, but nonetheless even to be seen in public with one of the great courtesans was a much-envied achievement. This text focuses on the stories of four outstanding women, each told as a mini-biography.Harriet Wilson, Lola Montez, Cora Pearl and Catherine Walters were women of very different personalities and talents. Spanning just over a 100 years, their lives exemplify the dazzling existence of the courtesan. They were admired by many, queens of fashion, linguists, musicians, accomplished at political intrigue and, of course, possessors of great erotic gifts. See all Product description
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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.
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.
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.