Now the English Protestant ladies' virtue is chastity! There are but two classes of women among them. She is a bad woman the moment she has committed fornication; be she generous, charitable, just, clever, domestic, affectionate, and ever ready to sacrifice her own good to serve and benefit those she loves, still her rank in society is with the lowest hired prostitute. Each is indiscriminately avoided, and each is denominated the same—bad woman, while all are virtuous who are chaste.
Thus wrote the courtesan Harriette Wilson (1786-1845) in her notorious memoirs. Proto-feminist excoriation of moral double standards was not her primary purpose in writing, although it lends the book a considerable appeal today. In fact, the Memoirs, a recounting of her life as a courtesan, were an elaborate money-making scheme; Harriette wrote to each of her former paramours, offering to discreetly leave out their name, in return for a blackmail payment. (Double standards there might have been, but men could still be socially - and in certain cases, politically - embarrassed if a courtesan chose to kiss and tell with enough publicity behind her.) The Duke of Wellington, famously, told her to "Publish and be damned!"; but others duly paid up.
The Memoirs were born, it seems, partly out of a desire for revenge upon the men who had repeatedly broken promises, and partly out of a pressing need for some sort of financial security, caused largely by said broken promises. Amid the decidedly limited career options for women in this period, as Katie Hickman's Courtesans (2003) makes clear, the life of a courtesan offered greater freedoms than that of a wife. But in the case of wives and courtesans alike, the women were essentially dependent upon men's continued favour if they wanted to eat - something that Hickman, I think, occasionally skims over in her desire to (quite rightly) celebrate the strength of will and unusual status of these fascinating women.
The potential rewards were considerable, particularly from the perspective of the present. Not just the income, although that, too was considerable, at least for those women at the top of their profession. Gifts and fees from admirers and patrons, or regular stipends from long-term lovers, allowed these women to maintain themselves in some opulence, at least so long as they remained fashionable. Hickman notes how Cora Pearl (1835-86) and her fellow demimondaines were attended the Opera in Paris once a week "covered in jewels" and "de l'air grave et imposant d'ambassadrices en exercise", as a captivated contemporary witness put it. The money, in any case, was necessary if the courtesan was to keep attracting, and retaining, lovers; there is a clear sense of the vicious circle involved in Hickman's account of a figure like Sophia Baddeley (1745-86), who ran up large debts in an effort to keep her career going after she was unceremoniously dropped by her rich patron, Lord Melbourne.
Life as a courtesan also offered a degree of independence that, however limited and precarious by modern standards, was considerably greater than the alternative. Several of the women discussed here made their objections to marriage, and their preference for an officially single life, very clear. Sophia Baddeley was, at least according to reports of her, quite explicit:
The young gentleman, I believe, loves me to adoration but I will not be his wife notwithstanding, nor will I be the wife of any man; for I can never submit to the control of a husband, or put it in his power to say I have been imprudent in life.
(As I say, at least according to reports of her. Herein lies one of my reservations about Hickman's book, as to some degree about Daughters of Britannia: there is frustratingly little discussion, in the main text, of the sources for some of this information. Often I had to have recourse to the footnotes to discover whether statements had come from one of the women directly, or had been attributed to them by others - in the case of Sophia Baddeley, in an account by a close friend and confidante, published two years after her death. Given the amount of popular, salacious fiction surrounding courtesans in their day, it would seem worthwhile to spend a bit more time discussing evidence.)
Harriette, again, sounds strikingly modern in her declaration, "I will be the mere instrument of pleasure to no man. He must make a friend and companion of me, or he will lose me." This, too, is appealing. Life as a courtesan did not preclude long-term romantic attachments, but it certainly changed the basis on which they were formed and conducted. Elizabeth Armistead's (1750-1842) relationship with the prominent politician Charles James Fox, which lasted from the early 1780s until his death in 1806, is an interesting case in point. In his early letters to her (hers to him do not survive, unfortunately), he discusses politics with her as an equal; his endearments include lines like "my dearest mistress, friend, and wife".
But her past, even after she gave up her career, largely prevented her from being received in mixed-sex gatherings - the idea of courtesans mixing with respectable women seems to have been a dread taboo throughout the period covered by Hickman - and even after the pair married in 1795, they did not make the formal union public until 1802 (apparently at Elizabeth's insistence, not Charles'). The Fox family, however, were warmly accepting of their scandalous new addition, and this clearly outlasted Charles' lifetime; Elizabeth's funeral, over thirty years after Charles' death, was attended by many of her relatives by marriage.
Others, however, remained fiercely and contentedly single. English-born, Paris-resident Cora Pearl, meanwhile, described her own attitude to men as one of "instinctive horror" that manifested in "coldness and utter contempt", although she also said, rather archly, "I have often made an exception in favour of the individual!" While I don't share her misandry - frankly understandable though it is in the mid-19th century - I did warm to her very much thanks to another quotation Hickman picked out:
My independence was all my fortune, and I have known no other happiness; and it is still what attaches me to life.
This, I found simply inspiring, especially coming from a woman who had to work so hard - and ultimately, to suffer a great deal - in pursuit of that freedom.
If the benefits were great, so, too, were the risks, too; some of the women discussed here by Hickman, Cora Pearl among them, ended their days in desperate poverty, after their lovers moved on or casually forgot their promises to them. And it is hard to feel entirely sanguine about arrangements like Sophia's with Lord Melbourne; he may have paid her well, but she was expected be available for him whenever he wished, and he seems to have had no compunction at all about cutting off her only means of support when he tired of her. (Also, by Hickman's account he bored her senseless.) Their position was ambiguous. They were prostitutes, and yet not; entitled to a certain respect - notably for their wit and intelligence as much as for their looks - but shut out of the (double-edged) protections that patriarchal society offered to women. Harriette might have been the "barometer of all that was in vogue", but respectable women would not have dreamed of associating with her.
Hickman gets a little carried away, perhaps, with the bullish self-presentation of Harriette and the rest; I'm not sure I buy assertions like this:
Delightfully unencumbered by most of the prevailing notions of female propriety, they had the liberty to be themselves in ways that were absolutely denied to other women.
This, I think, goes too far. Courtesans were still, at heart, performers, whose made their living by captivating men - and, if necessary, by feigning being captivated in their turn. Closer to the mark is the more balanced judgement offered elsewhere in the book, which makes clear the appeal of the demimonde without implying that it was a lifestyle that did not require compromise: "Harriette liked her independence, she liked having a good time, and she liked sex; as a courtesan she could have all of these things."
By the late 19th century, such things had become more controversial than ever. Hickman has fun with the pronouncements of Dr William Acton, who gave voice to what became an oft-repeated cliche of Victorian womanhood - the cult of meek frigidity - apparently largely in order to reassure uncertain young men on their wedding nights. "The majority of woman (happily for them) are not very much trouble by sexual feelings of any kind", he opined. "What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally", he added; such exceptional women were "essentially aberrant creatures, nymphomaniacs, either potential, or actual, inmates of insane asylums". He concludes,
No nervous or feeble young man need, therefore, be deterred from marriage by an exaggerated notion of the duties required from him. The married woman has no wish to be treated on the footing of a mistress.
These changing mores are reflected in the experiences of the most recent of Hickman's subjects, Catherine Walters (1839-1920). Walters found herself with a passionate young admirer who had fully bought into the sort of ideas aired by Acton, even as he paid a courtesan for sexual favours. He declared, in a hilarious bout of wilful self-deception, that Catherine
had never till she met me found the actual lover of her perfect choice, the man to whom she had surrendered all as she had surrendered it to me, and so had given me the right to call her mine, a miraculous virginity which entailed on me a corresponding duty of perpetual love service not less binding than that sanctified by marriage vows.
If only courtesans could enjoy sex - and for that, be outcast - it was also increasingly the case that only courtesans could indulge in something as filthy as (oh no!) being clever:
Ever since the late nineteenth century, women had been bombarded as never before with literature - pamphlets, sermons, manuals and homilies - about their rightful place in society: they were born to obey men, belonged in the home, and any activity which might lure them away from it was not only inappropriate, but actually degrading. Great intellectual talent could never be anything other than a misfortune in a woman, wrote Sarah Jane Ellis, the writer of a number of best-selling manuals for women in the mid-nineteenth century: "a jewel which cannot with propriety be worn." ("The crimsoning blush of modesty," added the High Tory clergyman Richard Polwhele, "will always be more attractive than the sparkle of confident intelligence.")
Reasons to be cheerful you don't live in the 19th century, #237485...