Friday, October 1, 2010
My dearest Reader,
I thought it time I cover the subject of courtesans. There is a lot of misconception as to how a courtesan went about her business and how society reacted to her. So I shall try my darnest to ensure we dispel with those dang misconceptions.
Though these women may have started on the streets, they were different from others not just in beauty but also in wit and the ability to entertain any man with the flick of a wrist while making it all look very respectable. She was a woman who dared break the rules with men and women alike. It is the high etiquette of whoring and the art of eroticizing not only her behavior in the bedchamber but her whole way of life. All of her lends to the idea of pleasing men whilst pleasing herself.
Beautiful, neat, clean, fashionable, cunning at the card table and games, proficient in arithmetic, language, be able to recite poetry, play at least two musical instruments and be a proficient singer. A true courtesan lives respectably in the sense that she would never be seen in a brothel or bartering herself on the streets like a common whore. Any and all terms and conditions were made into legal documents, drawn up and witnessed by lawyers. She had the business acumen of a merchant capitalist. She survived on her woman’s wit in a man’s world. They take control of their own lives knowing it comes at a high cost. The most successful courtesans were those that were able to distinguish themselves from every other pretty face.
Courtesans were admired, emulated, courted and even wed within the realm of London society since the 1700’s and yet readers and writers alike have a modern way of thinking that is warped. While other parts of the world had laws and regulations that kept courtesans in their place, no such limitations existed in London. Even in 1879 when French courtesan and actress Sarah Bernhardt came into London and attended the theatre, she was publicly hailed by all. Some even physically knelt before her, including several men of the aristocracy. She was invited to dinners and rides in Rotten Row alongside nobility by top London society. Not to say that people weren’t outraged by this, but to say that these women were outright shunned is a bloody lie. A courtesan was only really considered dangerous to society because she leveled out the playing field between all classes, not just financially but morally. What if respectable women wanted to be independent too? Then what?
These women sought more than money, they sought independence and power in a man’s world and knew how to bring men to their knees not just physically but emotionally while making them pay for it. Many rose from the beds of their protectors into the ranks of aristocracy, though many also snubbed marriage to such men for they knew the moment they submitted to matrimony, they revert to a sense of powerlessness. To rise in the ranks of society as a courtesan, she had to frequent places of society, as well as best display all of their assets, while demonstrating refinement. Having her own theatre or opera box was key. It was an investment similar to taking out a billboard. She also attended pleasure gardens, halls, masquerades, rode her horse, mingling publicly with people well below herself. People not only tolerated it, there were crowds of men and women of all classes and quality who gathered to witness her public displays. She was a celebrity in her own right usually made a celebrity by an aristocrat who had ‘discovered’ her.
She attended dance halls to upkeep business or start it. The most luxurious and fashionable of dance halls during the Victorian era was the Portland Rooms, known as Mott’s, where the most expensive courtesans sought customers between midnight and four or five in the morning. A dress code was enforced: gentlemen not wearing dress coats and white waistcoats were refused admission. Skittles was known to frequent Mott’s, even though she was one of the highest paid courtesans of her time. It was all about building her brand. Men who wanted to engage her, usually sent other men to her door asking if she was interested. Think of grade school all over again...
A well to do courtesan had to do more than look good, she had to live the lifestyle she was selling herself to. She could have up to as many as thirty servants and some were known to boast not one, not two, but THREE chefs, not including the kitchen staff. All servants were attired in elaborate, expensive liveries. Her home was decorated with fresh flowers at all times, all the rooms were scented with patchouli and vetiver. Every room held the most expensive and latest in furnishings. Her china alone would put the Queen’s set to shame. She kept a carriage and four AND several other vehicles that would best display her as she rides. She was never vulgar in appearance and she looked like a woman of the first rank. She enhanced her beauty with rouge, milk of roses, strawberry water and even used the ridiculously expensive pearl powder available for a guinea an ounce to enhance complexions. If she had freckles, she covered them like any other respectable lady.
Just her upkeep each year from milliner to hats, shows, stays, perfume, jewelry, and hosiery alone could be worth 8,000 pounds. Which is nearly half a million dollars a year, not including housekeeping, servant’s wages, furniture, travelling, horses, theatres, opera and any form of entertainment. She had to have skills of laying out a dinner party to match those of erotic technique. The way she sat and spoke and arranged the folds of her gown exceeded that of nobility.
Cora Pearl is quoted as saying, “My independence is my real fortune.” In 1864, the craze in Paris was for women to have bright red hair, which they obtained by applying a mixture of ammonia and powdered brick dust. Cora Pearl whose hair was dark, was the first to unfurl the fashion in London. She even dyed her dog blue to match one of her outfits (unfortunately, the dog died shortly afterward....) There's much more to cover on this subject, but we can't have your eyes rolling to the back of your head. I promise to touch on courtesans more throughout the coming months.
Until next time...
Cheers and much love,