During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a small group of women rose from impoverished obscurity to positions of great power, independence and wealth. In doing so they took control of their lives -- and those of other people -- and made the world do their will.
Men went to great lengths in desperate attempts to gain and retain a courtesan's favors, but she was always courted for far more than sex. In an age in which women were generally not well educated she was often unusually literate and literary, and courted for her conversation as well as her physical company. Courtesans were extremely accomplished and exerted a powerful influence as leaders of fashion and society. They were not received at court, but inhabited their own parallel world -- the demimonde -- complete with its own hierarchies, etiquette and protocol. They were queens of fashion, linguists, musicians, accomplished at political intrigue and, of course, possessors of great erotic gifts. Even to be seen in public with one of the great courtesans was a much-envied achievement.
In this riveting social biography, Katie Hickman focuses on five outstanding women -- Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead, Harriette Wilson, Cora Pearl and Catherine Walters -- each of whose lives exemplifies the dazzling existence of the courtesan. She reveals their extraordinary exploits -- including their stints in Paris, New York and California -- and offers insights into the glamorous history of courtesan life.
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Katie Hickman was born into a diplomatic family in 1960 and has spent more than twenty-five years living abroad in Europe, the Far East and Latin America. She is the author of three previous books: A Trip to the Light Fantastic -- Travels with a Mexican Circus, which was one of the Independent's 1993 Books of the Year and was short-listed for the 1994 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award; The Quetzal Summer, a novel set in the Andes, for which she was short-listed for the 1993 Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year Award; and Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon -- a Journey into Bhutan. She is featured in the Oxford University Press guide to women travellers, Wayward Women.From Publishers Weekly:
Nothing quite catches the eye like the promise of sex. This tease of a book (a pleasing companion to Virginia Rounding's more scholarly Les Grandes Horizontales, published earlier this year) follows five prominent "fallen" Englishwomen across the long 19th century, tracing individual lives and changing societal attitudes. Patterns emerge of how women entered and left the profession, along with insight into the comparative public lives of men and women, the legal status of many long-term relationships, and the interesting habit of "kept" women taking the name of their first major client, oddly like slaves of the American South taking their masters' names. All through, Hickman (Daughters of Britannia: The Lives and Times of Diplomatic Wives) seems as interested in the finances of the demimonde as many of her subjects are, but it's unclear whether she intends this as a measure of courtesans' value in a market or whether she has simply become as fascinated as contemporary observers were with dinners, jewels and fashions. Her chatty footnotes catch the reader up on the gossip and personalities of the time and elaborately link characters across the different narratives. Occasionally, her central figures get lost in the discussion of their associates, rivals, clients, cooks and dressmakers. Her account of Elizabeth Armistead, in particular, lingers as much on Armistead's famed protector and later husband, the Whig politician Charles Fox, as on the woman herself. Hickman addresses issues of attraction and sex appeal as best she can from her sources, but frankly, one is left wondering what happened in the bedroom. Was all of the courtesan's charm in the seduction? 16 pages of color photos not seen by PW.
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