Belle Epoque To Belle De Jour – Biographies Of Sex Workers

Good morning my little mobile phones that won’t charge properly until a new battery is fitted, how is everyone?

As you may know, recently I read My Blue Notebook by the Belle Epoque courtesan Liane De Pougy (and Mineko Iwasaki’s book, though she insists Geisha did not do that) and it led me on a trail of other fascinating women of the demi-monde, as they were known.

One thing I have learnt from reading these and other books is that, from the very beginning, there have been two distinct approaches to sex work. In Roman times slaves were captured and kept in ramshackle huts to be worked to death, while women choosing to enter sex work filled in the appropriate form, got a licence and became her own mistress, sometimes living in luxury. The first kind, which still happens today in various forms, is a terrible thing and we must do what we can to help, but the second does not affect the first.

Choosing sex work doesn’t somehow insult the lives of those who didn’t. Belle De Jour received criticism during her book tour by those claiming “she shouldn’t have entered sex work because she didn’t have to,” but who are we to judge? She did it, sometimes she enjoyed it, sometimes she didn’t, just like any other job. We are all different with different experiences; just because something terrible happened to one doesn’t make it impossible or wrong for another to have good experiences. Life is a mysterious pathway with many twists and turns and, if someone isn’t hurting another, let’s just keep our eyes on our own feet.

OK, with that out the way, let’s hop in!

City of Sin: London And It’s Vices by Catherine Arnold

The author has written for fascinating website Whores of Yore (it’s creator Kate Lister explains it’s use of the term whore here).

 Beginning with the aforementioned Roman slaves and brothel workers, we move through history discovering which parts of London attracted which type of strumpet (Gropecunt Lane was as downmarket as it sounds) and who the infamous of the day were. As well as this we glimpse the sexual morays of the era, such as this great Tudor example of how things never change: “Another visitor, the Swiss physician Thomas Platter, was impressed with the joie de vivre of English women and their habit of frequenting London’s many taverns in an Elizabethan equivalent of a girl’s night out: ‘they count it a great honour to be taken there and given wine with sugar to drink; and if one woman is invited, then she will bring three or four other women along, And they gaily toast each other.'”
Rival to Belle Epoque courtesan Liane de Pougy, Carolina Otero was a Spanish dancer noticed by men from a young age (12, euw) after running away from a boarding school which essentially treated her like Cinderella. From there she became a sensation, performing on the stage in New York, Russia, Germany and the famous Folies Bèrgere in Paris.
Her life reads like fiction: she broke up a gambling cheating ring (and had a terrible habit herself), was patronised by kings, always picked the wrong man and had no qualms about slapping anyone who bad mouthed her, in front of a full restaurant or not. In short, she was fabulously entertaining.
Dancing at the Folies Bèrgere 1898:

No, it’s nothing like the TV series. The ‘real’ Belle de Jour (so to speak) reads books in the original French, named herself after surrealist Luis Bunuel’s film and mixes high culture with low filth. For example: “At one point, discussing the paintings of the Italian renaissance and the Low Countries, the conversation segued elegantly to the revelation that there is an exhibition at the Royal Academy of pictures of women with come on them. If true, I am so there.”

She’s a noir heroine, a modern woman of the demi-monde, the educated courtesan, a continuation of a tradition as old as humankind. Her exploits are addictive enough to pull us into her life, including her heartache over a man who went on to sue her after she was ‘outed,’ and to leave us curious for more.
Brooke Magnanti giving a talk at Oxford Union Debate Society
 So there we are. Let me know of any you’ve enjoyed that haven’t been mentioned here!
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