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.
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.'”
On we move through the Puritan crackdown, the Regency courtesans, Victorian hypocrisy and beyond, exploring naughty poets and libertines and those just looking to earn a crust. Fascinating!
Courtesans explores the lives of five women in detail, a couple of whom were touched on in City of Sin: Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead, Harriette Wilson, Cora Pearl and Catherine “Skittles” Walters.
Where City is a sprawling account of over a thousand years, this is a more intimate portrayal, it’s gossipy (but still intelligent) tone drawing you in and making you feel like an excited fan reading about their exploits in the papers – secretly, in case you’re caught.
What leaps out is that these women were not victims, they were in charge of their own lives and did very well for themselves in a time when it was rare for women to be so independent. There are tidbits such as Harriette’s assertion in her memoirs (which i am definitely getting) that The Duke of Wellington was bad in bed, and Skittles’ furious remark after being asked to leave a social function by a countess that “I don’t know why she gives herself such airs, she’s not the queen of our profession, I am.” If they were around today there would definitely be a TV series on them: Real Courtesans of the West End possibly?
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.
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!
Good day my little ships that no-one remembers putting in a bottle, you were just there one day, watching from the mantelpiece. I’ve been reading about fascinating women and long to share them with you. I don’t know why I’ve focused so much on women, it was purely accidental.
Billie is one of those people that so many stories have been told about, nobody really knows what’s true. The fact that she enjoyed a good yarn didn’t help matters, much of her autobiography is fiction. How she must have chuckled. Anyway, this intensive biography is filled with first hand interviews and great research, and delves right into the Billie in the soft squishy centre. True, terrible things happened to her and she lived in a time even more racist than now, but she was a tough lady and certainly not a victim.
Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, a disturbing nightmare of a song about lynching:
Belle Epoque courtesan Liane de Pougy kept a diary from 1919 to 1941. It’s an enjoyable insight into one woman’s thoughts, but unfortunately it’s no unexpurgated Anais Nin. She began writing after she was already married to a Romanian Prince and her naughtiness was mostly behind her, but stick with it as she often drifts into reminiscence.
Not that her life is completely uninteresting at the time of writing. She was good friends with poet Max Jacobs, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau and writer Marcel Proust among others, and had unfinished business with more than one woman. But, if it’s juicy stuff you’re after, I recommend Anais Nin.
“Look at this communication from mamma, all on account of a wine stained dress. Sometimes I get so bored and sick for you…it helps then…and afterwards I’m just more bored and sicker for you – and ashamed.”
This biography tries to capture Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F Scott, in all her volatile, complicated glory. She at once wanted independence and to be looked after, to make art but was afraid to try for real, to live wildly and to have Scott to herself. She was a fascinating, complicated woman and one many confused but passionate people can relate to now. She encapsulated something about the twenties, the new speed with which the young travelled, but also the lows that followed when some deeper need inside yourself is left unfulfilled.
After the disappointment of Memoirs of a Geisha I wanted to read a true account of one of Japan’s living art dolls. until recently it was a world shrouded in secrecy, ramping up the curiosity of outsiders and leading to gossip. I’m sure sex work was a part of life for some Geisha, but I don’t think it was the rule. Perhaps it depended on the individual and circumstance.
I loved this book, it felt as though she’d popped round for tea and a chat. The characters are vivid as are descriptions of Japan undergoing a dramatic change from the old feudal system to the modern country it is now, and the details of gruelling practice and homesickness capture what a crazily disciplined life this was.
Mineko pops up in an interview during this TV spot:
I turned the pages like a mad woman during this book. Perhaps it was my former career as an artist’s model, or maybe her vulnerability that made me want to protect her, but the model who posed as Ophelia among others seemed very real and somehow modern.
Trapped by her love of artist Rossetti despite his commitment to free love, addicted to morphine and possibly anorexic, she was as much a doomed tragic heroine as Ophelia. Lucinda’s writing is objective and looks at scenarios from all points of view. She doesn’t make excuses for Lizzie’s sometimes unreasonable behaviour but doesn’t condemn her either, thus we can appreciate her as a well-rounded, exasperating but lovely human being.
Despite radiating the sixties from her very pores, there was also something fabulously twenties about Edie Sedgwick. The way she held her cigarette, her Holly Golightly mannerisms, her ability to dive into the dark side with an innocent mischief.
This is probably the perfect book about Edie because it’s filled with people who were actually there. Everyone has their own perspective and, rather than chop and change to fit an easy narrative, it’s all there. This brings us Edie the person, not the angel other books project. Yes, she was magnetic, but she also stole from friends and had a wildly selfish side. Far from putting us off, it allows us to enjoy and learn about her as a whole instead of a flickering, unobtainable image on a screen.
A collage of pictures and footage over tapes she made in the psychiatric unit for her last film Ciao Manhattan: