Pootling through the archives, I found this post on a potential alternate career as a courtesan if I’d lived a few centuries ago…
So it occurred to me that, in a different time and place, the job of courtesan might have been a rather good career choice for me. Well, aside from the inherent unpleasantness of sex with people one might not find attractive, of course, but then all the best courtesans choose their protectors quite selectively, so let’s assume I would have been terribly successful and therefore prudently choosy. Courtesans hoarded their wealth in the form of jewels and information, holding onto pearls and love letters with equal fervor. Sometimes, as in the case of Harriette Wilson, those letters provided a genteel means of blackmail. (While Wilson, the scandal of Regency London, certainly offered to sell letters back to some of her gentlemen friends in exchange for her discretion when writing her memoirs, historians seem to think that the Duke of Wellington’s alleged reply—“Publish and be damned”—is likely fiction rather than fact. Pity. It does sound like something the Iron Duke would have said, doesn’t it?) But courtesans definitely had their eye on the bottom line, no indelicacy intended. They were often shrewd businesswomen, although some were woefully sentimental and ended badly. One or two, like Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s last official mistress, ended very badly indeed—her pretty head fell to the guillotine.
But if a courtesan had a generous protector and was discreet and loyal, she might carve out a very secure position for herself. The notoriously undersexed Madame de Pompadour, another paramour of Louis XV, kept a firm and dainty grasp on the king’s affections long after their physical relationship ceased. And, since wedded wives had the primary function of securing the family name into the next generation, the courtesan enjoyed the delicious freedom of knowing she would never face the pressure of providing an heir and a spare. By placing herself firmly outside the bounds of respectability, the courtesan also liberated herself from its noose. She gave up a good name, but in exchange she had far more freedom in arranging her own affairs—provided she was clever in her choice of protectors and managed them well. It might have been a precarious life, but it would never have been a dull one. Whether a devoted royal mistress whose charms were reserved solely for the king or one of the bright lights of the Gilded Age who flitted from bed to bed, the courtesan—perhaps even more than the queen—makes for the most fascinating reading in history.
So, what did it take to make a courtesan? One would expect tremendous beauty, but in fact, it was vitality and sensuality that mattered far more than a woman’s looks. Wives were often untutored in the ways of marital arts; enthusiasm was appreciated even more than symmetrical features. As standards of beauty have changed throughout history, the relative attractiveness of famous courtesans has altered as well. (Although I would defy anyone to look on du Barry’s wax likeness—“Sleeping Beauty”—in Madame Tussaud’s museum and not find her exquisite.) James II was said to favor one spectacularly ugly woman simply because she had stunningly beautiful legs. Mata Hari’s breasts were so diminutive she reputedly never took off the heavily jeweled vests she had created to cover them. And in the Gilded Age, the fashion was for women so plush and plump we would label them morbidly obese.
So, if perfect physical beauty wasn’t necessary, what was? It helped if a girl could lay claim to the following:
*A middle class upbringing. While a good number of royal mistresses hailed from the aristocracy, many were elevated from less exalted stock. When an aristocratic bride was expected to lie back and think of England while breeding up his babies, no doubt a nobleman would appreciate the more athletic charms of a woman of earthier stock. But although some doubtless enjoyed carousing with the lowest sort of prostitutes, few of them would have looked to the stews for a long-term prospect. A solidly middle-class upbringing would give a woman a merchant’s practicality for managing her business, a healthy appreciation for what her lovers could do for her, as well as the most necessary of the fundamental female accomplishments that a peasant girl simply wouldn’t have the time or opportunity to cultivate.
*Decent but not alarmingly good education. Bluestockings seldom made good courtesans. For starters, they were far too often inclined to get a healthy sense of their own worth and demand equality. A true courtesan combined a wide knowledge base with a good dose of common sense on how to succeed in a man’s world. She looked to her feminist sisters and saw how miserable their lives could be as they bruised their toes trying to kick in the door of male privilege. In the meanwhile, the courtesan simply powdered her face and slipped in the back door, collecting admiration and material wealth along the way.
*Lightness. The best mistresses had a deft touch, able to cajole a lover out of a bad mood or a bout of rage. She could burnish his clumsy quips to wit, broker a peace, and make her protector laugh all without stirring from her deliciously scented boudoir. If she was smart, she made friends and didn’t hold grudges. Her position alone would ensure she had enemies, but her behavior could blunt their arrows. A clever courtesan befriended everyone who could help her—on the way up and the way down.
*Sybaritic tendencies. A good courtesan was the best sort of hedonist, adhering to Epicurean principles of seeking pleasure in all forms and inflicting pain in none. She set a good table, offering the most delicious foods and wines to pamper her lovers’ palates. She gathered scintillating company to entertain and divert one another, often arranging for artists and musicians and poets to share their skills—and occasionally rewarding them with very special favors in recognition of their genius. She patronized the best establishments, dressmakers, jewelers, the makers of shoes and gloves and carriages, selecting what was best and most beautiful of their arts. She drove perfumers and coiffeurs to new heights, always eager to show herself to best advantage. And the most legendary of courtesans, developed a style all her own and stuck to it. Diane de Poitiers, long-time mistress of Henry II of France, dressed only in black or white, decorated her rooms in the same colors, and wore her crescent moon badge in diamonds in her hair. So smitten was he, the king even had this same crescent moon engraved in his armor and chiseled into the stone of his palaces along with their entwined initials.
And something else that didn’t hurt—family precedent. Harriette Wilson was not the only courtesan in her family, and once Louis XV discovered the delectable Nesle family, he made his way through four sisters in a row. His predecessor, Louis XIV, was sometimes entertained by the sister of his mistress, Madame de Montespan, when she was enduring one of her many pregnancies, and everyone knows the gossip that Henry VIII enjoyed the favors of Mary Boleyn before moving on to her sister, Anne.
In ferreting through my own family tree, I’ve discovered a long line of royal mistresses and concubines. From the mistress of Geoffrey Plantagenet to Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, from Poppa of Bayeux, the concubine of Rollo of Normandy, to Isabel de Beaumont, mistress of Henry I, there are at least a couple dozen pretty skeletons lurking in our family cupboard. And while I appreciate the many, MANY loyal wives and stalwart helpmeets populating the family tree, I have the greatest affection for the scandalous ladies who seized their fates in their own manicured hands and made things happen.