Magazine article The Spectator

A Fate Far Better Than Death

Magazine article The Spectator

A Fate Far Better Than Death

Article excerpt

A fate far better than death COURTESANS by Katie Hickman HarperCollins, L25, pp. 343, ISBN 0007113919

Any woman worth her salt has a touch of the courtesan about her - or wishes she had. To be maintained in luxury in order to foster sexual desire and nurture desirability, without the humdrum responsibilities of legal entanglement, is no bad deal - one which the modern woman might almost lament the loss of today when matrimonial ties are so misty that to take a stand outside them is neither exceptionable nor profitable.

If asked, I would have said that the subject of the British courtesan would make somewhat vapid reading. The ancient Greek hetaera or the Venetian cortigiana appear to offer far more scope for exploration of shades of erotic sophistication. How wrong I would have been! Whether you are temperamentally for or against the idea of courtesans, Katie Hickman's bold and lively book could hardly fail to make you appreciate the British variety's particular allure.

The lives of the five, by any account fascinating, women which unfold in this book - Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead, Harriet Wilson, Cora Pearl and Catherine Walters - span the years 1745-1920. Hickman deploys her research cleverly. Her knowledge of the evolving social attitudes to sexuality, from the unsqueamish, pragmatic 18th century to the faux-fastidious Victorian era, solidly underpins the story of her courtesans' lives but never detracts from their distinctive personal dramas.

No less than with fiction, writers of nonfiction must, while remaining clear-eyed, have sympathy for their chosen subjects in order to kindle ours. Hickman approaches her courtesans with a tenderness and ready empathy. She describes how her imagination was fired when, as a teenage girl, she was vouchsafed, during a visit to an enlightened French friend, a brief but compelling sight. Her hostess took her young charge out of the way to point out a beautiful woman 'mysteriously illuminated' in a doorway, who, on closer scrutiny, was revealed to be wearing, beneath her cloak, the 'full regalia' - stockings, suspenders, basque - of a whore.

Sometimes, in her concern to rout prejudice and celebrate her subjects' achievements, Hickman protests a touch too much. Of the five women, only one struck me as finding real fulfilment: Elizabeth Armistead, the friend, companion and finally wife of the charismatic 18th-century politician Charles James Fox. …

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