Courtesans: Money, Sex, and Fame in the Nineteenth Century by Katie Hickman is a social biography exploring the fascinating lives of five renowned courtesans—Sophia Baddeley (1745-1786), Elizabeth Armistead (1750-1842), Harriette Wilson (1786-1845), Cora Pearl (1835-1886), and Catherine Walters (1839-1920). Hickman charts the illustrious career of each courtesan, beginning with her life either as a prostitute or actress (a word synonymous with prostitute at the time).
Each courtesan is described as a unique individual. Sophia Baddeley recklessly spent exorbitant amounts of money; Elizabeth Armistead was an astute businesswoman who secured annuities from each of her successive patrons, enabling her to purchase homes for herself; the enterprising Harriette Wilson threatened to name names in her salacious memoir of 1825 unless she was duly compensated; the candid Cora Pearl valued her independence to such a degree she refused marriage proposals, claiming she detested men too much to ever obey one of them; and Catherine Walters (Skittles) excelled in horsemanship and in having an exceedingly small waist.
Some courtesans were able to move up the social ladder by attracting the attentions of wealthy, aristocratic patrons, (many of whom were European royalty) who then showered them with gifts and money and set them up in their own residences. Referred to as “kept women,” they frequently adopted the last name of their patron as if they were unofficially married. And some eventually married their patron.
The extravagant life-style of the courtesan was fodder for the gossip columnists. They and their patrons were frequently listed in the celebrity gossip section of Town and Country Magazine so all could see who was “keeping” whom and what benefits the “kept” woman received, including copious amounts of money, a home, servants, jewelry, etc. The successful courtesan demanded and received an all-expenses paid set up. Although the terms varied, for the most part, the courtesan was expected to make herself available exclusively to her patron at all times—that is, until he got tired of her and/or until he discovered her infidelity. Accomplished courtesans were highly sought after by men competing with each other to win her favor. The more prestigious her clientele, the more desirable she became, and the harder men would try to lure her from her current patron.
In addition to their dripping sexual allure and good looks, some courtesans were accomplished musicians, singers, actresses, and conversationalists. Admired by women as well as men, they were the fashionistas of their day, setting the trend for clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. But by the early nineteenth century, the general public became less tolerant of courtesans and extra-marital relationships. Men no longer gleefully paraded their mistresses around for all to see. The celebrity status of the courtesan declined, her work becoming enshrouded in secrecy; her transactions conducted in private.
Hickman provides more than an engaging biography of the lives of these five women. She gives us a detailed view of the life and mores of upper class nineteenth-century Europe, occasionally veering off into areas that are only tangentially relevant. Her research is well documented with extensive notes, sources, and bibliography. Her style is accessible, lively, and engaging.
Hickman treats her subjects with sympathy, admiring them for their fierce independence. But her claim that they are “a powerful symbol of a woman’s potential for autonomy” is, perhaps, a bridge too far. These women forged their identities based on their perceptions of what men desired. They were also totally dependent on a series of men to provide them with financial security and to maintain them in their extravagant lifestyles—a situation that doesn’t lend itself to the image of an autonomous female.
This was an engaging and highly informative read. It is recommended for those interested in cultural history and in understanding how and why a group of women cultivated the role of courtesans in nineteenth-century Europe.