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In terms of sheer cushiness, few jobs have ever rivaled that of a courtesan. As Katie Hickman shows in Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century, a successful courtesan pocketed astounding amounts of money and lived in the most sumptuous conditions. Her labors? Having lots of sex with the dukes and princes of her choice, “very often,” Hickman writes, “for her own pleasure as well as theirs.”

Our author, sporting feminist-colored glasses, has revisited the “long” 19th century, from the 1770s to the cusp of World War I, and reconstructed this golden age of British courtesanry through mini-biographies of its five greatest practitioners. Tracing the arc of courtesans’ glory in high society, Hickman begins with Sophia Baddeley, an “actress who could not act—who, in fact, avoided the fatigue of the acting life whenever she could.” Happily, Baddeley’s erotic magnetism suggested a natural second career, in which her performances were considerably better received. Sweet-natured Elizabeth Armistead was so compelling that a patron took the reputation-endangering step of marrying her, because, he wrote to her, he could “better abandon friends, country, everything, than live without Liz.” The notorious Harriette Wilson, when she could no longer rely on her current charms for income, enterprisingly milked her bygone charms by writing a memoir for extortive purposes. Bringing the era to its conclusion were Cora Pearl, the model for Emile Zola’s saucy Lucy Stewart in Nana, and Catherine Walters (“Skittles”), whose skill on a horse matched her skills in the sack.

Hickman, a British writer whose previous work includes a study of diplomatic wives, draws on meticulous research for her portraits, not only creating biography but also recounting fascinating incidental history. For example, the rarity of pregnancy for late 18th-century courtesans can be attributed in part to “Mrs Phillips’s ‘fam’d new Engines—Implements of Safety for Gentlemen of Intrigue’”—proto-condoms made from dried sheepgut, which came in “three convenient sizes.” The chapter on Elizabeth Armistead offers a window into British politics; Armistead’s devoted lover, Charles James Fox, was a prominent member of Parliament who crusaded against corruption in the East India Company.

Armed with such details, Hickman writes with a penchant for understatement and a sly sense of irony. She approaches her subjects with affectionate respect, though she sometimes seems as awed by them as their patrons were. Their power, she writes, was “a kind of sorcery; and only an exceptional woman could pull it off.” She remains cognizant of their flaws—Wilson’s inflated ego or Pearl’s horselike physiognomy—but finds the women all the more endearing for them.

For readers unfamiliar with the nuances of the world’s oldest profession: The difference between a courtesan and a common prostitute was as considerable as the distance between a palace and a street corner. Courtesans were often “kept” women maintained in style by consecutive protectors, whereas keep is probably low on the list of things a john wants to do to a hooker. With their wealth, their long-term relationships, and their customs of hosting salons and attending the opera, courtesans would seem to have more in common with aristocratic wives than with their lower-class counterparts.

But courtesans were not mere wife wannabes; on the contrary, we might wonder if the reverse was sometimes secretly true. Hickman quotes William Acton, a Victorian authority on prostitution, as conceding that “with plenty of money to spend and denying themselves no amusement or enjoyment, encumbered with no domestic ties, and burdened with no children…this actual superiority of a loose life could not have escaped the attention of the quick-witted sex.” The most successful courtesans were the celebrities of their day, the ultimate trophies for rich and powerful men, and the setters of trends. “Courtesans did not follow the fashion,” Hickman emphasizes; “they were the fashion.”

Still, thanks to the stigma and insecurity courtesans endured, it took an unusual sort of woman to flourish in the demimonde—a woman untroubled by breaking rules, who embraced sexuality and prized independence. Most courtesans came from the middle and lower classes, having stumbled into the profession after an early faux pas or violation left them, by the brutal standards of the time, unfit for marriage. An exception was the flamboyant Wilson, whose journals suggest that she always wanted to be a courtesan when she grew up. Early on, Wilson decided to “live free as air from any restraint but that of my conscience”—which, Hickman writes, was “an unusual decision for any woman (and quite startling in a ten-year-old).”

Although Hickman acknowledges that “[i]t may seem inappropriate to use the word ‘feminist’ to describe a group of women whose success depended on their skill in pleasuring men,” she goes on to argue that courtesans were “a powerful symbol of a woman’s potential for autonomy, for sexual and emotional self-expression; and a sweet-throated counterblast to the stultifying tyranny of female ‘propriety.’” This book is one of a slew of similar ones, fast approaching subgenre status, that re-examine yesteryear’s female roles in a postfeminist context. Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses surveys the inspirational services of women such as Yoko Ono and Lou Andreas-Salome, some of whom were artists in their own right; Betsy Prioleau’s Seductress celebrates the erotic arts throughout history, via sex goddesses whose appeal was undiminished by age or homeliness; Carol Loeb Shloss’ new biography of James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, is one of several that claim overshadowed greatness for the female relatives of famous male artists. Perhaps none of these roles can compete with Supreme Court justices by feminist criteria. But in an era when such professions were inaccessible, these women managed to exercise influence through the means available to them. Feminine power, like water and money, will always find an outlet.

Not everyone, of course, will buy these authors’ argument. Their mothers and aunts might point out that women make true progress by subverting their obligation to please men, not by exploiting the roles men eagerly provide. They might also note that courtesans’ aspirations—a good time and excessive personal wealth—did little to benefit the sisterhood. Hickman would probably concede these points, but her aim is to present these women on their own terms and to underline the ways they did flex their power and assert their independence, in a time when doing so was a feat akin to the most audacious jailbreak.

Under Hickman’s pen, all the courtesans in the book spring memorably to life. Pearl, perhaps the classic courtesan, was confident despite her plain looks, highly sensual, and given to outrageous antics and fashion experiments. She left dozens of anecdotes (mythical or not) in her wake. Once, she is said to have dyed her dog blue to match an outfit. (Hickman notes parenthetically that “unfortunately the dog died.”) She was also a natural hostess. When one of her guests broke a liqueur glass, Hickman tells us, one of an expensive set of which Pearl was especially fond, “his hostess ‘accidentally’ broke another four, simply to put him at his ease.” Her success depended on a certain detachment from men that some courtesans were unable to maintain, along with a sharp financial acumen. Pearl’s less professional colleagues sometimes fell prey to the ultimate occupational hazard—love—or were disastrously inept with money.

Inventories of extravagance, of jewels and coaches and gilded beds with richly embroidered coverlets, form a recurring motif of the book. In fact, reading the book is much more likely to stoke greed than lust. Given its subject, it is remarkably short on prurience. The dearth of who-did-what-to-whom gossip is surely due in part to the era; though not lacking in juicy material, Victorian England was less likely to leave records of it than today’s Paris Hiltons and Pamela Andersons, for reasons of both technology and propriety. More than the details of the bedroom, Hickman delights in anecdotes illustrating the recklessness inspired by courtesans’ allure. Laura Bell, a courtesan of the 1850s, was allegedly given the equivalent of 12 million pounds for a single night with a Nepalese prince. (In a typically scrupulous footnote, however, Hickman admits, “It has been suggested that this was actually the total sum the Prince spent on Laura during the whole period of their acquaintance. The single night is a better story, though.”)

In the past, Hickman notes, accounts of courtesans’ lives were often morality tales (except, of course, when written by the courtesans themselves). From the adjectives she uses—“high” courtesanry, “great” courtesans—it is clear that she views courtesanry as not merely a respectable profession, but as an artistic calling. Indeed, she contends, “Perhaps more so than any other women in our history, their lives were their art.” As her subtitle indicates, their lives were about money, sex, and fame. The spoils of every celebrated artist—but for courtesans, the means as well as the ends. CP