For the last post as part of this week’s International Women’s Day theme, a book that I wasn’t really sure I should be posting about during this important week: Ian Graham’s history of courtesans, concubines and mistresses, from the ancient to the modern world, across the continents and centuries.
Readers, I love a tale of sexual intrigue as much as the next person – why else would I subject myself to The Only Way Is Essex – and Graham’s stories are absolutely riveting. However, I took issue with the lack of meaningful comment on the clearly unpleasant situations represented in these gossip stories. The women are invariably propelled on a journey towards these occupations because of the lack of power they have in their lives to begin with, whichever social stratification they are born into – whether it’s aristocratic women at court who can’t refuse a King who takes a fancy to them, or slum-dwelling women like Nell Gwyn, the saucy orange seller of Drury Lane, who worked in a brothel as a child and was already a mistress by age 12. However much influence some of these women end up having, the men are in power, the women remain at their disposal, and, just to keep them further in check, the women are judged heavily for their actions in a way the men are not. As one 16th century Italian courtesan, Tullia d’Aragona, described it:
If you knew the servility, the vileness, the depths and inconstancy of such a life, you would blame anyone…who said it was a good one and excused it. And anyone who helps a young girl, foolish enough to be pushed into such a life, to get out of it is saving her from misery.
But, readers, I put my feminist hat down for a moment – it does get heavy, with thoughts of the millennia of bastard patriarchy weighing it down – and reflected further. At least in compiling this history, Graham has given us the opportunity to read about these women’s lives in detail: their beginnings, the wealth and political influence they secured, their talents (not just for hanky-panky – there were quite a few courtesan poets, for example) and their contributions to society (e.g. the charitable theme of hospital foundation). Plus, Graham elevates these stories above the level of pure gossip by describing well the historical context surrounding them.
So, this is not necessarily a feminist read, and for that, during International Women’s Week, I do apologize. It is, though, a history of women basically trying to survive during difficult times, and we can at least say: well ladeez, you made the best of a stinking situation. That’s female strength, which we should always salute.