Welcome to my latest “Alphabet Post.” Today I’m talking about a certain kind of woman who lived in earlier centuries. A woman of ill-repute–The Courtesan.
First, the definition of courtesan from the OED, is “a prostitute, especially one with wealthy or upper-class clients.” But we all probably knew that. So she’s the equivalent of a high-priced call-girl of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Yes, and no. Courtesans were a breed unto themsleves. Neither mistress nor wife, the courtesan–the word originally meant a woman of the court or a courtier–often had the freedom to arrange their affairs to their distinct advantage. Many of them became very wealthy. They may have started out by seducing a wealthy man, enchanting him with their beauty, wit, companionship, and sex. Then, when she found a better offer, she would leave Wealthy Man #1 and move on to #2. And #3. And…
There was a social status within the world of the courtesan: the cortigiana onesta (the higher ranked courtesan) usually very well educated and intelligent. She was sought after not only for sex, but for her social skills, her wit, her vivacious personality. They often had other professions–such as actress or poet or artist. In “1545 Italian Courtesan Clothing,” the “honest courtesan” is described as “at once, companion, lover, conﬁdant, and even advisor in matters both political and economic.”
The cortigiana di lume was a lower class of courtesan, although she stood several rungs
above the run-of-the-mill prostitute. She had more education and social graces than the street light-skirts, but did not have the charm or intellectual skills to move up to the higher category.
The highest ranking courtesans certainly knew their trade and how best to ply it. These women were very worldly and knew all the best and newest techniques for pleasing a man in bed. According to Eliza Knight, of History Undressed, courtesans sometimes also employed toys in their sessions. Nothing new under the sun, right? And these women knew it all–or invented it on the spot.
The life of the courtesan was not, however, a bed of roses. In her article, “The Naked Truth: Courtesans in Real Life vs. Fiction,” Diane Gaston recounts the stages of becoming a courtesan, based on Hogarth’s “The Harlot’s Progress.” Inspired by the life of 18th century courtesan Kate Hackabout, the series of engravings is a cautionary tale that shows the life of the courtesan in its true light.
Some courtesans you may have heard of in history: Mary Boleyn (her story was told in The Other Boleyn Girl), Nell Gwynn (an actress who became mistress to King Charles II), Madame du Pompadour (long-time favorite of the French King, Louis XV), and Harriette Wilson, a Regency courtesan whose clients included the Prince of Wales and several other high-ranking government officials.
Courtesans appear regularly in historical romance novels. They make for colorful characters, add conflict,
and sometimes become heroines in their own stories. After all this research, I suppose I’m going to have to include a courtesan in my next novel!
Have you encountered memorable courtesan characters in romances? Was she a good or bad character? Would you like to see this type of character appear more frequently in romance novels?