Good-time girls

The Book Of The Courtesans: A Catalogue of their Virtues

Susan Griffin <em>Macmillan, 324pp, £18.9

They were ladies of style. "When I am good, I am very very good," purred Mae West, hand on hip. "And when I am bad, I'm better." The French label was les grandes horizontales, which at least describes how they earned their living, as does the slang les agenouillees (genoux = knees: use your imagination). Call them what you will, they were good-time girls. The good time, according to Susan Griffin, was had not only by their clients, but by the ladies themselves, who (when dressed) paraded in fabulous jewels and finery, and often ended up marrying their most aristocratic suitors.

The term "courtesan" comes from Renaissance Italy, where they were cortigiane oneste, or courtiers; the reputation of Venice's 10,000 working girls, more than 10 per cent of the population, drew tourists from all over. There was even a catalogue with miniature portraits of the 210 "chief and most renowned courtesans of Venice", which was offered to visiting dignitaries. This was a deliberate revival of the hetaera tradition of antiquity. It handily provided Raphael, Tintoretto, Titian and others with lovely models prepared to pose nude.

It is no accident, Griffin suggests, that the next great heyday of such ladies was in Belle Epoque Paris, where they enraptured Toulouse-Lautrec, Dumas, Zola, Baudelaire and Berlioz. La dame aux camelias, romantic, beautiful and doomed, was Marie Duplessis, though she could as easily have been Blanche d'Antigny or La Reine Pomare. At bars off the rue du Bac, girls electrified the punters with whirling polkas and competed to see who could kick the cancan highest (often without their drawers). At a time when decent women hid all but their ankles, no wonder the poor chaps were swooning.

Griffin claims that these were women of real, not easy, virtue, though it seems a dodgy argument to me. She starts from two propositions that are nonsense. "Except among courtesans, if a woman had wealth, it was almost never her own, but hers to use only through the beneficence, permission or parsimonious allowance of a father, brother or husband." Balls to that, say I. Not only did the courtesan's money also come through the beneficence of a father or husband (somebody else's), able to vanish as swiftly as it appeared, but it was not impossible for a European woman to control her own resources. Even in the Middle Ages, widows owned property, ran estates and businesses, and commanded respect. For every Diane de Poitiers, there was a Bess of Hardwick or Marie de' Medici. For every Tullia d'Aragona, there was a Wife of Bath, jogging along on pilgrimage like some old-time Saga fan. For other women, honest achievement outranked diamonds: there was a Florence Nightingale or Edith Wharton for every Cora Pearl. For these were tarts, however stunning or successful. "I could not help it - I had no choice" is the cry of the harlot throughout the ages.

To make her point, Griffin glosses over the tragedies. Duplessis was dead at 23 of tuberculosis; the manic dancing had a feverish foundation. Abandonment in childhood, rape, sexual abuse, beatings and final destitution were common. The choice could be between starving as a grisette, working as a seamstress in poor, grey cotton, or experiencing the bright lights of gay Paris. Naturally, there were girls who would take their chances. There always are.

The book is packed with terrific anecdotes. Griffin's heroines are often larger than life, with appetites to match. Some became famous for eating (the name "La Goulue" in Toulouse-Lautrec's poster means glutton); Colette describes La Belle Otero polishing off four huge dishes of sausages, beef and chicken, then getting up to dance for sheer pleasure. Their taste was often for naughty finery: a splendid photograph of Otero shows her displaying a jewel-encrusted suspender on a fat thigh. They seemed to like sex all round, whatever the modern theories about prostitutes. The demi-mondaine Lanthelme received her patron's wife and agreed to give him up on condition that she could have the wife instead. Coral Pearl once had herself served up to dinner guests as the dessert, naked except for a dusting of icing sugar, cream and a single grape in her navel. The gentlemen paid her the finest compliment by scrambling up on the table and licking the sugar off her body.

And since it is the winners who write history, many of them did well out of it. The pages heave with nostalgia and envy. Flora, the courtesan of ancient Rome, became a goddess, while the anonymous dead were immortalised in literature. Although it is hard to paint a Marion Davies as other than a fool, or a Klondike Kate as other than a madam on the make, the wise ones quit while the going was good. Or as Mae West put it: "A man in the house is worth two in the street." Quite.

Edwina Currie's most recent book is This Honourable House (Little, Brown, £9.99)