Courtesans By Katie Hickman

Bowled over by Skittles
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You wait ages for a book about courtesans and then three come along almost at once. Katie Hickman's Courtesans follows swiftly upon Virginia Rounding's Grandes Horizontales, which sought to capture the truth about four of Paris's most captivating sirens, and Frances Wilson's biography of Harriette Wilson (The Courtesan's Revenge, Faber) - one of the characters to feature in Hickman's own quintet.

Much, Hickman acknowledges, has been written about the demi-monde in Paris, Venice and Rome. But the English courtesan has been neglected and Hickman sets out to redress the balance, narrating this "golden age" of courtesanry - a very "long 19th century" - through the lives of five very different women.

Her survey begins in the 1770s, with the rise of Sophia Baddeley, an actress "who could not act" (understudying Cordelia in Lear, she went on for the first time never having seen the play, and was so terrified at the sight of Poor Tom that "she screamed and fell down motionless"). Her protector, Lord Melbourne, funded her excesses: a bill for £50 (£3,000 today) "would barely last her four days". From Sophia, we move to Elizabeth Armistead, who graduated from a high-class brothel to a marriage with the statesman Charles James Fox; via Harriette Wilson, "a kind of female counterpart to [Beau] Brummell" who named and shamed her lovers in one of the 19th century's most notorious memoirs; to Cora Pearl, who reigned over the Paris of the 1860s. The era's end comes in 1920 with the death of her final subject, Catherine Walters. Known as "Skittles" for her prowess in the bowling alley, Catherine was a fine horsewoman remembered vividly by one fellow hunter as wearing a riding habit "that fitted like a glove, and a bit of cherry ribbon round her neck". He recalled that, as she galloped past, "She made a remark ... to the effect that she felt convinced that when she reached home a certain portion of her anatomy would probably be of much the same hue as the tie she wore round her neck."

Hickman is at pains to point out that she does not offer definitive biographies of these women. What she gives us instead is a lively and unpretentious account focused on each woman's prime. Their entries to, and exits from, the heights are often shady. One of Hickman's difficulties, particularly in the earlier period, is the partial nature of the testimony left by the subjects themselves. Sophia is stitched together largely from lists of her expenses and what Hickman admits to be an unreliable source, the memoirs of her written by her friend, Eliza Steele. As with many such accounts, it is the narrator herself who often takes centre stage. Steele omits to give any physical description of Sophia but relates, for example, how she herself dresses in drag to rescue her friend from the bailiffs.

But Hickman knows how best to make use of the women's own words when they are available: a skill also practised to great effect in her previous work, Daughters of Britannia. For many years, Elizabeth Armistead too is seen through the prism of her lover, Fox. But when she takes up the story, in a journal covering Fox's last illness in 1806, her account is all the more moving for being quoted at length and without editorialising.

Hickman has great affection for her subjects. Despite Sophia's greed, Cora's seeming hardheartedness (she allegedly complained about a suicidal lover having stained her carpet with his blood) and Harriette Wilson's sideline in blackmail, she retains her sympathy for them all. But her desire to champion each of her women in turn can lead to overclaiming on their behalf, and the prose can tend towards the hyperbolic. The women are constantly causing sensations; Harriette's memoirs "explode upon London with all the force of a small atom bomb"; Cora is "one of the dozen or so most de luxe courtesans of the most luxurious demi-monde that the world has ever known". The difficulties of dealing with Elizabeth's obscure origins, in particular, are detrimental to Hickman's prose style, the phrase "What is certain is that" smattering the pages with an alarming regularity. But such uncertainties also give rise to entertaining digressions as Hickman throws out asides on fashions, contraceptives, the "specialities" offered by Covent Garden prostitutes. Though, in her eagerness to keep the reader speeding along with her pacey narrative, her notes can sometimes offer reminders once too often (the complexities of the Duc de Morny's parentage are explained twice in little more than a dozen pages).

However, it is in anecdote that she excels. Retelling a plethora of well-known yarns about Cora Pearl's parties, Hickman stops herself to ask, "Are these stories true?" "On one level," she answers, "it does not really matter." Hickman offers us no grand unifying theory of courtesanry. But she certainly knows how to show us a good time.