japonisme: courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part IIIA Courtesans

30 January 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part IIIA Courtesans

In a memorable scene from Colette's novel Gigi, the daughter of a courtesan is carefully taught to tell the difference between a canary diamond and topaz; a cocotte's cache of gems served both as an emblem of success and as a fund for her retirement.
[and table manners--click image for clip]

many many years ago, when we were young feminists, we went to an all-day workshop at a church in san francisco. the two things i remember about it were sitting in a circle with a mirror and a speculum looking at our own and each other's cervixes.

the other was a speech by margo st. james called "getting paid for it." listening to that speech then, and even remembering it now, i am reminded how difficult it is to draw a line between "respectability" and, well, "non-respectability." her point at that time exposed the possible underside of marriage: how far different was the wife whose husband sets her up with an art gallery, for example, from the woman who does the same without the marriage? the more i read the more i realize that the answer is inevitably very very little.

as with a mistress, an affair with a courtesan was rarely just a one-night stand, that is where the similarity ends. Courtesans could be both less and more than mistresses. Less because they were by no means always faithful. Usually, they had several lovers, some who contributed to the household expenses and some who did not... And unlike the mistress of a married man, who is often kept hidden, just as the courtesan was proud of her jewelry, she too was proudly displayed. She was expected to accompany her various lovers to public places and events, cafés, restaurants, balls, parties, the theatre, the opera, even hosting gatherings of her lover's friends at her own home.

During the Belle Epoque in Paris, among the wealthy playboys, aristocrats, and businessmen who belonged to the exclusive Jockey Club, it was considered de rigueur to keep a courtesan -- so much so that even homosexual men felt they had to do it for show... But perhaps the greatest distinction we must make here between kept women and courtesans is that the latter were personages. They were, indeed, what we call today celebrities. Friends of kings, regents, emperors, statesmen, financiers, famous writers and painters, they were the constant subject of columns printed in weekly journals, gossip about their romances, what they wore and what they did providing continual fodder for public curiosity.

Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, Colette, the Goncourt brothers, all based major characters on the lives of courtesans. And of course, from Praxiteles to Titian to Manet, they were favored as subjects by painters and sculptors... For this reason, a courtesan had to be highly cultivated. Often born to poverty, with no education and lacking upper-class manners, a young woman would have to be taught many skills in order to play her new role. As in Shaw's play Pygmalion (or the musical that followed, My Fair Lady), she would have to learn to speak with an upper-class accent, dress well if not lavishly, arrange her hair fashionably, walk gracefully, dance, and play the piano. She would be required to know table manners, of course, but also different protocols, including at times the protocols of the court. A woman who may not even have been able to read very well would now be expected to know the plots of operas, recognize literary references, and have some familiarity with history. Only the brave and intelligent would be able to survive the course... Many courtesans exceeded these requirements... More than can be counted were notable actresses, dancers, singers, music-hall and circus performers.

A few, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Coco Chanel, became far more famous in other professions... But if these women were remarkable in their accomplishments, they were exceptions among the already exceptional. Altogether, there can be no doubt that courtesans were extraordinary women, not only considering their talents but because, as Simone de Beauvoir writes, they created for themselves "a situation almost equivalent to that of man... free in behavior and conversation," attaining, "the rarest intellectual liberty." For centuries courtesans enjoyed more power and independence than did any other women in Europe. To understand why this was so, we must consider the history of women in Europe, a history that is by no means always the same as the history of men. 1

Copyright © 2001 by Susan Griffin

[this topic has proved richer than i'd imagined. this is just part one.]

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Blogger Dandelion said...

Thank you!
I really enjoy reading your blog.

01 February, 2008 04:35  
Blogger Joan DaGradi said...

Glad that this is just part one and will be continued. Fascinating!
Especially since even today, with all our modernity and a woman running for President, issues of sexism/survival continue to affect daily interactions. expectations and choices.
I never knew what sexism was until I became a nurse, briefly.
So much for making a difference....
Loved the speculum image!

01 February, 2008 07:06  
Blogger Roxana Ghita said...

Thank you for these wonderful posts. I remember the time when my grandmother had a fight with my mother because she allowed me to read Zola's Nana when I was very young :-) one of my favourite stories of all time is about prostitutes, but - no wonder perhaps - is japanese, The house of the sleeping beauties by Kawabata. You should definitely read it if you haven't already.

01 February, 2008 13:40  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

well thank you, dandelion, thanks for your kind words.

joan--you intrigue me in your comment about when you were a nurse. but yes. it's quite amazing. i wonder how long it will take for the lingering effects of these elements of culture, which still fascinate us, to stop shaping our consciousnesses, our ethics, our expectations.

roxana--well as you may have already noticed, you are prescient in mentioning nana. the more i think about it the more i wonder if there are many heroines, particularly from this era, who are not courtesans.

i have read it, but it's been a while--i'll have to check it out again--thanks.

and thanks to all of you for your comments.

01 February, 2008 20:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

roxana first of all i have a question for you,as you said i was intrested and fascinated about the courtesans and their stories,and now im working like a courtesan,you never tought to try this work?i saw your name and i think you are romanian...am i right?let my inrtoduce you my favorite book its called dama cu camelli the author its alexandru dumas.its the nicest book i ever read..you should try.can you recomand me some other book's about courtesans?thanks

11 February, 2010 22:42  

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