The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues

by Susan Griffin
270 pages,
ISBN: 0767904508

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Bewitchingly Beautiful Women
by Gordon Phinn

About thirty years ago, an era now rendered almost antique by the arrival of cell phones and the internet, I was gainfully employed by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment as a mobile technician in the noble battle against airborne pollutants. A white knight in the crusade against the dragons of lead and asbestos, I daily drove the length and breadth of what we now call the GTA, maintaining equipment and daily logs.

On one occasion, during a sudden downpour, plumped with pride in my chevy wagon, I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, only to discover, during the polite interlude of cheery chatter, that the skinny lank haired drowned rat lookalike was, in fact, a high school dropout dispensing sexual favours for money. The citizen alerted, I asked why she picked that particular lifestyle. She told me it was more fun than working in a store, and besides, the pay was much better.

Through many years and a growing exposure to the literature surrounding that often unacknowledged branch of the service industry, I suspected some sad fate had overtaken the rain-drenched waif. She didn't seem to have the looks, charm or determination to survive that most desperate of worlds. Little did I then suspect that her chirping complaint would turn out to be a modern day repetition of many a 19th century European courtesan. Witness Esther Guimond: "Dressmaking didn't suit me."

There is much in Susan Griffin's singular and mellifluous study which readily connects to our present day notions of certain women's economic trajectoriesłthose born in desperation, carved out of charm and boosted by connections. For despite being lifted almost wholesale by Griffin from that notoriously unreliable genre, the memoir, many of the tales traverse the all too familiar rags-to-riches territory, and their self-styled heroines can easily be imagined sitting opposite Oprah Winfrey or Larry King, catching that eternal limelight which seems to fall on women who beat all the odds. Historical relics relegated to the glowing museum of aristocratic grandeur and privilege courtesans may seem to be, but reverberations of their risquT allure can easily be felt in the dalliances and scandals of the actress/model/princess zone.

For Griffin, it may be Paris dans La Belle Epoque, or Venice in the glory of the Renaissance, or London in the iron grip of empire, but for the rest of us it could easily be a lavish party in Beverly Hills, New York the week UN delegates arrive, or Cannes, and its various stand-ins during their festivals of film: the hungry young don their glamour and curvaceous intention and swarm the assemblies of money and influence, everyone unctuously alert and sniffing for the main chance.

In a world adjudged oppressive, nothing excites a feminist like Griffin like the luscious prospect of a bevy of rich, alluring and powerful women: it confirms her every qualm about the skewered status quo by contradicting the premise on which their woes are built. Women are always kicked to the bottom of the writhing heap, we are told, and those determined enough to snake their way up out of the pit deserve our praise and applause, even as they stand on the heads of their rivals and spit at the dukes they dated last week. Her hurrahs for high priced hookers seem pretty much the standard worship of success at the capitalist shrine, the sort of thing we daily endure in our print and video culture. As with most feminist polemic, the usual blind spots apply: if the lady in question disobeys her parents, thumbs her nose at convention, or abandons babies to escape bruises and bill collectors, it's all just part of the heroic quest for freedom and self-determination, but if a lover, father or husband does the same, it's just one more nail in the coffin of the eminently disreputable patriarchy and its scurrilous operatives. And though virtues are vigorously evoked in a sensuous swirl of high calorie language, vices, common enough in the terminally ambitious, are barely tampered with, as if loosening the lid might allow the demons of naked drive to darken the otherwise rosy hues of this feminised pornography [porn(e): harlot, graphos: writing]. I searched the text in vain for that one phrase which seemed so aptly to describe these talented creatures, but alas, hustle artist was nowhere to be seen.

Now, I agree with your honour, the work is subtitled, a catalogue of their virtues, and the reader is thus forewarned, but the realist in all of us requires illustrations of temper, cunning, and vindictiveness to counter the majestic clamour of brilliance, gaiety, grace and timing. Oh, to see a catfight on the altar of the museum! These rapacious charmers, dressed conspicuously to kill, worshipped by poets and legislators and immortalised by the likes of Manet and Courbet, could use a little tarnishing. Where's Lytton Strachey when we need him?

In recent decades Griffin and her gallant cohorts have fearlessly restored the goddess to her rightful place in the pantheon, Gaia to her original victorious gallop, and the average gal to comfy runners and a jogging bra. This time out it's "restoring a lost legacy of women's history." Simply put, this amounts to: since courtesans were depicted as ancient artists portrayed the goddesses of myth, courtesans are latter day goddesses; and since courtesans charmed their way out of common obscurity we should all genuflect before the goddess in every woman. Well, namaste, as the hindus say. But first, let us get these Madonnas and Courtney Loves into some kind of amazonian perspective.

Society, as us commoners well know, changes little and usually sans alacrity. The hetaera of ancient Greece were divvied up in an all too familiar fashion: you could rent by the hour, have them over to sing and dance while you supped with your associates, reserve them for the night, or buy them outright for life, sometimes sharing the shack up rights with a buddy. They were slaves in the main, the conquered, but perhaps no more conquered than the orphan in the alleys of Bangkok or the highrise cells of Downsview, and had no rights as citizens. But, as James Davidson notes in his 1998 study, Courtesans and Fishcakes, "... these megalomisthoi hetaeras are the rich and famous ones, the ones catalogued in scholarly treatises, who had plays written about them and speeches composed on their behalf, the ones whose bon mots were recorded in anecdotal collections..." We can see the stars, as well as the poor, have always been with us. They ascend by charm, talent, determination, and remain by playing the power game to the hilt. Advising kings, laughing at admirals, cleaving to the appropriate charity, and scooping their own out of the gutter, renders them not transcendent, as Griffin would have it, but merely recognisably human. Who wouldn't say yes to a resplendent new wardrobe, gourmet dinners galore, a spin around the dance floor, and a four-poster bed with a log fire looking on? Can we please have a fanfare for the common man as well as the common woman?

That Griffin somehow manages to complete her orchestration of courtesanry without once discussing the niceties of birth control or the nasty nuisance of STDs should speak volumes to the reader who may feel this review a touch harsh. She would have us beguiled by the diaphanous mists of distant glamour, as diamonds glint and chuckles tinkle, but benumbed by fantasy we will not be, for the world is too much with us: the grimy traffic in boys and girls goes on under our noses, now as then, so as citizens alerted to the eternal lamentable lingering just under the titillation, let us perhaps pause over our public shame, and revel for a moment in the tales and tattle tales treading the boards of this centuries long unfoldment.

How about the hetaera Phyrne, on trial for sacrilege, conspiring, it appears to create a new god. And when her lawyer's defensełthat she had been channeling Aphroditełfails, what does she do? She strips! The jurors are awestruck: surely only the presence of Aphrodite herself could inspire such beauty, and she is acquitted. A more modern scandal you couldn't ask for. Now consider Lola Montez, the Naomi Campbell of her day, undone by arrogance and rancour. Ludwig of Bavaria loved her madly, but his public were provoked to riotsłthey wanted her removed; or Ninon de Lenclos, a lover of wit and learning, and scribe of the memorable, "We should never speak ill of our enemies, they are the only people who do not deceive us." She wrote her lover: "Men enjoy a thousand privileges which women never have. From this moment I have become a man." This around 1650. There was Madame de Pompadour, once plain old Jeanne Annette Poison, singlehandedly undoing decades of formality in the French court with her open emotions, intimate humour, and expressions of love and concern. As a diplomate of the intimate, she verged on the angelic.

More to my taste are two women from Venice, Tullia D'Aragona, a certifiable philosopher, who intrigues with but a few lines from her Dialogue on the Infinity of Love, and Victoria Franco, a sage, a poet, a compiler of anthologies and salon hostess supreme, one who, "like Tintoretto, rendered both the moment and a mirror of the moment." Unsuccessfully squeezed by the Inquisition for witchery, she has already been the subject of both a study (The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal) and a movie (Dangerous Beauty). Or perhaps you'd care to hear of Marie-Ernestine Antiguy from the journalist Callias, "who tells us that her departure for a tour of Baden caused a traffic jam when the thirty-seven coaches required to carry her dresses and hats obstructed the rue Ecuries-d'Artois"? Here, then, is a star-studded cast of scene stealers for any century.

As for Griffin's style, it wins hands down over the substance abuse I've been describing. Elegant, witty, supple and sensuous, she applies herself to the task with such aggravated aplomb, one wonders whether our scribe is perhaps more effectively seduced by the glam and glitter of La Belle Epoque than the preening males vying in the supplication stakes.

She comes trailing a three decade career in such fair gendered posturing. Her output ranges from the radical feminist rhetoric of Pornography and Silence (1981) through the laughably portentous reworking of gnostic principles, Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) to 1992's wonderfully accomplished A Chorus Of Stones, that fluid collage of research, interview and personal memoir melding private pain and public tragedy into a vibrant tapestry thoroughly trumping the culture of denial. After a career in the forefront of radical ferment, The Book of the Courtesans feels like a resigned settling into the mainstream. This is the kind of book that will slip easily off the shelf of any suburban library, offending few and charming many, much like the courtesans themselves. ņ

Gordon Phinn's new chapbook, Divinity Indwelling, is now available


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