Book review: The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues
cThe Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues by Susan Griffin. Not recommended.
In The Book of the Courtesans, Susan Griffin tries to capture the magic that made courtesans some of the most noteworthy and notorious women of their times. According to Griffin, a courtesan would need to have several virtues to succeed, including: timing, beauty, cheek, brilliance, gaiety, grace, and charm. Mixed with these virtues are seven “erotic stations”: flirtation, suggestion, arousal, seduction, rapture, satiety, and afterglow.
Griffin uses biographies to illustrate how various courtesans exhibited these virtues, for example, courtesan and poet Veronica Franco’s beginnings and career are covered under the chapter on “Brilliance.” Griffin, who earlier separated the concept of courtesan from those of mistress and prostitute, runs into trouble, for many of her plentiful examples do not fit her definition of courtesans. For example, she talks at great length about Mme. de Pompadour (mistress to Louis XV), Marion Davies (mistress to William Randolph Hearst), and “Klondike Kate” (gold rush saloon dancer). The point of naming these virtues is lost if a courtesan cannot be found who exemplified them.
Griffin’s information is untrustworthy. She states that Jeanne du Barry’s father was a monk as though this is an accepted historical fact. Most biographical information on du Barry, however, states that her father is unknown but could have been a cleric. There are numerous instances of this kind of misleading information throughout. She talks of a suggestive sculpture in the Musée d’Orsay based upon a body cast of courtesan Apollonie Sabatier, but art sources say this story is unconfirmed and originated from a rumour circulated at the salon where the sculpture debuted. It is difficult to separate Griffin’s blithe statements from the established facts.
The author doesn’t stop there, however. She engages in flights of fancy that sound poetic but have little basis in fact or reality. As a child, Mogador and her mother lived in fear of one of her mother’s former lovers. She escaped him twice, and, according to Griffin, “the exhilaration of these two escapes must have livened her [dance] steps” later in life. How the terror of running from being beaten and brutalised as a child could lead to “exhilaration” while dancing is clear only to Griffin. She uses “exuberance” in a similar context.
In addition, Griffin stretches metaphors past their limits, to the point where they are ludicrous rather than apt or poetic. For example, “even while destiny was robbing Céleste [Mogador] of any sense of safety, like the careening rise and fall of the polka, it also conspired to tempt her with something grander than simple security.” She says Marie Dorval “nearly asphyxiated herself for each performance,” which seems comparable to being a “little pregnant.” She states that, like the other poor people of Paris, Mogador saw the melodramatic events of her own life reflected [on stage]” and that “even today a pulse can be felt to vibrate back and forth between the stage and the audience.” What is lost here is that the members of today’s audiences are unlikely ever to have been poor in the same sense as Mogador.
Courtesans is replete with these kinds of disconnects. When discussing beauty, Griffin gives an example of a canyon, then claims that beauty “needs” to be enhanced — but fails to explain why or how one can enhance the natural beauty of a canyon. In other words, she demonstrates the opposite of her point — beauty does not need to be enhanced, and her concept of beauty is phony and ephemeral. She also says Blanche d’Antigny, at age 10, hid in the attic because of a “desperate longing” to stay in the “beautiful countryside.” The obvious never occurs to Griffin — that small children are rarely eager to leave the only stable home they have ever known, even an ugly one.
Another leap of logic occurs later when Griffin says, “Many men would have been threatened by such potency in a lover.” Perhaps this is generally true, but Griffin seems oblivious to the fact that “many men” aren’t Louis XV, king of France. His sense of security about du Barry’s “potency” is hardly remarkable, since he is the primary source of it.
Mostly, Griffin idealises the courtesan’s career, and much of Courtesans seems to reflect her personal regret that this lifestyle opportunity belongs to history. She quotes Veronica Franco as writing, “You can do nothing worse in this life . . . than to force the body into such servitude . . . to give oneself in prey to so many, to risk being despoiled, robbed or killed . . . what fate could be worse?” Franco’s advice is quite clear — except to Griffin, who says, “In fact, the impassioned tone of her letter does not contradict the passionate defense she made of courtesanry [where?], but instead outlines the perils courtesans faced . . .” “What fate could be worse?” than subjecting one’s will and body completely to others seems a very specific condemnation of the lifestyle, but not to Griffin. We can’t expect anything more of the author who peppers this “history” with page after page of fiction and who says, “But that is why fiction exists — so we may see the undocumented moments that would otherwise pass out of history, and thus out of our understanding, unwitnessed.” In other words, don’t file The Book of the Courtesans under “History/Women’s History,” as the cover suggests. Shelve it under “Susan Griffin’s idealist imagination.” Better yet, consider reading a different book altogether. Grandes Horizontales by Virginia Rounding has been recommended as an alternative.
As an aside, there is no index, which also detracts from any value this book may have had as a reference.
12 May 2004
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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