There’s a fascinating discussion going on at All About Romance just now about prostitute and courtesan heroines. It sent me back to a post I wrote here a couple of years ago and then reworked for History Hoydens. I thought this would be a good time to repost the reworked History Hoydens version. It’s especially timely as it hits on some issues I’ve been dealing with in Imperial Scandal (I’m finishing up the revisions over the weekend) where Suzanne/Mélanie’s past comes into play more.
[Spoiler warning: if you've only read Vienna Waltz and/or Beneath a Silent Moon, this post contains some spoilers].
There’s been a lot of discussion on e-lists I’m on and blogs and message boards lately about Your Scandalous Ways by Loretta Chase. I love Loretta Chase’s writing. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m very much looking forward to it (update note: I’ve since read it and loved it; great characters, both with complicated, compromised pasts, and a compelling love story). Going back to a couple of recent posts on my own website posts about Deal-Breakers (things that keep one from even trying a book or make one put it down unfinished) and Deal-Makers (things that make one seek a book out), it combines two of my deal-makers–spies and and an experienced heroine. Francesca, the heroine of Your Scandalous Ways, is a divorced woman who’s become a courtesan (the book is set in Venice in the 1820s).
And that’s been the source of much of the discussion about the book. Some readers find the idea of a courtesan as a heroine wonderfully refreshing. Others are disturbed by the idea of a heroine who had sex for money. Some have suggested the a courtesan heroine glamorizes prostitution. Others have pointed out that there’s a world of difference between a prostitute walking the streets or working in a brothel and a courtesan. Both may have sex for their livelihood, but a courtesan had far more control over her life and her person. She might have sex for money, but she could choose who she slept with. In fact it could be argued that she had more control over who she went to bed with than a married woman did in the early nineteenth century. In Beneath a Silent Moon, Mélanie/Suzanne says to Charles/Malcolm:
“Legally you can take whatever you want from me.”
“Not our marriage.”
No, it isn’t their marriage, but that’s thanks to the man Charles is. Legally Mélanie had more control over whom she slept with when she was a spy using her favors for information than she does as a married woman.
The courtesan heroine is almost an operatic staple, from Traviata to La Bohème (Mimi and Musetta both have wealthy protectors at various points in the story) to La Rondine.
Violetta celebrates the freedom of her life as a courtesan in “Sempre Libere”. Magda’s “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” in La Rondine plays on another paradox of the courtesan heroine. A courtesan is a sophisticated woman of the world who has had a number of lovers, yet though she has had the freedom to choose her lovers, there’s an economic element to all of them. She may never have actually been in love. In a sense, she’s the literary female counterpart to the rakish hero whose heart has remained untouched. Of course, rakish heroes get happy endings far more often than courtesan heroines. I was going to say that none of the love affairs end happily in La Traviata, La Rondine, and La Bohème, but in fact, Musetta and Marcello are back together at the end of La Bohème. One can argue, given their history, over how long it will last, but the romantic in me likes to think they’ve learned something and it will.
Back to my own books, Mélanie/Suzanne was never a courtesan precisely. She was a prostitute, an experience she revisits in Imperial Scandal in light of another character who’s both a prostitute and a spy, and also when she and Charles/Malcolm go to a brothel seeking information in Secrets of a Lady. It’s clear, I think, that her time in the brothel was fairly horrific. As she thinks in Secrets, In the past ten years she had known anger and fear and self-hatred. But since Raoul O’Roarke had taken her out of the door of the brothel in Léon, she had rarely felt powerless. It was one of the reasons she would be forever grateful to him. Later, though she didn’t sleep with men for money, she did so for information. I think it’s fair to say her feelings about this part of her life and about sex in general are more complicated. As she says to Charles in The Mask of Night:
“It can’t always be sublime communion, Charles. Not for me. It’s been too many other things. A tool. A weapon. A defense. An escape.” She pulled her dressing gown tight about her. “I told you once that my acting abilities deserted me in the bedchamber. That was true when I was in the brothel. I was too young to put on more than a crude show. But later– Sometimes it was sordid. Sometimes it was mechanical. But sometimes—slipping into a fictional skin, making love to someone for the night, knowing it’s just that night. There’s no freedom quite like it.”
Mélanie/Suzanne, however, is not an experienced woman who’s romantically untouched until she meets Charles/Malcolm. She was in love with Raoul up to when she met Charles and overlapping with her falling in love (against her better judgment) with her husband (those feelings are still present, if transmuted, in Imperial Scandal). That was a plot element I had in place very early in my planning of the book, before I had all the elements of the Charles/Melanie/Raoul triangle worked out. I hadn’t thought of it until I wrote this post, but I wonder now if I was subconsciously reacted against the archetype of the experienced heroine whose heart remains untouched until she meets the hero.
What do you think of courtesan heroines? Deal-maker, deal-breaker or neither? Any interesting examples to recommend? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve had sexual experiences but not for financial reasons? Do you view courtesan heroines differently from heroines who’ve been prostitutes or who’ve been spies and slept with men for information? Does it make a difference to you if the heroine has or hasn’t been in love before she meets the hero?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence letter is from Isobel Lydgate to her brother David about the rumors in England about Charles/Malcolm and Princess Tatiana.