Courtesans in Romance

Editor’s note: Fair readers, I do not want to be here at this particular moment. It is 8:30 p.m. after a grueling week at my day job that culminated in a workday that started before 7 this morning. If it had not, I would have written this before work when I am fresh as a winter night and equally clear-headed. I mention my state of mind not to discourage you from reading but to explain that I am writing this now because this conversation matters to me. 

One of my favorite blogs is The Honest Courtesan, whose byline explains it all: “frank commentary from a retired call girl.” I love Maggie’s perspective for many reasons – because I am a libertarian and criminalized prostitution is a violation of the Constitution and the moral standard I believe in, because she articulates issues I have with feminism and the language of PC liberals often better than I can, because her stories never fail to deliver a narrative that I have experienced nowhere else. I don’t consider myself naive, but in many ways I have a theoretical knowledge that has never had to be applied to the real world, and her posts often either force me to do so or force me to take a logical progression to an end I might otherwise have avoided.

This post is not about her, or her blog, however, except as an introductory point about why I am writing about this topic today. Maggie asks every Friday the 13th that people who support decriminalization of sex work to publicly acknowledge that position, so that, for at least this one day, people who don’t work in the field but other people, mainstream people, vanilla people, can be seen to support the cause, as well. So that is why I’m tackling this topic tonight, when I’m tired and grumpy and would truthfully rather be heading to bed – to raise my voice and say it’s wrong to make a crime out of consensual sexual relations, no matter how morally repellent other people might find those relations. It deprives women of the right to make an honest living, it makes their work more dangerous, and it empowers the police and the judicial system to humiliate and discriminate against individuals at will. That is not justice; that is a perversion of justice.

That said, I present tonight’s topic:

The Courtesan in Romance Novels

Is it just me, or have courtesans slowly been disappearing from historical romance? I remember a time when every rakish hero had a mistress on the side, and she was always a paid bit of fluff who didn’t raise a fuss when he ended the relationship – as long as he gave her a generous severance gift, at least. For the past couple of years, or maybe even longer, though, I feel like the mistresses have been women of the hero’s class. Adulterous wives or merry widows who know the man socially and possibly know the heroine socially and can therefore create drama when he ends the relationship.

I am trying to decide if this shift has to do with the influx of chick lit readers who need the kind of petty drama that only a “woman scorned” can provide, or the publisher-driven move away from big sweeping adventure romances into teacup tempests that clock in at 70K instead of 130K, or if the actress-courtesan mistress is merely the latest victim in the whitewashing of romance for the bourgeois sensibility that has been happening over this same span of 2-5 years.

One of my favorite older romances is An Unwilling Bride by Jo Beverley, in part because of the friendship that the heroine strikes up with her new husband’s ex-mistress, who was a consummate example of the intelligent, educated, and discreet courtesan. Even among romance whores, however, she was a rarity – most of those characters were merely a bellwether to show the reader where the hero’s heart was.

I haven’t seen a Blanche Hardcastle in years. Maybe I am just reading the wrong romances…but I doubt it. I find this sea change to be a shame. Romance is not, perhaps, a genre that is known for challenging reader expectations or worldviews, but a sympathetic character can sneak under anyone’s guard.

For me, Blanche did. I was shocked that a man of good society wanted to marry her when he knew she had been a whore, and a celebrated one, at that. When I read the book and the subsequent ones in the series for the first time (at 18? 19?), the idea of a man marrying a whore seemed really outlandish. Even though, even then, I didn’t think prostitution should be illegal (just because I wouldn’t doesn’t mean no one should be allowed to), I did believe in the “fallen woman” myth – basically, that a woman’s worth is defined by her sexual history, and that once a woman becomes a whore she’s ruined for any other life. Blanche’s story was the start of cracking that myth in my head. Inara Sera from Firefly was another character who helped break it. I am sure that the setting helped, where her profession is revered and respected, but most of it was simply her. The amount of training she has in all the gracious arts is evident in every word she speaks and every smile she offers, and as a result Inara is more of a lady than even the “ladies by birth” we meet during the series. What drove the myth into oblivion, though, was the movie Once Upon a Time in the West, where the character of Jill is so utterly, brilliantly, capable…able to survive, able to live through and move past anything, able to laugh at the men who try to use her body to demonstrate power over her. “Go ahead. Call your men and let them have a turn, too. No woman ever died from that. Afterward I’ll be just the same as I was before.”  Nothing encapsulates more clearly the stupidity of reducing a woman to her “virtue” or lack thereof.

So I find the collective choice to stop offering even slightly positive depictions of courtesans and prostitutes in romance a little sad. I am not sure whether I find it troubling, because I can’t decide if it’s an intentional part of taking the grit out of historical fiction or if it’s a side effect of newer writers wanting to have woman scorned drama in their stories. I do find the sudden lack of discussion about whores inside the books kind of weird, though. They and their work was certainly part of every historical time period, and most of the heroes would have trafficked with at least the upper echelon of them. I have at least one whore story I intend to write, and maybe two. If nothing else, if there is a publishing conspiracy to lock romance into the ivory tower of upper-middle-class sensibilities, self-publishing continues to give every other voice an equal opportunity to be heard. Viva la revolution!

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Filed under Ramblings, Rants and Storms, Reflections on Romance

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