Prostitution is not an easy way to make a living, relying on your looks, wit, and body to make ends meet would be stressful and not lucrative forever. During Regency England it is said that one and five woman made their living by selling their bodies. Often these desperate ladies were born of poverty and uneducated. But for a courtesan, selling themselves was not just about beauty and sex. Their success also relied on the show of presentation. But to move away from the image of prostitute and to be viewed as a courtesan took dedication and determination. To be the best and most popular courtesan they learned to play music, read, debate, and charm men to the best of their abilities. The renowned courtesans were clever and accomplished. Gentlemen, who enjoyed their company and their style, admired the eccentric and outspoken ladies of the demi-monde. Many titled gentlemen frequented these women, since it was considered the fashionable thing to do, but only the very wealthy could afford their company. Having a famous courtesan on your arm bespoke of your wealth, power, and virility. Harlots were welcome at public places such as parks, theaters, and masquerades, but the houses of High Society were closed to them. Meeting those of the demi-monde at what is known as the Cyprian’s Ball was seen favorably by most, except by the heroine in the book I’m currently working on, but then she does view this event from an innocent young lady’s perspective.
The first Cyprian’s Ball was held in London’s Argyll Rooms in 1818 and was hosted by the celebrated members of the demi-monde, Harriette Wilson and her three sisters, Amy, Fanny, and Sophia, who were also courtesans. Harriette Wilson was one of the most famous and sought after courtesans of the early 19th century, whose clients included the Prince of Wales, the Lord Chancellor, and four future Prime Ministers. Harriette and her sister, Fanny, and friend, Julia Johnstone, were known as the three graces. These three ladies frequently spent time together and hired an opera box to share for the London Season as a way to show off their wares. People linked to one of the three graces were admired by others. The three graces were known for their wit, flirting, and their ability to wrap men around their well-paid fingers. Harriette retired at the age of 35 and in 1825, likely tired of her lovers broken promises, published a series of kiss and tell stories as her memoirs in a British broad sheet. In these stories the famous courtesan named those of which she was intimate. The War Hero, the Duke of Wellington, had a business arrangement with Harriette and was not happy to hear she was to publish these memoirs, he was quoted as saying, “publish and be damned.” Of course, she published her shocking memoirs anyway, holding the names of her lovers as blackmail. She suggested her past paramours give her cash payment to “prevent unpleasantness.” Harriette was daring and unashamed, and her memoirs enjoyed scandalous success. Her witty and cutting dialogue to others in her memoirs exemplifies her humor and cleverness.
The first page of Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs begins with, “I shall not say how and why I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven. Whether it was love, or … the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his protection, does not now much signify…”
At the Cyprian’s Ball admirers and protectors enjoyed an evening of unrestricted entertainment and dancing in a refined establishment. The rooms were expensively decorated, and at the first Cyprian’s event, statuary abounded with plaster carvings adorning the walls. The gentlemen were often members of the peerage or the military who attended these events without any type of mockery or embarrassment. The courtesans gossiped and preened for the gentlemen as they sipped spirits. At dawn a light supper and champagne was served.
The ladies of the night wore gowns made of the sheerest and most expensive silks and muslins. Deep décolletages with cleavage amply on display, empire waists with tiny puffed sleeves that always fell enticingly off the shoulder. Some ladies even dampened their gowns to accentuate their womanly curves. It was the place to say hello to past paramours and precisely where a gentleman could visit to find his next.
In my second book in the Wintergale Orchard Series, Love With Purpose, the hero, Lord Giles Vanhorn, involved himself with a courtesan and is now paying the price as the villain has turned the entire transgression into a public scandal. The heroine, Lady Avis Rosse, has difficulty putting the hero’s past love for a courtesan, a woman far more experienced than she in nearly every category, behind them. Avis seeks to protect her heart, but Giles plans to accomplish Herculean feats to win her love and admiration.
A special thank you to: Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs of Harriette Wilson. https://thecaferoyal.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/the-cyprians-ball/ https://thecaferoyal.wordpress.com/tag/harriette-wilson/