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Posts Tagged ‘courtesans’

Unlike Takao who is very much missed, Komurasaki is missed by no one.  –  a Yoshiwara courtesan, quoted in 1683

By now the regular reader should have noticed three recurring themes in my harlotographies: one of them pertains only to whores of pre-modern times; the second up to at least a century ago (though it is more pronounced in ancient stories); and the third up until the present day.  Taking these in reverse order, they are as follows: the inability of amateurs to simply report biographical facts without embellishing, dramatizing and romanticizing them; the difficulty of ascertaining even numeric biographical details with any certainty; and the confusion of more than one harlot with the same name.  All three principles are highly noticeable in the tale of Takao, a Japanese oiran (courtesan) who lived from 1640 to 1659; the lady in question was one of at least six courtesans (some sources say as high as eleven) with that name, and so is generally designated with the unimaginative moniker “Takao II”.  Very little is known about her with any certainty other than the day of her death, December 5th, 1659; however, that didn’t stop talespinners from turning her story into one of the most popular of kabuki plays.

I’ve written at length about the world of the oiran, but this passage bears repeating:

Until 1617 prostitution was completely legal in Japan, but in that year the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an order restricting prostitution to certain areas on the outskirts of cities.  Yujo (“women of pleasure”) were licensed and ranked according to an elaborate hierarchy, with oiran (courtesans) at the top and brothel girls (who were essentially slaves) at the bottom.  These “red-light districts” were not implemented for the moralistic reasons which spurred their creation in the West, but rather to enforce taxation and keep out undesirables such as ronin (masterless samurai); prostitutes were also not allowed to leave the district except under certain rigidly-controlled circumstances.  Soon the districts grew into self-contained towns which offered every kind of entertainment a man might want, all entirely run by women.  Once a girl became a prostitute her birth-rank ceased to matter, and her status was determined by such factors as beauty, personality, intelligence, education and artistic skills.  Even among the oiran there were ranks, of which the highest were the tayu, courtesans fit to entertain nobles…

Takao was a tayu under contract to the Great Miura, the largest brothel of the Yoshiwara district.  Though we know absolutely nothing about her personality or skills, they must have been as striking as her beauty for her to achieve the position of “top girl” at the Miura house soon after her debut, and to become the most sought-after courtesan in Yoshiwara within a short time thereafter.  Every contemporary source (of which there are three) say she died of tuberculosis; Takabyōbu kuda monogatari (Tales of Grumbling Otokodate) also states that several of Takao’s clients paid for her funeral even though they had failed to visit her on her deathbed.  But despite “consumption” being the traditional cause of courtesan demise in Western romance, Takao’s tragic death at the peak of her success wasn’t nearly dramatic enough for kabuki; for that love, treachery and violent death needed to be added. 

Enter Date Tsunamune, who had become Lord of Mutsu at the age of eighteen after the death of his father.  Some of his kin, however, plotted against him and managed to trick him into visiting Yoshiwara as a means of getting him out of the way.  While there he hired Takao and immediately fell in love with her, proposing to buy out her contract and marry her.  This much is largely historical; Tsunamune was a real person whose did indeed face opposition from his family (and was deposed in 1660).  He may indeed have visited Yoshiwara, though a letter claimed to be from Takao to him has been proven a nineteenth-century forgery.  But the rest of the story as told for generations is the stuff of fiction.  Naturally, Takao is supposed to have rejected his offer; some sources feel mere dislike for the man or a desire for independence after the termination of her contract are insufficient motivations for the rejection, and invent a lover who had pledged to marry her when her term of indenture was up.  I’m sure y’all can guess where the story goes next:  Tsunamune refused to take “no” for an answer and made the brothel owner an offer she couldn’t refuse, Takao’s weight in gold for the contract.  The owner accepted, but took advantage of Tsunamune’s lust by putting iron weights into the sleeves of Takao’s robe, boosting her weight to 75 kilograms.  Some storytellers say that on the boat trip from the brothel, Takao hurled herself into the river to drown, counting on the weights to take her to the bottom; others say Tsunamune caught her in the attempt and killed her with his sword instead, then dumped her body.  Still another version says that Tsunamune had one of her fingers broken for every day she refused his bed, and after he had gone through both hands he had her hanged.  But all of these say that her death (whether by murder or suicide) was the excuse used by Tsunamune’s uncle to remove him from power.

Co-opting the lives of sex workers to tell lurid stories of woe and tragedy is nothing new; it’s been done for centuries, perhaps millennia, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.  But at least in the Japanese variety, the tragedy derives from the freely-chosen actions of a proud, accomplished woman in defiance of fate, rather than from the pathetic subjugation of a cookie-cutter victim stereotype.  And I don’t think there’s any need to explain which I prefer.

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A cleaner, sweeter bed-fellow does not exist.  –  Greville’s letter praising Emma to Lord Hamilton

When Mandy Rice-Davies compared herself to Lady Hamilton, Lord Nelson’s mistress, it is doubtful that any of the reporters who made her famous for the reference had any confusion about what she meant.  But the 1960s were a more sexually honest time than our own, and nowadays writers are even more likely to prevaricate about Lady Hamilton’s harlotry than they are about Rice-Davies’; a BBC article on the famous affair even goes so far as to say that “[Nelson and Hamilton] had fallen out of love with their partners”, as if the Lady had married her patron due to “falling in love” in the first place.  In fact, there’s another modern term for the way they came to be together, more pejorative  even than “prostitution”; read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Amy Lyon, the daughter of a blacksmith named Henry Lyon and his wife Mary, was born on April 26th, 1765 in Cheshire, England.  Her father died when she was an infant and her mother raised her alone, later sending her to live with her grandmother in Wales.  At twelve she started working as a maid and soon met another maid named Jane Powell, who aspired to be an actress; through her Amy found work at the Drury Lane theatre as a maid to several actresses, during which time she lived in the home of a brothel madam named Mrs. Kelly.  Her beauty and grace attracted the attention of James Graham, the doctor who owned an establishment called the “Temple of Health and Hymen” where couples could pay £50 a night (over £3000 today) to have sex in the “Celestial Bed”, which administered mild electric shocks that were supposed to cure infertility and encourage the conception of “perfect” babies.  Amy’s job was to be a hostess, model and erotic dancer, presumably to augment the effects of the electric bed.  When she was sixteen she was hired by Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh to provide entertainment at a several-months-long standing party; she is known to have danced nude on the dining room table at this shindig, and her other activities may be guessed by the fact that she was pregnant by the end of the summer, presumably by Sir Harry.

As was typical in those days, Sir Harry blamed the pregnancy entirely on Amy, so though he was still supporting her she decided to become the kept woman of Charles Francis Greville, an MP and the second son of the first Earl of Warwick.  Though Greville was in love with Amy, he was quite domineering and appears to have viewed her as a piece of property.  When the baby, who was given the name Emma Carew, was born, he sent her away to be raised by a couple named Blackburn; around this same time he also demanded that Amy change her own name to Emma, specifically “Emma Hart”.  When he had her portrait painted by his friend George Romney, the painter became obsessed with her; he made so many sketches of her (both nude and clothed) at this time and later that he was able to paint a number of portraits of her without further sitting.  Because Romney was a popular painter, Emma became well-known in London society both for her wit and personality and as an artist’s model.

Unfortunately, Greville spent far beyond his means, and by 1783 he needed a new source of funds; he decided to acquire them by marrying the young heiress Henrietta Middleton, but since it was common knowledge that Emma was his lover he had to be rid of her.  He therefore convinced his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, to accept her as his mistress.  Hamilton was an art collector, and no doubt viewed the now-famous beauty as a valuable find; he also wanted to facilitate his nephew’s marriage so as to eliminate his frequent requests for money.  The deal was therefore made without Emma’s input or knowledge, and she was shipped off to Naples (where Hamilton was the British envoy) under the guise of a six-month holiday while Greville was supposedly away on business.  She was, in other words, “sex trafficked”, sent from one owner to another in a different country.

But though Emma was furious upon discovering what was really expected of her, she eventually adapted to her situation.  Hamilton’s home was beautiful and his art collection renowned, and he was a widower who, far from viewing her as an embarrassment, instead encouraged her modeling, singing and other performance.  The form for which she became known was called “attitudes”; this consisted of an act in which she would wear a simple gown dressed up by scarves and shawls which helped her to evoke images from history and classical mythology by posing.  The audience was then supposed to guess who she was portraying.  Though this may sound a bit silly to modern ears, the effect was apparently very striking; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “The performance is like nothing you have ever seen before.  With a few scarves and shawls she expressed a variety of wonderful transformations.  One pose after another without a break”.  Within a few years of her first performance in the spring of 1787, a number of other actresses took up the art; over the years Emma herself evolved from mere posing into acting out short pantomimes, most famously portraying Medea.

Sir William eventually married Emma on September 6th, 1791; he was sixty and she twenty-six.  The match gave her the title by which she was forever known afterward, though friends still called her “Emma”.  It also gave her the duties of a diplomat’s wife, among them entertaining Horatio Nelson (then a mere post captain) when he came in 1793 to request reinforcements from the King of Naples.  By the time he returned in 1798 he had lost an arm, an eye, most of his teeth and the majority of his health, but had won both the Battle of the Nile and worldwide fame.  Sir William invited the great man to recuperate in their home, nursed by his young wife, and it was at this time that the two began their affair.

But while one might think this a betrayal of hospitality, the truth is that Sir William definitely knew about and seems to have even encouraged the affair; he and Nelson respected and admired one another, and Emma and Nelson had similar feelings for one another.  Indeed, the relationship soon developed into a ménage a trois; after the Neopolitan Revolution of 1799 the ailing Hamilton was allowed to retire and return to England, accompanied by Nelson, who openly moved in with the Hamiltons despite having a home (and wife) of his own.  In fact, the arrangement became such a huge scandal that the Admiralty ordered Nelson back to sea to keep him away from Emma.  The public, however, was fascinated and the Hamiltons seemed completely unconcerned with what anyone said; when Emma gave birth to a daughter on January 31st, 1801 she named her “Horatia”, flagrantly advertising her paternity.

Alas, their happiness was not to last long.  Sir William, whom Emma had grown to love, died in 1803 and Nelson returned to sea to fight Napoleon soon afterward.  The daughter Emma was carrying at the time died soon after her birth early the next year, and she consoled herself by gambling and otherwise wasting money; when Nelson died at Trafalgar in October of 1805, she had nothing left but Hamilton’s £800/year pension, which she exhausted trying to build up Merton Place (the house Nelson had bought for the three to live together in) as a monument to the great man.  Now the government decided to have its revenge on the woman it considered a double embarrassment for tarnishing the reputations of two of its favored sons: Emma was barred from Nelson’s funeral, and his request that she and Horatia be provided for was totally ignored; money and gifts were instead showered upon Nelson’s widow, brother and other family members.  As her looks and figure were long gone, Emma could no longer attract a patron; she fell deeply into debt and after Nelson’s love letters to her were stolen and published in 1814, the government exacted one more act of petty vengeance by throwing her into debtor’s prison.  After her release that autumn she fled to France with Horatia, where she died on January 15th, 1815.  Men in power are never kind to women who have embarrassed them, and neither Lady Hamilton’s title nor the exalted reputation of her most famous lover could save her from being treated like any other troublesome whore.

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Well he would, wouldn’t he?  –  response when told Lord Astor had denied having her

As I’ve written many times, the maintenance of the Madonna/whore dichotomy demands the erasure of all ambiguity; women must solidly be classified as one or the other, “good” women or “bad”, “empowered” women or “fallen” ones, without a hint that a single woman could play both roles at different parts of her life (much less at the same time).  And so women who succeed in other careers after sex work, especially if they’re popular and well-liked, must never ever ever be described as sex workers; they might be dancers, or perhaps masseuses, or models, or even mistresses, but not what they actually were: prostitutes, no different from me or any inhabitant of any red-light district.  Of course, it helps when the prostitution is genteel and privately arranged and the whores have other “legitimate” jobs as showgirls or hostesses; then they can be described politely as “party girls” and their clients as “lovers”, and the transactional nature of their “affairs” can be glossed over on the BBC or in polite newspapers.

Marilyn Rice-Davies was born in Wales on October 21, 1944 and after a fairly conventional upbringing began modeling at 15.  After playing a window-dressing part in the film Make Mine Mink, she ran away to London at 16 and quickly got a job as a showgirl at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho; there she met and befriended Christine Keeler and the two lived together for a while.  Keeler introduced her to the well-connected osteopath Stephen Ward, who both delighted in and profited by introducing ambitious young women like Keeler and Rice-Davies to his wealthy friends.  Mandy soon became the mistress of slumlord Peter Rachman, who had previously kept Keeler, but the arrangement ended abruptly with Rachman’s death by heart attack on November 29th, 1962.  Rachman was a notorious character who had been under constant police investigation since 1959; he had been prosecuted twice for brothel-keeping and among his expensive gifts to Mandy was a new Jaguar (which was, alas, seized by his widow).  But Mandy later insisted that there was no profit motive involved in her relationship with the short, dumpy Rachman, a statement repeated without question by journalists and others ever since.

It was after Rachman’s death, however, that Rice-Davies’ ship finally came in, via the Profumo Affair and the associated persecution of Stephen Ward.  She had always hoped to achieve stardom, and since coming to London had appeared in several advertisements, but the free publicity afforded her by her appearance as a prosecution witness at Ward’s trial gave her career a mighty boost.  This is not to say that she intentionally capitalized upon Ward’s misfortune; in fact, she only agreed to testify after the cops trumped up charges involving a fake ID (and later, a supposedly stolen television set) so she could be threatened with a long stretch in Holloway if she refused to “cooperate”.  But once the trial started, she clearly both enjoyed and took advantage of the publicity.  The cameras loved her, and her comparing herself to Lady Hamilton (Lord Nelson’s mistress) made her the talk of the papers for a few weeks.  After the trial ended with Ward’s suicide at the end of July, Mandy was offered a job as a cabaret singer in Germany and quickly became involved with another wealthy patron, one Baron Cervello.

For several years she toured the world, taking whatever singing gigs she could find, then in 1966 she moved to Israel; there she met and married nightclub owner Rafael Shaul and converted to Judaism, founding a chain of restaurants and nightclubs called Mandy’s.  The couple amicably divorced in 1971 but remained business partners, and Mandy appeared in a number of Israeli films in the ‘70s, then European ones (and television show episodes) in the ‘80s.  She also published her autobiography, Mandy, in 1980 and a novel, The Scarlet Thread, in 1989.  During this time she had a number of liaisons with ever-wealthier men and an extremely short-lived marriage to the French restaurateur Jean-Charles Lefevre.  But it was her third marriage, to British businessman Ken Foreman, which accelerated what she called her “long descent into respectability”; among Foreman’s friends was Sir Denis Thatcher, and Mandy – now going by Marilyn Foreman – is known to have holidayed with Thatcher and his much more famous wife, Margaret.  She died of cancer just three weeks ago, on December 18th, and was the subject of laudatory obituaries in the Guardian  and Telegraph, among many others.

But despite her respectability and long-maintained insistence that she had never really taken money for sex, Mandy never attempted to distance herself from the Prufumo Affair and the Ward trial; in fact, in 2013 she was consulted by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his short-lived stage musical, Stephen Ward.  At the time, she revealed that she had not spoken to her old flatmate, Christine Keeler, in over three decades; while Rice-Davies had embraced the publicity and used it to advance her own interests, Keeler had been embarrassed by the whole thing and vanished from the limelight for 20 years after it was over.  Their different ways of reacting to the debacle had driven a wedge into what was never a particularly close friendship to start; “I don’t think she liked me,” Mandy said in an October 2013 interview.  And though neither of the two ever (publicly) considered themselves sex workers, their very different post-scandal lives demonstrate an important truth about two kinds of women involved in the work:  those who consider it to have been a humiliation, and those who embrace it as a means of attaining their goals.

(This month’s harlotography first appeared in Cliterati on January 4th; I have modified it slightly for time references and to fit the format of this blog.)

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I’m a 23-year-old professional who wants to pursue a Masters degree in a related field, but my current job alone just won’t pay for tuition on top of my rent, bills and current student loan payments.  I already tend to attract successful men and I’m a skilled and empathetic listener, so I feel I could make it as a courtesan with a select few clients.  However, I’ve never been an escort so I have no existing clientele to draw from.  Also, I’ve read that real courtesans don’t discuss payment openly with a client…I don’t understand how that works.

Given your circumstances, you might want to consider advertising on one of the sugar baby sites.  A 23-year-old graduate student is exactly the kind of lady many potential sugar daddies are looking for; the hours tend to be pretty brief, the pay is good (you can probably get about $3000-$4000 per month), and best of all it isn’t illegal yet so in the present climate of hysteria, it would be much safer for you.  Furthermore, you need to be very discreet in your advertising because even legal sex work could potentially come back to bite you.  As for “real” courtesans not discussing it…you should always be wary when people make statements like that.  Some of the courtesans of old charged set rates, some used a sliding scale and some preferred to let their patrons give them money and gifts, then complain if they weren’t generous enough.  It’s absolutely true that women who let their patrons set the fees and benefits generally do better in the long run, but it can take a lot of time investment to reach that point and you have to be good at sizing up a man’s income and generosity level right from the get-go so as not to waste too much time with a skinflint.

I am a mature and educated paid companion who has traveled the world and speaks several languages; men tend to find me fascinating and I live in a resort area.  I have three kinds of clients:  those who live here, those who come in for a few days a month or so and one-time vacationers.  I’m working on transitioning some of my regulars in the first two groups to longer-term arrangements; I think I could have client types 1 & 2 pay a monthly “allowance” plus a fee for dates, and just charge a regular flat fee to vacationers.  Do you have any suggestions on how to set my prices?

If you’re going to have regular “sugar daddy” type clients (the 1s and 2s), you may want to consider just charging them the flat fee and leaving it at that, especially if they only see you once a month to once a week at most.  Obviously you have to be sure it’s enough to justify whatever time you spend with them, but you may find that they tend to give you other presents and tips beside the fee anyhow.  Setting a rate in your situation is tricky; I expect most things in your area are more expensive than in a city, and that the clients tend to be wealthy?  That, and the fact that you can provide a more “upscale” experience, would tend to drive your price up.  You may want to do some research to see what other escorts in similar resort areas charge, and ditto what sugar babies in such areas tend to ask for…and then go just a smidgen higher.  Given your circumstances you can probably get it, and the higher price reinforces the image you’re trying to project.  As time goes on you will be able to tell if you can raise your prices, but it’s usually best to allow those who are already seeing you to continue at their current rates.

(Have a question of your own?  Please consult this page to see if I’ve answered it in a previous column, and if not just click here to ask me via email.)

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Lady Castlemaine…[went] away…upon some slighting words of the king, so that…the king, the next morning, under pretence of going a hunting, went to see her and make friends…After which she came back to court, and commands the king as much as ever, and hath and doth what she will.  –  The Diary of Samuel Pepys, July 22nd, 1663

Though the majority of whores have always been born in the working class, when disposition, circumstance and necessity converge to make harlotry the most attractive choice, women of noble birth are just as quick to make it as their humbler sisters.  And when looks and personality converge to give her a higher-than-ordinary degree of sexual power over men, a noble-born courtesan is no more likely to be sparing in the use of that power than any other.

Barbara Villiers was born in Westminster on November 17th, 1640*, the only child of William Villiers, the 2nd Viscount Grandison, and his wife Mary (heiress of the 1st Viscount Bayning).  She would have been a very wealthy little girl after her father’s death in battle** had it not been for the fact that he had given his entire fortune to the Cavalier war effort; Mary and her daughter were left in poverty, and she was forced by necessity to marry her husband’s cousin Charles (the 2nd Earl of Anglesey) in order to have any income at all.  The Commonwealth was not a good time for the Villiers family; though like many others they had officially espoused loyalty to Cromwell, they secretly supported the claim of the exiled Charles II and lived under a cloud of suspicion due to their active participation on his father’s side during the Civil War.  Barbara was raised in the country by relatives, but by 15 she had blossomed into an exceptionally beautiful young woman (tall and voluptuous, with chestnut hair and eyes of so dark a blue they looked black); her mother brought her to London with the idea of marrying her to a wealthy family despite her lack of a dowry.  Within a year the intelligent, independent Barbara had become the mistress of Philip Stanhope, 2nd Earl of Chesterfield, and on April 14th, 1659 she married a young lawyer named Roger Palmer, heir to a large fortune, over his family’s vociferous objections (including, but not limited to, the fact that he was Catholic and she Anglican).  Though on paper they never divorced, in reality they separated in 1662.

The reason for that separation was, as you may have already guessed, her infidelity.  In the autumn after their marriage, the royalists dispatched Barbara to The Hague with letters and money for the King; since she was only 18 at the time, it was felt she would arouse less suspicion (and her person was much less likely to be searched in any case).  Before she returned to England, she had already become Charles’ lover; at first they were relatively discreet about it, but by the Restoration of the monarchy in April of 1661 it was secret to virtually nobody.  When her daughter Anne was born in February of 1661 the King, her husband and Chesterfield all claimed the child as theirs, and when Palmer was created Baron Limerick and Earl of Castlemaine later that year it was whispered that the titles were payment for his wife’s services; unlike the husbands of Lillie Langtry and Alice Keppel, however, Palmer was not at all sanguine about the arrangement.  When Barbara’s second child, Charles, was born in June of 1662, Palmer had him baptized Catholic; Barbara later had him re-baptized Anglican in a ceremony attended by His Majesty, who publicly proclaimed the child his.  It was the last straw for Palmer, who never saw his wife again; though he had a long (but stormy) political career until his death in 1705, he was deeply humiliated by his reputation as “Europe’s best-known cuckold”.

When the new Queen, Catherine of Braganza, arrived at court from her honeymoon soon after baby Charles’ birth, she discovered her new husband’s mistress already in control; the fact was hammered home when the King demanded she accept Barbara’s appointment as a Lady of the Bedchamber, an official position which would give both an income and rooms at the Palace.  The Queen had already been told about Barbara by friends, so naturally she refused; Charles became furious and sent the ladies she had brought with her home to Portugal.  The King’s chief advisor, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, hated Barbara with a passion, but gritted his teeth and advised the Queen to relent for her own good; Barbara repaid this reluctantly-given help by plotting with his political enemies to bring about his downfall in August of 1667.

These are only a few examples of Barbara’s extraordinary selfishness and viciousness.  Though she was witty and charismatic and could be generous and even kind when it suited her, she had a terrible temper and was merciless to those she perceived as enemies; she was described by George Reresby as “the finest Woman of her age“, but by John Evelyn as the “curse of our nation“.  She had a powerful hold on King Charles, partly due to her looks and partly to her legendary sexual prowess; her influence was so great that after one of their many arguments she could always get him to come crawling to her, and on more than one occasion she actually got him to apologize in front of witnesses.  He showered her with gifts, and not long after his coronation gave her a payment of £30,000 (about £2.5 million today); he also granted her an annual pension of £4700 (£400,000) from the Post Office, and allowed her to take additional money out of his own purse whenever she liked.  After her sudden conversion to Catholicism in December of 1663, she also made extra money by charging French and Spanish diplomats for using her persuasive powers to sway the Anglican King in their favor.

Barbara bore King Charles three more children:  Henry (1663), Charlotte (1664) and George (1665); all of her children were eventually granted titles, even the youngest (also called Barbara), who was born in 1672 and was probably the daughter of John Churchill.  Neither Barbara nor King Charles had ever been faithful to each other, but while the King did not care she was quite jealous because it meant her income.  The concern was not an invalid one; since April of 1668 the King’s favorite had been the younger and far more even-tempered Nell Gwyn.  In June of 1670 he gave Barbara one final set of generous gifts as a kind of severance package:  she was given Nonsuch Palace, built by Henry VIII, and the titles Baroness Nonsuch, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland (the latter was a true peerage, made with a condition allowing her to pass the title to her son Charles).  She was still nominally the official mistress until 1673, when the Test Act banned Catholics from holding office; she thus lost her position as Lady of the Bedchamber to Louise de Kéroualle, Nell Gwyn’s chief rival.  In 1676 she moved to Paris with her four younger children, but returned to England in 1680 and enjoyed a friendly relationship with the King until his death in February of 1685.  By this time she had developed a terrible gambling habit, and in 1682 had Nonsuch Palace entirely dismantled so she could sell off its expensive materials to pay her debts.  In her later years she became involved with a series of unscrupulous fortune-hunters; after Roger Palmer’s death in 1705 she actually married one of these, though it was later annulled when she discovered he already had a wife.  In 1709 she developed what was then called dropsy, a condition which caused her to become so edematous that she died of congestive heart failure on October 9th.  It is clear that Barbara, like so many other courtesans, had been totally unable to recognize that her sex appeal had deserted her, and adjust her expectations, lifestyle and expenditures so as to live out her declining years in comfort and some small measure of dignity.  But then, dignity was never something that Barbara was very good at, even when she still had her youth and looks.

*Because Catholic realms (including France and Ireland) had already converted to the Gregorian calendar at this time but the United Kingdom had not, it is not unusual to see her birthday expressed in the new style as November 27th, and some sources record the year as 1641.
**There is considerable disagreement about which Civil War battle claimed Villiers’ life; Wikipedia says Newbury (September 20th, 1643); other sources say Bristol (July 26th, 1643); and Bishop Burnet’s contemporary history says Edgehill (October 23rd, 1642).

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To seek in the bright sky a place for freedom and unrestraint.  –  Liu Rushi, “On the Kite”

The gender roles of traditional Asian cultures were even more rigid and uncompromising than those of contemporary European cultures, but harlots have always stood outside of the limits their societies set for “good” women.  Where “good” women were expected to be chaste, whores were promiscuous; where “good” women were expected to be meek, whores were bold; where “good” women were expected to be ignorant, whores were well-educated; where “good” women were supposed to be submissive, whores accepted or rejected clients as we pleased; and where “good” women were prisoners of convention, whores flouted it.  And despite the feminist claims that men prefer women as ovine as possible, and that the patriarchal system is set up for men’s benefit at women’s expense, yet men have throughout history sought out the company of (and paid high prices for) women who were not only their equals, but often their superiors.  Like other courtesans, Liu Rushi ignored the rules her society set for “good” women, but unlike others she often ignored the rules it set for any women.

Liu RushiYang Ai was born in 1618 to a poor family of Zhejiang province, but her exceptional looks and intelligence allowed her family to sell her at the age of eight to the courtesan Xu Fo for training in the profession.  She learned so well that Xu was able to place her as a concubine to the prime minister, Zhou Daodeng, soon after she turned thirteen; however, Zhou died a year later and his widow threw her out of the household.  She sought out the famous poet Chen Zilong, whom she had met at Zhou’s house a few months before; he took her in as a concubine and the two fell in love and exchanged many poems.  Unfortunately, Madame Chen was just as jealous of her as Madame Zhou had been; when Chen went to take the Imperial Examination in 1635, she abused the poor girl so terribly that she fled back to Xu Fo, who now owned a brothel.  When Xu married in 1638, Yang Yin (as she now called herself) took over the management; she was already famous as a poet and painter by this time, and published three collections of poetry between 1638 and 1640.  But though she was doing well financially, she craved the stability of marriage; when a regular client named Song Yuanwen kept promising to marry her but never followed through, she is said to have thrown him out in a violent tantrum.

It was during her time as a madam that her androgyny began to assert itself; though her romantic poems were conventionally feminine, she also wrote in a masculine, “heroic” style and often left the narrator’s gender ambiguous.  In letters she favored gender-neutral terms for herself, and her calligraphy is distinctly masculine, using the “wild grass” style.  Her gender-bending behavior reached its zenith in 1640, when she decided to marry the famous scholar and poet Qian Qianyi.  She travelled to his home in her boat, dressed in men’s clothing, and asked Qian to give her his opinion on one of her poems.  He told her the poem was excellent and asked to see more, but before she left she made sure she let him see the small (bound) feet which left no doubt as to her sex even if he had been fooled at first.  The combination of her writing and her intriguing behavior captured his attention, and they were married in 1641.  Though she was only his concubine, they had a formal ceremony and he treated her as though she were a full wife, despite this being considered improper.  He gave her the nickname Hedong, which she often used in her writing thereafter; it was one of about twenty different names she used at different times and for different purposes.  The name by which she is best known, Liu Rushi, came from her continuing habit of cross-dressing; she would sometimes go on errands as her husband’s representative while dressed in his formal Confucian robes, for which people nicknamed her “rushi” (“gentleman”).

Rushi had finally found the stability she sought, but it was not to last long.  The Ming Dynasty her husband served collapsed in 1645, and she had become so deeply patriotic by that time she actually tried to persuade him to martyr himself by committing suicide; instead, he surrendered, served as an official to the new Qing regime for five months, then quit and joined the resistance.  Liu Rushi joined him and the two were active in the movement for over a decade thereafter; much of Qian’s poetry from the 1650s depicts her as a courageous Ming loyalist.  But in 1663, her life started to spin out of control.  First, the Qing finally crushed the last Ming resistance, burning her husband’s enormous library in the process; she was so aggrieved she took Buddhist vows.  Qian’s spirit was broken, and he died the following year; his creditors and enemies then began to hound Liu Rushi for money.  Alone again for the first time in decades, too old (at 46) to return to her former profession and deeply bereaved by the loss of both beloved husband and beloved cause, she was pushed over the edge by the legal persecution and hanged herself in 1664.  But though her life ended in despair and tragedy, her own poetry and that of her husband had already made her a legend; the historian Chen Yinke’s said she “embodies the independence of spirit and freedom of thought of our people”, and others have called her “the most respectable prostitute in Chinese history”.

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Beauty depends on size as well as symmetry.  –  Aristotle

Maeve resisted the urge to hurl the abacus against the far wall of the library.  It might have given her a little momentary satisfaction, but it would do nothing to remedy the situation and would, in fact, make it slightly worse because she would then have to buy another abacus.  She had carefully checked her figures three times, and found no errors; for the first time since she had become a courtesan, her expenditures for the month had exceeded her income.  And given that she had been cutting back on those expenditures for over a year now, that was a very bad development indeed.

She hastened to her looking-glass and closely examined her face in it.  She was still a very beautiful woman, but the encroaching signs of age were unmistakable and even the expensive cosmetics she purchased from a talented alchemist could only delay the inevitable.  Sooner or later she would begin to display the grey hair and wrinkles she had evaded for decades, and then her income would dry up along with her body.  Maeve sighed deeply; she was not an especially wise woman nor a frugal one, and though she had known for half her life that this day would eventually come, she had failed to make even the most rudimentary investments for her retirement.  And while most women could count on children and grandchildren to support them in their dotage, Maeve had traded away her ability to have them many years ago, in a bargain that seemed sensible at the time.  Her only hope was the Potion of Youth that the alchemist said he could make for her, but its price was so high she dared not spend the money unless she was absolutely certain it would buy her many years of good income again.

No, she was in a fine stew indeed, and thinking her way out of things had never been her strong point.  So she instead retired to her private shrine to Venus and began to pray for either divine inspiration or (preferably) a new and generous patron who would consider her maturity a plus rather than a minus.  When she was finished with her prayers, she found her maid Elise waiting for her in the anteroom with a rather odd look on her face.  “Ma’am, you have a visitor downstairs.”

“How wonderful!  Perhaps the goddess has answered my prayer already!”

Elise’s mien grew even stranger, but Maeve did not notice; she was already halfway down the stairs in less time than it takes to tell, and her maid appeared in no rush to keep up with her.  Reaching the door to her parlor, she took a moment to check her hair and teeth in another glass, then swept gracefully into the room in a way calculated to impress any but the dullest of clients.  It is a testament to her years of experience that she did not gasp out loud when she saw who was waiting for her in the room, but no mortal could have kept at least a momentary reaction from being reflected in her visage.  Because seated on the couch, drinking her tea and eating her cakes, was someone she at first took to be a very small boy until she realized that he had a beard.

He immediately stood up and bowed deeply; even though he was standing on the couch, his head was yet below the level of her bosom when he returned to an upright position.  “Allow me to introduce myself, dear lady; I am Ulwin O’Meglyn.”

The room grew quiet for a moment; Maeve was completely at a loss for words.  And even when she found her tongue at last, what came forth would not have won marks for elocution.  “Unless I very much miss my guess, good sir, you are a leprechaun.”

“I am not!” he said with controlled indignation.  “I am a brownie.  Leprechauns are about six inches taller and generally dress in tasteless green outfits, though I must admit they make some very fine shoes.”

Maeve was beginning to wonder what she could possibly have done to offend her goddess enough to deserve this joke being played upon her.  “Good Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin, please.”

“Ulwin.  I apologize for my reaction, but, ah, I expected a different kind of visitor.  If you are seeking a position here, I would be happy to have you under the traditional arrangement.”

The little man looked at her with a rather annoyed expression.  “Madam, it is clear that you are rather ill-informed about developments in the relations between our races over the past several generations.  While it is true that in the past most of my people worked as servants in human households and refused to take formal payment, that has long since ceased to be the rule; I am the owner of an agency which places brownies in service in the very best households in the kingdom.  And as you can see, I have done quite well for myself.”

Now that he mentioned it, Maeve noticed that his clothes were impeccably tailored and his hat, boots and walking-stick new and of the finest craftsmanship.  “Pardon my ignorance, Sir Brownie…”

“Ulwin.”

“Ulwin.  I’m not especially interested in hiring additional paid servants at this time, but if I change my mind…”

“Dear lady, at the risk of being indelicate…I am not here to offer the services of those I represent, but to hire your services.”

Maeve could not help but laugh, though she had no desire to offend the polite little gentleman.  “You must forgive me, sir, but…well, it seems the difference in our statures might make that sort of activity rather difficult.”

“You disappoint me, madam.  Surely you do not think me a schoolboy who considers mere coupling to be the be-all and end-all of the time a man spends with a woman?”

For the first time, she realized he was absolutely earnest; exactly three seconds later, she began to consider his proposition.  She cautiously sat down beside him; he was still shorter than her despite the fact that he was standing on the seat.  “You’re serious?”

“Utterly.”

“But, don’t I seem…well, rather huge and grotesque in your eyes?”

“I would not be here if I felt that way.”

“I suppose not.  But why…I mean, how…that is…”

“I hardly thought I would have had to explain the strange mysteries of humanoid desire to an expert in the field.”

teacupMaeve knew he was right; there was no predicting what strange permutations would arouse the ardor of one man or another, and in her many years of experience she had found that no less true of dwarves, elves or other near-human people.  And it was obvious he had a great deal of money; perhaps Venus had heard her prayer after all.  “Your suggestions intrigue me, Ulwin,” she purred in her most charming manner; “Let me pour you some more tea and we’ll discuss it further.”

His smile let her know that she had already dispelled whatever bad feelings her clumsy and unprofessional reactions had engendered, and as they chatted she envisioned a profitable association with him and perhaps other little men who might share his tastes.  Nor was that the limit of the possibilities his visit had opened her mind to; one of her regular gentlemen had told her that only two days’ ride into the mountains, there was a village of friendly giants.

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