Friday, April 20, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part I: Fantasia on a Victorian Courtesan

And so we went our way,--yes, hand in hand,
Like two lost children in some magic wood…..
Each step was an experience. Every mood
Of that fair woman a fresh gospelling,
Which spoke aloud to me and stirred my blood
To a new faith, I knew not with what sting.
One thing alone I knew or cared to know,
Her strange companionship thus strangely won.
The past, the future, all of weal or woe
In my old life was gone, for ever gone.

The snippet of poetry above comes from the 12th sonnet of “Esther, A Young Man’s Tragedy,” an epic poem by Wilfrid Scawen Blunt written in 1892 for the whore he was in love with. Catherine Walters, her name was, but everyone knew her as Skittles. And back then, she was well known by everybody who knew anything about the courtesans of Victorian London.

I bring up Skittles now because she's one of my bad girls, and I've written a mini-biography about her. And yet after all the time and attention I've devoted to this girl, I've decided to kill her off, alas. She just doesn't have a place anymore in Chasing Bad Girls: My Pursuit of Wicked Women, also known as "my book." Goodbye, Skittles.

All is not lost, though, because now I can revive her right here in this blog. Hello again, Skittles! This is going to be a new thought experiment for me. Till now, I've been a bit coy in these blog posts about sharing all the details about my bad girls, because I've been saving them for the book. But now I'm free to do whatever I want with Skittles.

So, I'll get started by revealing the opening passage I wrote for her mini-bio. And let me set the record straight right up front by saying that it's extremely embarrassing for me to share this passage with you. I have, in fact, already written a mini-bio for all of my bad girls, but now when I re-read them, they make me cringe. Who the hell is the narrator in these bios? She sure doesn't sound like me. She sounds more like a freakish combination of an earnest women's studies professor mixed in with a leering, pipe-smoking early 20th-century dimestore novelist.

She sounds exactly like this:

The Quorn Hunt, that grand English institution pitting elegant horsemen and women and their hounds against terrified foxes in the Leicestershire countryside, got its start in 1696 and had certainly reached its pinnacle of greatness by the time the Victorians came along. In bright red riding jackets and black helmets, the cream of society displayed their mastery of the rules of class as they demonstrated their horsemanship. Riding to hounds, they watched to see who was best at leaping over hedges, handling the reins and navigating the social graces. Only a superior few belonged in the Quorn.

Lord Stamford, master of the foxhounds in 1860, belonged to that elite, but his wife did not. True, before her marriage Lady Stamford had been an admirable show rider at the Cremorne Gardens, a crowded public pleasure ground also notorious as a den of vice. But her riding skills mirrored her nature, and she was a woman who handled her horse with quiet dignity. Still, Lady Stamford was a mere gamekeeper’s daughter and morally suspect—who knew what kind of company she might have kept in her youth? In short, the high society Victorian ladies thought her a trollop. They were happy to join her husband’s hunt, but they also enjoyed finding mildly gentle ways to shun and ridicule Lady Stamford.

That November, another horsewoman joined in the Quorn. Her antecedents were even more questionable than Lady Stamford’s and yet, maddeningly, she made no demure effort to win the crowd’s favour. Catherine Walters, better known as “Skittles” to Victorian London, was a courtesan of the first rank and wouldn’t pretend to be otherwise. She was also a fearless horsewoman and adored going on the best hunts, even though she was unwelcome in the homes of the aristocracy. Skittles’ lover at the time, Lord Hartington, shared her love of horses, but had written letters warning her about “the stupid people in Leicestershire” and the snobbishness of the hunting set.

Whether she was a free spirit by nature or design, Skittles didn’t care what anyone thought of her. Riding in her pink swallow-tail coat and trademark chimney-pot hat, she chattered as fast as she rode and capered off, laughing, across the fields. Rather than sympathize with Lady Stamford, which she might easily have done considering her own infamous reputation, Skittles worked harder than anyone else to put the lady in her place. A fearless rider, she cantered dangerously close to the woman, scaring her horse, and made rude comments about her dark past. She kept up her relentless bad behavior until Lord Stamford called a halt and ejected Skittles, threatening to end the hunt entirely if she persisted. At the next Quorn, Skittles showed up and started once again to harass Lady Stamford. Good to his word, Lord Stamford announced that the hunt was finished for the day. When Skittles’ friends caught wind of this, they begged her to drop out so the hunt could continue. After much grumbling, Skittles finally trotted off toward home, calling out: “Tell Lady Stamford she’s not the queen of our profession. I am.”

Oh, dear. Did I really write that? Uh, yes. I did. And the passage above indicates pretty clearly, I think, why I eventually decided to insert my own, REAL voice into the narrative when I started to write Chasing Bad Girls. Next time, I'll continue to tell Skittles story, using the mini-bio as my guide, but it's not gonna sound like a demented, pipe-smoking women's studies novelist.


Anonymous said...

Well yeah, if its too unbearable for you the writer, how are we supposed to devote any time to getting through 4 paragraphs of the stuff?!! Let's see the good version pleeeeze!

vixen in the city said...

I love the idea for this blog! Ever since i did a project in college for my gender studies class on the femme fatale I've bee intrigued by bad gals!