In our story thus far, we've met Catherine Walters, or "Skittles," Victorian London's favourite courtesan, and we've learned that she liked to outrage the bourgeoisie at their fox hunts and that her finest accomplishments were the men who loved her. These included at least one nobleman, a politician and a poet. We also learned that I have a big crush on Skittles, even though she probably would have hated me. She preferred men; women just got in the way. Here, in Part 3, we learn about drunk fathers, drunk husbands and just what it was in Skittles' formative years that made her become a bad girl.
Born in Liverpool on June 13, 1839, two years after Queen Victoria claimed the throne, Catherine Walters actually managed to live through her early childhood years. This was a good sign that she was tough enough to survive Victoria's England, whose city slums suffered shamelessly high rates of disease and infant mortality.
I know this because I read a book on the subject: Blyth, Henry. Skittles: The Last Victorian Courtesan. The Life and Times of Catherine Walters. London: Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd, 1970. I mention Blyth's biography because I'm going to quote him now. I love quoting other people's books! I often feel they have an authority that I don't have. Take, for example, Blyth's description of the circumstances of Skittles' early years: “Beauty does not flower readily amidst squalid surroundings, and a young girl does not long retain a good figure, a clear eye, a fresh complexion and pearly teeth ...where malnutrition, inadequate ventilation, lack of even the most elementary medical attention, dirt, disease, ignorance...combine together to drag her down. If she escaped a disfiguring or crippling disease, and if she avoided at least one unwanted pregnancy she was lucky indeed; and luckier still if she could retain whatever prettiness and gaiety that she had enjoyed in youth after she had reached womanhood.”
See? I would never talk about pearly teeth and gaiety.
The point is, Catherine Walters, who also went by the nicknames Kitty, Skittles and Skitsie, was indeed a lucky girl. Part of her good fortune came from having a relatively intact family. Her father, Edward, was a customs officer who became a captain in the merchant navy, and he earned a reliable living, even if he was a drunk. He was a functioning alcoholic, as they say in AA.
Not much is known about Skittles’ mother, Mary Ann. Though again, if you read the AA literature on living with an alcoholic, you can probably guess what she was all about: "In the years of active drinking, the wives of compulsive drinkers have to take on many extra responsibilities. They have to provide for the care of the children, take care of the home and get the meals. Wives of compulsive drinkers often have to work to supplement the skimpy budget or do without many necessities, as well as doing the man's chores around the house."
I imagine that Edward Walters also had an eye for the ladies, and that he and his wife had a non-existent sex life.
My guess is that Skittles watched all this going on at home, and she learned that: 1) men have more fun than women; 2) women are doomed if they get married and have kids; and 3) a woman's best bet is to retain her financial independence and shun alcohol personally but to hang around with men, drunk or sober, because they're fun.
We know that Skittles' mother was not buried next to Skittles’ father, and one biographer conjectures that she died in childbirth. Another suggests that the couple eventually separated because the marriage was an unhappy one and that Mary Ann died by the time Skittles was a teenager. Regardless, when Catherine was young the Roman Catholic family of five children were clothed, fed and educated to some degree.
Edward Walters is believed to have eventually left the merchant navy to keep an inn in Cheshire, where young Kitty took up an interest in hounds, hunting and horses. She loved to follow the hounds as they chased after foxes in the English countryside, and when the day’s excitement was finished, she served the huntsmen and their grooms in the inn parlor and heard their tales of the hunt. It was the perfect training for a courtesan.
Catherine’s relationship with her father also provided excellent training. Both had steady and direct personalities. They didn’t shock easily and in fact liked a good joke—the dirtier the better—and getting jostled in pub brawls. Seeing her father drunk as often as she did, Skittles didn't fear outrageous behavior. If she’d had enough of his rough flamboyance, she’d slap him down with some coarse talk of her own. And the next morning all would be sunny. Life was better when it was uncomplicated.
I don't think I've mentioned it on this blog before, but my first husband was an out-of-control drunk, not a fun drunk, but a classic dysfunctional AA grade drunk. An out-of-control drunk with anger issues. Now, I grew up as a child of divorce, so my home life wasn't perfect, but I didn't grow up around drunks, so living with one as his wife really freaked me out. I never learned to see the fun in it, so eventually I ran away forever.
Plus, the drunk in my life wasn't like Skittles' dad, I'm sure. And we weren't living in Liverpool in the 19th century, either, and my frame of reference as a nice, educated late-20th century girl from the suburbs of Chicago didn't help. My idea of "fun" is going for bicycle rides in the park, petting my cats, reading and enjoying a civilized gin and tonic with lime at sunset before sitting down to a home-cooked meal.
That previous statement doesn't do much to establish my own Bad Girl credentials, but the point is that I'm trying to enjoy life more, as Skittles did. I'm a work in progress.
Next time, in Reviving Skittles, Part 4, we'll learn the lyrics of a street ballad from Skittles’ heyday and what her initial forays into prostitution were like.