Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Skittles the Charmer

Hi. Before I get started on today’s blog post, I want to tell everybody that over the weekend, I enabled the set-up to allow comments from anybody. So you don’t have to have a blogger site anymore if you want to comment – and you can remain anonymous, if you prefer. I’m really curious to hear what people think about my bad girls, so I encourage comments! Then again, if what I say makes you angry, please try to control yourself and don’t swear a lot or lash out at me because I don’t deal well with anger or aggression, and I’d probably obsess over what you said all day.

OK, I keep promising to talk about charm and vanity, don’t I? Well, my bad girls had it in spades. To live happily off the generosity of men without marrying them requires an uncommon talent, and Skittles (a.k.a. Catherine Walters) had it. Skittles, remember, was Victorian London’s favourite whore. Her finest accomplishments were the men who loved her, and they included at least one nobleman, a politician and a poet. The men who knew her ended up loving her more than she loved them because she was good at creating the illusion of being a childlike, vulnerable innocent all alone in the world. As a result, quite a few gentlemen paid her a monthly income or bought property for her. Skittles was tougher than she let on—she was a barmaid in a poor part of Liverpool before earning fame and fortune as a London courtesan. But she was a skillful charmer, and this helped her enormously in life.

What exactly did she do? How was she charming? For one thing, she loved hounds, hunting and horses, and when she was a young barmaid she served the huntsmen and their grooms in her family’s inn parlor after a hunt and listened carefully to their stories. She listened, and asked questions, and showed great interest in what the men were saying. It was the perfect training for a courtesan. Not only did she share a genuine interest in the sport of gentlemen, she learned to wait on their needs and listen eagerly to their stories. I’m not necessarily suggesting that playing up to a man’s ego is what a woman should do to snag a man—I’ll leave that to the women’s magazines, which do it all the time. But let’s face it, it works. Skittles figured that out at an early age, and she used it to her advantage.

She also charmed men simply because she genuinely liked them and put them at ease. Her relationship with her father provided excellent training—they enjoyed each other’s company enormously and shared a simple view of life. Both loved a good time, 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 had no fear of outrageous behavior. When 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. Skittles helps me remember that life is better and more charming when it’s uncomplicated.

In bed, Skittles wasn’t easily forgotten. She was no innocent, but she had a simple sweetness in her eyes. As much as men might tease her and talk dirty about her luscious figure and delicate features, they were powerfully attracted to her—and protective. And considering the degree to which she was comfortable in her father’s company, she knew how to make each and every man in her life feel that he was very, very special. Naturally, this would provoke jealous scenes because there were so many very special men in her life, and Skittles learned not to avoid these scenes because they revealed a man’s vulnerability and kept him—and his cash—coming back to her.

How did she ultimately become a shining prize to Victorian gentlemen? First, Skittles was very nice to look at, and once a man started looking, she started talking with an engaging combination of street wit, little stories, sudden fancies and gossip about people they both knew. It was all light and delicious, and the words flowed out of the little Cupid’s mouth of a girl with a marvelous sense of style. Skittles was never vulgar, yet her bad manners and untaught speech were apparent when she first arrived in London—but she was a great student of people and a quick learner, and within a few years she had smoothed over the roughest parts of her personality. As she made her way up the ladder of her trade, she continued to polish and refine her character, though never so much as to completely lose her natural charm. She was just rough enough to be a fun girl, but she didn’t really look or act like a whore.

And did I mention that Skittles was physically quite beautiful? I can’t say the same of all my bad girls—I’ve seen portraits of Catherine the Great, and she looks like George Washington in drag, sorry to say. But Skittles, she was a knockout. I’ve seen the pictures. She looks quite elegant, with dark eyes and a fine mouth, the trim figure and good posture of a horsewoman.

One of Skittles’ rich lovers, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, wrote a poem about her beauty and charm—a very long, Victorian poem—and here’s the part where he describes her face:

Her brow was pale, but it was lit with light,
And mirth flashed out of it, it seemed in rays.
A childish face, but wise with woman's wit
And something, too, pathetic in its gaze.

Oh, I could go on and on, but I’ve lost track of why I’m writing all this about Skittles. See, she’s charmed me, I’m thinking about her madly, and I’m in love with Skittles all over again. And all I’ve talked about was charm—I haven’t even talked about vanity yet. Though if I’m going to talk about vanity, I’m going to have to talk about Mae West next time. Watch this space….

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bad Girls Are Not Nice

Becoming a Bad Girl is not a self-help book. I’m trying to write honestly about how I was feeling as I went through a horrible time in my life, and how studying a group of “notorious women in history,” for lack of a better term, cheered me up. But please don’t take my story as some form of inspirational self-help screed. Just about every bad girl on my list used some form of prostitution to get ahead, and I don’t want to be accused of recommending prostitution as a good method to achieve happiness.

But there it is: prostitution is a fact of life that shows up often in my bad girls’ stories. Some of them—-Ninon de Lenclos and Catherine Walters, for example—-were prostitutes, pure and simple. Catherine, who also went by the name of Skittles, made quite a successful go of whoring herself out in Victorian London, and her customers included sensitive poets, rich aristocrats and many straight-laced men who kept their wives tucked up at home when they ventured into the demi-monde of Mayfair.

What did I learn from Skittles? I learned that a smart prostitute lives to please herself and that she uses sex to achieve personal fulfillment. I hope Skittles actually liked sex-—I choose to believe she loved sex-—because it would confirm my notion that a bad girl is always in control of her destiny. (Skittles was not a literary whore, unfortunately, and she never wrote down her thoughts.) A bad girl does not submit to authority, she has loads of love affairs with men from both the upper crust and the lower castes, and she enjoys shocking people with her promiscuity. A bad girl is capable of falling deeply in love but avoids it if she can because she is more smitten with her independence.

Don’t forget, my bad girls lived in an age when many women had no property rights, so the advantage of being an unmarried whore was that you could have a home of your own that no man could ever throw you out of. Mind you, my bad girls loved men and usually preferred their company to women’s. Men had the freedom to be where the power was, they were uncomplicated and self-contained. Skittles hated other women, in fact. And quite a few of my bad girls actively chose to “live like a man”—-Ninon’s words—-and actively resisted becoming too dependent on others.

What about feminism, you ask. Were bad girls feminists? Uh, no. Sorry. They were either too rich to care about becoming feminists or too poor to pay any attention to the issue because they were too busy working for a living. Oh wait, there was one huge feminist in the bunch: Victoria Woodhull. You know, the bad girl who ran for US President in 1872 on a platform of free love, legalized prostitution, easier divorce laws, voting rights for women, vegetarianism, labor reform, magnetic healing, spiritualism, etc. Victoria was a feminist to put feminists to shame. But she was a one-off. Otherwise, my bad girls either didn’t know about feminism or simply ignored it, which I think is funny. They lived like men yet made no apologies for being women. A bad girl was what she was, and that was that.

While a bad girl might enjoy the over-the-top girliness of wearing costumes full of jewels and feathers, she would equally enjoy dressing like a man when it suited her. Isabelle Eberhardt always dressed like a man, and asked to be called by an Arabic man’s name, Si Mahmoud, because that’s what she was into. Catherine the Great dressed like a man when she rode horses—-who was going to stop her? she was the Empress of all the Russias, OK?—-and Victoria Woodhull wore trousers when she went out riding on that new invention of the 19th century, the bicycle.

So there you have it. My bad girls were not nice people. Oh, they might have made the pretense of being nice when it suited them, but still, they weren’t nice. I like that about them. Because I think I was too nice when I started my bad girls study. Men took advantage of me, friends bossed me around, and being a placating doormat for other people wasn’t making me any happier. It’s six years now since I started studying my bad girls, and I’m much happier now. I couldn’t say for sure that studying bad girls cured me of my affliction, but they were right there with me, their stories running around inside my head, as I made changes and took action that brought me to a better place in my life.

And that's not all! Yes, there's much more on my list of what makes a bad girl bad. Keep watching my blog--my next post will be about self-discipline and suicide. Oh and charm and vanity, which I think I promised in my previous post but didn't get around to this time because I was too busy talking about whoring yourself out.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hey! Share Your Story Here...

Hello, friends. Won't you please share your own bad girl stories with me? I'd love to know about any bad girls you've known, or what qualifies you to be a bad girl yourself. I want to keep this as open-ended as possible, so if there are any men out there who want to share, please do! Just click on the Comment button below and let yourself go.

Desperately Seeking Bad Girls

All the time I’ve been studying bad girls, I’ve been asking myself if I am one. I’m still trying to find an answer. If any of my bad girls (yes, my bad girls—I’ve become possessive) were alive today, I wonder how they’d answer the question. Some, I think, would be flattered to be asked “Are you a bad girl?”, and at least a few of them would tell me to go to hell, because they wouldn’t see themselves as bad girls at all. But if you look at my list of what makes a bad girl, you might find that in some way or another, just about every woman in the world has some elements of being a bad girl.

I started to study bad girls when I was at the lowest point in my life, so it’s no coincidence that every bad girl I picked came from a disadvantaged background and had to struggle to achieve happiness. Happiness on their own terms. Bad girls are ambitious—Victoria Woodhull ran for US President fifty years before women were allowed to vote. Am I ambitious? Yes, in my own way. I’m secretive about my ambitions, though, because if I fail I don’t want anyone to know about it. Bad girls are secretive.

My bad girls, by the way, saved my life. They helped me regain my lost happiness, so I love them.

Screenwriters talk about the “inciting incident”—some event that causes everything to fall apart and sends the heroine on her journey. Balance must be restored. In my case, it was turning forty and losing my husband, my baby, my job and my home all at the same time. Clearly, I had to restore balance in my life. In the case of all of my bad girls, some misfortune or indiscretion changed their life path forever and they launched out on a quest to restore balance. Screenwriters also say that a heroine’s quest will be hampered by some evil antagonist who puts obstacles in her path. That’s a handy conceit for movie makers, because it makes the story a lot more exciting, but in my case, I wonder—in the story of my life, who is my antagonist? Is it my own sense of shame? Hopelessness? Fear? Sloth? The desire to please at the expense of what pleases me?

Here are the inciting incidents in my bad girls’ lives:

For some, it was a bad marriage when they were too young to know better. Catherine the Great, Victoria Woodhull, and Mae West married young and had to find some means of escape from their bad marriages.

“If in my youth I had found a husband whom I could have loved, I should have remained faithful to him all my life. It is my misfortune that my heart cannot rest content even for an hour, without love”—so wrote Catherine the Great, the woman who ruled for 34 years as the very powerful Empress of All the Russias, after convincing her boyfriend to kill her no-good husband in 1762. She didn’t murder Czar Peter III just for fun. She was driven to it by the terrible circumstances of her life: an innocent princess from a far-off land, she was stuck in a bad marriage to a man she didn’t love and stripped of any sense of self-worth.

For others, it was divorce. Elizabeth Chudleigh and Lola Montez sought divorces when divorce wasn’t common at all. The nicest of girls would be tarred immediately with the bad-girl brush when they sought a divorce, even if the husband in question was a monster. Years after deserting the man she had eloped with as a girl in the 1830s, Lola Montez said: “Runaway matches, like runaway horses, are almost sure to end in a smash-up. My advice to all young girls who contemplate taking such a step is, that they had better hang or drown themselves just one hour before they start.”

It’s no coincidence that I, a woman on the verge of divorce when my quest began, found ugly divorces to be an appealing trait among my bad girls.

The inciting incident in the life of a bad girl also might be poverty. Again, it was an appealing trait to me because I was broke when my quest began, and I wanted to know how other women survived being poor and went on to earn money. Bessie Smith, Skittles and Mai Zetterling were no strangers to poverty in their youth. Bessie used it to her advantage as a child, singing on street corners and collecting change from passersby, which gave her an early taste for appreciative audiences and getting paid for doing what she loved best.

Similarly, a chaotically strange family led some bad girls to their fate. Born in 1877 (the years are important to me—when I started to do the historical research, I couldn’t believe, with the arrogance of the living, that all this weird stuff was going on back then), Isabelle Eberhardt was never certain of her father’s identity since the man was a nihilistic anarchist who refused to admit his paternity because he didn’t believe in families. And yet he took a dominant role in Isabelle’s development, raising her as he did her brothers, requiring her to dress as a boy at home and in public. Isabelle eventually adopted a man’s name, Si Mahmoud, converted to Islam, and ran off to the Sahara Desert to become a hashish-smoking war correspondent with a penchant for picking up Arab boys.

In the case of Ninon de Lenclos, it was the death of a parent that turned her bad. Her father, a pleasure-loving musician and occasional pimp, deserted his family sometime in the 1630s after killing a man and only came home years later to die. When he saw that his circle of friends—writers, artists, diplomats, soldiers and aristocrats—were drawn to Ninon, he warned his daughter to be careful “only in the choice of your pleasures, never mind about the number,” then died, leaving Ninon a tidy inheritance that she used to set up shop as a courtesan. She decided at an early age never to marry.

Finally, Empress Theodora of Constantinople came from a circus family, and a circus back in 5th-century Byzantium was essentially a fancy whorehouse that put on shows with animals and prostituted children to the greasy-fingered, dirty old rich men who turned up at the Hippodrome. Are you following this? What I’m trying to say is that Empress Theodora had too much bad sex at an early age, and it turned her into a bad girl.

Whatever the inciting incident might be, my bad girls arrived at a fate that women of any era dread and avoid at all costs—they became social outcasts. I’m talking about myself here, of course. I have always sought to be liked, and when I lost everything I felt despicable and believed the whole world would shun me. From my vantage point today, I think those feelings were ridiculous and incorrect, but at the time they were very real to me and they woke me up in the middle of the night, filled with dark thoughts and worry.

It makes sense that I looked to my bad girls for guidance when I was feeling bad about myself. What I loved about them, what I wanted to believe with all my heart, was that they had abandoned any sense of shame about their misfortunes. They were angry, bold and free in a way I wanted to be. They used people, especially men, to get what they wanted because they just didn’t care about their reputations anymore. Why does this appeal to me so? The angrier and nastier a bad girl was, the more it delighted me. Why? This is what I’m trying to figure out.

Despite the huge social deficit, a bad girl’s big ego saved her. If she wasn’t born royal, she assumed a regal identity anyway—in the case of Elizabeth Chudleigh by becoming a bigamous duchess, and in the case of Bessie Smith by becoming the Queen of the Blues.

Having a powerful personality also helped. The bad girls I sought were persuasive speakers with agile minds, and the more outrageous their words, the more I liked them. Case in point: Victoria Woodhull ran for President in 1872 on a platform that favored spiritualism and free love, the women’s suffrage movement, easier divorce laws, birth control, labor reform and Marxism. “Yes! I am a Free Lover,” she shouted in one of her campaign speeches. “I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please! And with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”

Victoria faced constant storms of controversy, public scandal and several jail sentences, believing all along that she had virtue on her side. She had the courage of her political convictions, but not all of my bad girls were so heavily politicized. I also like the snarky speakers, the girls with a sharp wit, a love of gossip and an ability to quickly assess the pecking order of any social situation. For a poor girl from a disadvantaged background, there is no shame in social climbing—though for my money, I’m more interested in bad girls who use their careful observations of the social order in order to understand how to escape it. Mae West, Isabelle Eberhardt and Ninon de Lenclos were all adept at this—and, might I add, were the writers among my bunch of bad girls.

OK, now I hope you have some sense of what I’ve got in mind when I talk about what a bad girl is and where she comes from. My list of character traits is a lot longer, though, so watch for my next blog post, when I get into the fun stuff, like vanity, charm and rebellion.