Monday, April 30, 2007

Reviving Skittles, Part 2: On Becoming a Courtesan

The Quorn Hunt looked something like this:

A lot of freaked-out animals--horses, dogs and foxes--with people in red jackets bossing them around. This is the hunt that is so wildly protested against these days. If Skittles were alive now, she would have no sympathy for the protesters, of course, even though she was a marginalized figure at the Quorn and knew very well that she was unwelcome by the snobs of Leicestershire.

That's what I think, anyway. Skittles was an old-fashioned girl who knew her place, and that was being a whore--Victorian London’s favorite whore. In the same way that Nell Gwynne had been the favorite whore of England’s Restoration. You know about Nell Gwynne,right? She was another courtesan who got a kick out of calling herself a whore. Nell, who lived from 1650 to 1687, was a longtime mistress of King Charles II, and of all the king’s many mistresses, Nell was the people's prostitute because she was an unpretentious girl of the streets who never forgot where she came from. There's one commonly told story about Nell Gwynne, and it goes like this: One day, she found her footman bleeding, recovering from a fight, and when she asked what it was about, the footman said: “I have been fighting, madam, with a rascal who called your ladyship a whore.” Nell responded: “Blockhead! At this rate you must fight every day of your life. Why, all the world knows it!”

Wait. Hang on. That's not the story I was thinking of. There's another one where Nell calls herself a whore that I like better. In this one she's riding through the crowded streets of London in her carriage, and she's mistaken for King Charles' wife, I think it was, who was Catholic. And Nell said, "No no, it's okay, I'm the King's Protestant whore!" I think that's how the story goes. Anyway, the punchline is definitely "I'm the Protestant whore."

Now here's me being the women's studies professor who explains all of this: Both the Victorian and Restoration ages were class-bound periods when people were expected to accept their lot in life, especially women. Respectable job options were few—nurse, teacher, seamstress. More daring women, risk-takers of special talents who had little to lose, became actresses and courtesans. The unlucky ones ended up in cheap bordellos or, worse, on street corners, while young women who succeeded usually enjoyed an unusual beauty combined with an instinctive sense of charm. Skittles and Nell Gwynne, for example, were both slum children with drunks as parents, but both had pretty faces, good figures, winning personalities and an unsentimental pragmatism that kept them from wasting their precious gifts on men who would be useless to their survival. Wealthy men were nice, of course, but so were great leaders and artists who could enhance a courtesan’s reputation with their reflected glory.

Skittles’ finest accomplishments were the men who loved her, and they included at least one nobleman, a politician and a poet. Who she became was the sum of her lovers. If she understood the aristocracy, it was because the 8th Duke of Devonshire was her first and possibly only love. If she took an interest in books and writing, it was thanks to her boyfriend the Victorian poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. (But they never called them boyfriends back in those days, did they?) If she became a refined woman of wealth, it was due to her affair with an older Frenchman, Napoleon III’s finance minister, Achille Fould.

Well, yes, that all sounds very nice, but let's face it: To live happily off the generosity of men without marrying them requires an uncommon talent, and Skittles had it. That's the big reason why I like her (even though, being a classic bad girl, I'm sure Skittles wouldn't have liked me in return). The men who knew Skittles ended up loving her more than she loved them, looking past her brassiness and seeing instead an image of a vulnerable innocent alone in the world. While this vision may have had some truth in it, Skittles was tougher than she let on. The circumstances of her birth guaranteed that.

In the next installment, watch for more on the circumstances of Skittles' birth! Can you stand the suspense? I'll be on holiday in Mexico or Belize in the next couple of weeks, but I'll try to find an Internet cafe at some point so I can do a blog post.


Anonymous said...

miss you miss thing..when are ya coming back and giving us a new installment? (Sheeesh, some people...)

Anonymous said...

Actually, the crowd mistook Nell's carriage for that of Louise de Keroualle, Charles I's French Catholic mistress, not the carriage of Queen Catherine :)