Monday, February 25, 2008

Reviving Skittles, Part 8: Escape to Paris

Note to English courtesan lovers: I just found a real-live English courtesan's blog. She has a first from Oxford, fancies Wim Wenders films and the music of Massenet, and charges anywhere from £400 for 2 hours to £2400 for 48 hours. A 45% deposit is required. Check it out: The Diary of an English Courtesan

At the end of 1862, The Times announced that Catherine Walters’ Park Street house off Grosvenor Square in Mayfair was available to let and that all its contents were for sale. Curious mothers and daughters showed up on Park Street under the pretext of wanting to rent the house. But what they really wanted was to get a glimpse into the notorious courtesan’s life.

And maybe get a feel for what it's like to be a bad girl. I've noticed that some of the most interesting women in the world, especially the ones who are single and good at it, create lavish living spaces that are such an absolute reflection of themselves that it's impossible to imagine them ever living with a man on a daily basis. (In other times and places, Frida Kahlo and Mae West also created fabulous me-only spaces for themselves.) In Skittles' case, there was no space for a full-time man amid all the gilt ornamentation, cerise-pink silk and so much swansdown that it even covered the toilet seats.

Skittles didn’t care what the thrill seekers thought. She was going to Paris.

After years of partings and reunions, her relationship with Hartington had reached its logical conclusion after a few aimless visits and half-hearted letters between them did nothing to change things. The affair was over. (In 1892, when he was 59 years old, Hartington finally married for the first and only time in his life. His father had died in 1891, making Hartington the 8th Duke of Devonshire. The duke's bride was his longtime mistress, the Duchess of Manchester, whose first husband had conveniently died in 1890. Skittles continued to collect the yearly income Hartington provided and kept all his letters until the end of her life.)

Paris was good for Skittles. It rounded her out, helping her understand who she was—-and wasn’t. She saw that she would never be like the Parisian courtesans, with their wild flirting and emotional outbursts. The Parisians called attention to themselves with their extravagant dress and open criticism of the servants who waited on them at dinner parties. Still, Skittles studied their graceful manners in social situations. She heard how they talked about travel and politics and learned about their preferences in food, wine and perfume. She saw their ease in the world and imitated it, opening herself up to new experience.

Combining this sophistication with her British resiliency, Skittles developed a persona for herself: the refined and elegant Englishwoman of subdued taste. One memoirist wrote, “Everything was so quiet. The harness and livery of her servants and she herself dressed always in dark colors, so that no one unless he knew her would have suspected that she was of the demi-monde.”

Here she is, the Lady Skittles:

While the Parisian girls attended gambling parties and masqued balls, Skittles' poor French and homesickness contributed to her quieter ways. She rode horses and opened her doors to visitors from England. She also spent time in diplomatic circles, entertaining ambassadors, politicians and the young attach├ęs who worked at the British embassy.

In her travels abroad, Skittles also learned the value of sleeping with the natives to learn the language. Her best French teacher was the sixty-something Achille Fould, Napoleon III’s finance minister, a skillful yet undemanding lover who showed her a few new tricks in bed as well as the importance of looking carefully after her money. A banker by trade, Fould taught Skittles the value of compound interest and provided her with an income in addition to the one she received from Hartington.

Maybe he saw himself as Skittles' savior, or a father figure who just happens to have intimate relations with his little darling every now and then, which can happen when a kind and educated man hires a prostitute. Fould was charmed by Skittles' attempts to improve herself as much as by her elegant beauty. She was his new cultural project. This suited Skittles perfectly because she was at a time in her life when she was hungry for education. She had already started to read literature and attend painting exhibits at the Barbizon School.

Just as important, Skittles was learning to be a grown woman. She found that she enjoyed her financial independence and property rights, and she had no intention of losing them to marriage. And now that finding a husband was no longer her goal, she found self-expression in sex without expectations. For a woman of her straightforward character, it was a relief to let go of the submissive poses she had adopted as a girl. She didn't have to hide her talents for arranging a seductive atmosphere, choosing the correct wines, making the first move and inventing new positions in lovemaking.

Thanks to Achille Fould, who was not a jealous man, Skittles found plenty of opportunity to practice her new talents in the small gatherings of rich, powerful and interesting men she invited to her salons. The most interesting one of all was a brooding young man with a strikingly pretty face and a poet's bearing because he was indeed a poet.

In Part 9, we meet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a converted Catholic and virgin who "still trembled at the thought of carnal sin and eternal damnation, but as a romanticist longed for the love of some earthly goddess”...

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Brooklyn Blogade on March 9 in Kensington

Hi, Brooklyn Blogadeers!

I'm hosting the Brooklyn Blogade on Sunday, March 9, at 12 p.m., in Kensington at the Old Brick Cafe, a little Italian/Balkan/Mediterranean restaurant on Church Avenue. Please come!

Time for "Show & Tell": Bloggers are encouraged to be brave and give a reading from one of their best blog posts. Or bring along your laptop and a screen and show us your best pics. Or just tell us about your best post. Please plan to limit your presentation to about five minutes so everybody can have a turn.

The Old Brick Cafe's owner, Eddy, and I have planned a lunch, so please arrive on time at noon.

For a cost of $15 per person (tip at our discretion), the menu includes:
--an appetizer pastry called burek
--a main course of cevapi (shish kebab), chicken cutlet or vegetarian lasagna
--dessert and coffee

We will have the place to ourselves as a private party, and you may bring in a bottle of wine if you care to BYOB.

Because Eddy's restaurant is charmingly small, it is essential that I give him a headcount. Please RSVP with me by Thursday, March 6, and be sure to tell me what you want as your main course. Send your reservation to:

The Old Brick Cafe is located at 507 Church Ave. between Ocean Parkway and E. 5th Street (very close to the Church Avenue stop on the F train, and not too far from the Q stop on Church Avenue).

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Bad Girls Have Daughters, Too

I've just finished reading Too Great A Lady, Amanda Elyot's historical novel that details the life of Lady Emma Hamilton as if she's writing her own memoir a year before her death in 1815. I have mixed feelings about the book. It reads a bit like a Harlequin novel, with lots of busted corset stays and heaving desire, but by the end of the story, when Admiral Lord Nelson dies aboard the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar, it had me blubbing like a schoolgirl.

I don't want to talk too much about English history's greatest love affair ever, because it's already been done to death by many writers, including me in this blog post. Though I have to admit, I'm so fascinated by Lady Hamilton, a classic bad girl, that the next book on my reading list is Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover, another novelization of Emma's life, which I'm sure will be a more literary affair than Elyot's book.

What interests me now is Lady Hamilton's daughter, Horatia Nelson, who never forgave her mother for being who she was.

Here's England's greatest love story ever told from the illegitimate daughter's point of view:

Horatia was born in January 1801 and lived until the age of almost five with her father, Horatio Nelson, the heroic and publicly adored commander of the Royal Navy who had won the Battle of the Nile. She was never told who her mother was, and after a time, Horatia actively sought not to learn who her mother was.

Those first few years were strange yet idyllic. Horatia and her father lived on his 110-acre country estate with a married couple, Sir William and Lady Emma Hamilton, who was constantly throwing lavish parties. Mrs. Hamilton didn't sleep with her aged husband, but she did seem to spend an awful lot of time with Admiral Nelson, giving him baths and helping him dress because he had only the one arm after losing the other one in battle. When Sir William died in 1801, the widow Hamilton kept coming round to pay increasingly unseemly visits to the admiral.

Admiral Nelson died in 1805, and Horatia's life took a bad turn. The widow kept insisting that Horatio wanted her to be Horatia's sole guardian. Which meant that when Lady Hamilton went bankrupt , she dragged Horatia along with her when she got sent to debtors' prison. And once she got out of prison, she dragged Horatia off to France to escape her creditors, when all Horatia wanted to do was live with her aunt and cousins in the English countryside.

Lady Hamilton, with all her grand pretensions, spent money she didn't have for Horatia's studies in foreign languages, drama and the dance. The widow arranged for the girl's portrait to be painted as a joyful Bacchante, just as she had done when young.

Here's Horatia as a Bacchante:
And here's Lady Hamilton:

A Bacchante is a priestess or female votary of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine and of an orgiastic religion celebrating the power and fertility of nature. Horatia never wanted to be a Bacchante.

Worse, when drunk and dramatic as usual, Lady Hamilton would make dark and brooding statements to the effect that she was Horatia's only true mother, and that if Horatia wasn't careful she would fall into the same life of sin that Lady Hamilton had fallen into. It was a blessing, really, when the widow died of alcoholism-related liver disease in 1815, even though Horatia was only 14 at the time and had to look after the body all by herself in France until it could be buried.

When finally freed from Lady Hamilton's clutches, Horatia ran as fast as she could to the bosom of the Nelson family, who arranged for her marriage to the Reverend Philip Ward just after her 21st birthday in February 1822 at Burnham Westgate Church, near her father’s home village in north Norfolk. Horatia and the vicar had eight unquestionably legitimate children together and led an exceedingly private life.

Till she breathed her last breath in 1881 at the age of 80, Horatia Nelson denied that Lady Emma Hamilton could ever have been her mother.

I recently found a photograph of Horatia Nelson. It's not a very good image, but it does give a solid impression of her preferred look in adulthood. Clearly, dancing as a Bacchante was not Horatia's idea. It was the woman who wasn't her mother's.