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”...


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Joyce! I just followed your link for a nosey and have been whooping with delight over your profile, especially the Victoriana, Baudelaire and Philip Glass bits. I was playing his violin concerto earlier tonight so I am stretching out a hand across the ether to link little fingers and make a wish with you. You write so well and I thoroughly enjoyed the tale of Skittles and Achille Fould. I can't wait to hear the tale of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt...

Livvy xxx (AKA the bad girl known as the English Courtesan)

Evangeline Holland said...

I'm loving your posts on Skittles. I've been curious about her ever since she was mentioned in Anita Leslie's "Edwardians In Love".

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