Hickman's study of five nineteenth-century courtesans covers an era of particular interest, when certain women, in spite of their notoriety and questionable morals, became a mainstay of French and English society, their favors, parlors, and assignations always in the public eye. Known as the demimonde, these colorful women enjoyed an extraordinary freedom in a repressed society, flaunting their beauty and living extravagantly. Aided by the astute grasp of the political and a natural intellectual curiosity, these clever ladies found the feminine wiles that restricted other women a hidden asset, acquiring and spending fortunes in pursuit of fame.
Five women are highlighted to illustrate the changes and adjustments required from one century to another, old-fashioned manners and charming pretensions giving way to social sophistication. Sophia Baddeley was an untalented actress with a mercurial temper who benefited from her father's connections to the theater and had a voracious appetite for clothes, jewels and sexual liaisons to ease her boredom. Elizabeth Armistead was best known for her romance with the Whig, Charles Fox, assured a place in history by virtue of this great affair.
More abrasive than her eighteenth-century sisters, Harriette Wilson began her “career” with Lord Craven in 1802, the beginning of a brilliant climb to success. A star in Paris, where English visitors luxuriated in her cosmopolitan charms, Cora Pearl was a blunt-spoken “professional” with astute business sense, a quality lacking in most of her cohorts. The beauty of Catherine Walters (Skittles) inspired hopeless romantic passion from her many admirers. An avid horsewoman, she lived a long life, ever the gossip, lover of all things equine and the attentions of famous men.
Society is endlessly curious about those who successfully break the rules, especially the notorious “fallen women”, who are acceptable on the arms of men of wealth and power. The author quotes publications and personal letters, privy to anecdotal documentation of these courtesans' romantic adventures. Although frequently digressing to incidental information outside the strict parameters of these five lives, Hickman paints a vivid picture of courtesan life, the glamour, the glory and the quest for fame of some extraordinary ladies who defied conventional propriety to advance themselves in the rarified world of the demimonde.