Please help me welcome Gabrielle Kimm!
First of all, thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog! You ask about the inspiration for ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’. Writers talk about so-called ‘second novel syndrome’, and say how hard it can be to find inspiration for a second book. Although I found second-time-round publication a bit more daunting than I had with ‘His Last Duchess’, coming up with a new story for a second book wasn’t a problem at all with ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’ as I had already had a fully-formed central character, whom I knew really well, and I found that I couldn’t wait to spend more time with her!
I had happily bade farewell to all my other characters, when I finished ‘His Last Duchess’, content to let them go off and do their own thing without further reference to me, but Francesca Felizzi, my eponymous duke’s mistress, just wouldn’t leave me alone. She kept on popping up in my thoughts, and I found myself wondering frequently how she was, and what she was doing, and whether she and her twins were coping down in Naples – which is where I had sent them at the end of my first book. Eventually I began to realize that the only way to sort out this continual intrusion was to give Francesca what she so clearly wanted – a book of her own.
Although I thought I knew her pretty well as I started to plan the story, I realized that because time had passed, and circumstances had changed for Francesca, I would in fact have to get to know her properly all over again. What facts did I have as I started to write? Well, I knew that she had needed to get away from Ferrara, and that she (well, okay – I!!) had settled upon Naples, as a suitable place to re-locate. I knew too that Francesca was an ambitious, adventurous woman, and a fiercely protective and loving mother, so she would be giving top priority to earning a sufficient amount to keep her children well and happy. Given that she had risen from being a street-whore to being a paid mistress in Ferrara, it was fairly obvious which sort of direction she would be heading into to earn this money, so I began to realize that Francesca was going to have her sights set on becoming a courtesan. But of course, fiction being what is, I was also well aware that achieving her ambitions was not going to be easy for her.
And, apart from all that - what exactly is a courtesan?
I was so ignorant at the beginning of this process that I started off by thinking that a courtesan was nothing more than a better-paid and more richly-dressed prostitute. But, as I began reading and researching, I found out what they were really all about, and was absolutely amazed! Yes, fundamentally, a courtesan is a highly-paid whore. She is a woman who trades her body and her sexual prowess for large sums of money (or property, or gems, or whatever the payment happens to be.)
But the courtesan is more than that.
Courtesans were cultured – some were skilled writers and artists, some were dancers, others philosophers or orators – and fundamentally and astonishingly, they were independent businesswomen, in an age where most women, right up to the highest ranks of the nobility, had virtually no rights at all, either socially, financially, or sexually. Almost all Renaissance women were beholden to their fathers until marriage, and then to their husbands until death. (Hhmm. That gives one pause for thought! ) The courtesans, on the other hand, were essentially independent. They never worked for pimps, they chose their own clientèle and they managed their own diaries. They retained or dismissed their patrons according to preference and earned sometimes vast sums of money in the process. Some of the greatest of them – who were known as the cortigiane oneste (honest courtesans), were the sixteenth century equivalent of A-list celebrities.
The authorities tried to control these women – dictating what fabrics and jewels they could and couldn’t wear, forbidding particular areas of cities, specific church services, etc – but many of the courtesans simply ignored these exhortations, and just did what they wanted anyway! In many ways, they were, to look at and to listen to, virtually indistinguishable from their virtuous counterparts in the ranks of the nobility, but they existed on a separate plane, as it were, in what was perhaps a sort of alternative society.
As I began to prepare to write, I read accounts of the lives of a number of the most famous courtesans – two books in particular were wonderful: The Book of the Courtesans, by Susan Griffin, and Courtesans, by Katie Hickman. Both books bring vividly to life a number of exuberant (and often quite shameless!) women who lived glamorous, exotic and dangerous lives across several centuries and a number of different countries. I absolutely loved them, and was amazed by their courage and beauty and brazen determination!
But – at the end of this section of my research, I was worried about the possibility of over-romanticising my own courtesan. It’s a bit like with pirates and highwaymen – they can appear so gorgeous in their swashbuckling finery, that it’s perhaps too easy to forget that most highwaymen and pirates were in fact hardbitten, ruthlesss thieves and murderers. So I sought to redress the balance. I found an extraordinary collection of writings by modern women in the sex industry – prostitutes, strippers, lap-dancers, masseuses – and learned about the dark side of this alternative world I was trying to create. These women write honestly about their lives – and their accounts are shocking, vulgar, funny, heart-breaking, tragic, charming and frighteningly eye-opening. I really felt that I understood Francesca better for having ‘spent time’ with these girls.
As I began to write, I realized one important thing about Francesca that I didn’t know before. Like the whore in Cole Porter’s wonderful song ‘Love For Sale’, she has experienced ‘old love, new love, every love but true love.’ Francesca is wildly promiscuous, she is a beautiful, talented, experienced ‘professional lover’; she can (as her manservant Modesto says at one point “seduce the reluctant, enthrall the enthusiastic and exhaust the unprepared” with consummate skill, but the huge issue in her life is that no man has ever loved her. Not even her father.
And it’s this hole in the centre of her life which causes all the trouble in the book.
I hope that’s given you a bit of an idea of the sort of thought processes that went into the early planning and research of the book. Thank you again for letting me come in and visit your blog!
Thank you Gabrielle for this most interesting post! To all my friends out there- This book is a must read!