For any novelist, research is vital. What you try to do when writing a novel is to create a world into which the reader can disappear, safe in the knowledge that the writer knows what they are talking about and that that fictional world is ‘real’. The world of the novel must have authenticity and credibility. The story might be set in a village in Scotland in the 1960s, in a township in Soweto during the apartheid regime or on an invented planet six centuries in the future – whatever it is, and whenever it’s set, even if it’s semi-autobiographical and takes place in your home town – creating that authenticity will involve learning and discovering a multitude of different things.
I started writing The Courtesan’s Lover having already written one novel set in Italy in the sixteenth century, so there were things with which I was familiar before I began. As part of researching His Last Duchess, I’d found out about clothes and food and furniture, for instance, so I could draw on those findings, and refine them, for this new book.
But mostly, I was faced with new challenges. The first, of course, was to find out about courtesans. When I first realized that Francesca – mistress to the duke of Ferrara in His Last Duchess was going to take centre stage in my new book, and that she would be working hard to become a courtesan, I didn’t really know what one was. Now there’s an admission! I thought to begin with that it was just another word for a highly-paid prostitute. But I quickly began reading about the lives of the great courtesans, and my eyes were opened!
So – what is a courtesan?
It’s actually quite hard to define, but what the great courtesans had in common was tremendous sex-appeal (not necessarily beauty), charm, wit, the ability to seduce effortlessly, style – and perhaps most of all, independence. This last, in an era in which most women had no independence or autonomy at all, be that social, financial or sexual, this was astonishing.
Unlike more lowly prostitutes, the courtesans never worked for pimps, so I discovered. The courtesans managed their own diaries, retained or dismissed their patrons according to preference and charged exorbitant fees for their services. Some of them in fact went on to be quite phenomenally wealthy; others, for example, became royal consorts.
The books I read about women like Veronica Franco, Ninon de Lenclos, Cora Pearl, la Belle Otero and the rest left me with an impression of wonderful glamour and extravagant luxury … but there was definitely a dark side. Veronica Franco, in a quote I include as a frontispiece to The Courtesan’s Lover, talks of the risks of danger and deadly disease, and the terror she feels about the possibility of going to hell, given that her lifestyle involves more than one regularly-committed mortal sin. When I read this, I realized that, in spite of the glitter and the luxury, it has to be remembered that fundamentally, these women were just selling sex, with all the dangers that such a lifestyle brings with it.
Francesca herself says, in The Courtesan’s Lover, towards the end of the book, when her life seems to be collapsing in upon her:
“And it’s all my fault – oh God, it’s all my fault! I might have dressed like a duchess and feasted like a princess and been fêted like a queen for years, but [ …] behind all the tawdry trappings, I have to face the fact … that I’m nothing but a whore. I earn my scudi on my back. Strip me of my finery and I am no different from any street puttana.”
How was I to make sure that I didn’t over-romanticise my courtesan? How should I ensure that I fully understand the dangers and the fears Francesca encounters? In the hope of redressing the balance, I read a startling volume of writings from modern women in the contemporary sex industry – strippers, street-walkers, lap-dancers, masseuses. Their accounts are shocking, vulgar, tragic, funny, honest, engaging, eye-opening. I was struck by the down-to-earth courage of the contributors and felt at the end that I understood the lives of these women much better than I had before, and that therefore I had reached a better understanding of my own courtesan.
That was the first stage of research – the backbone, if you like, of the book. Then came all the myriad details. One of these was how Francesca was going to tackle the thorny problem of contraception. She has twin daughters – the illegitimate offspring of the duke of Ferrara – and I knew that, firstly I didn’t want her to have any more children, or to become pregnant at all during the course of the story, and secondly, that she didn’t want that to happen either!
I knew too that any nasty, messy method of contraception would not suit Francesca at all: condoms made from pig-intestines, or sponges soaked in unpleasant substances simply were not going to appeal to her – so what else could she do? And then I discovered an article written by a wonderful woman called Lesley Smith, who curates the Tutbury Museum in the North of England. She revealed that one surprisingly successful contraceptive method involved the use of lemons or limes. Yep – that’s right – citrus fruit! Cut in half and scooped-out, they made, apparently, the sixteenth century equivalent of a diaphragm, with the natural acid forming both an effective spermicide and a pretty good anti-bacterial agent. With the obvious promiscuity involved in the lifestyle of a courtesan, the latter would probably have been as useful as the former.
I could go on indefinitely, wittering on about my research – it’s a part of the process I absolutely love – but perhaps it’s best not to give too much away in advance. Perhaps it’s best for you just to read the book! I do hope you enjoy it, and thank you again so much, for the invitation to join you on your blogsite. It’s beena real pleasure.
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GABRIELLE KIMM lives between the sea and the South Downs, England, where big skies meet open countryside and the tides in the creeks dictate daily activities. She splits her time between her family, her writing, and teaching English locally. She studied at the University of Reading, the University of Oxford, and the University of Chichester.
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