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The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues
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The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues

3.47  ·  Rating details ·  1,171 ratings  ·  54 reviews
They charmed some of Europe’s most illustrious men, honing their social skills as well as their sexual ones, and accumulating wealth, fame, and power along the way. Unlike their geisha counterparts, courtesans didn't lived in brothels or bend their wills to suit their suitors. They were the muses who enflamed the hearts of our most celebrated artists--Raphael, Manet, Dumas ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published September 10th 2002 by Broadway Books (first published 2001)
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3.47  · 
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 ·  1,171 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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Jun 17, 2008 rated it did not like it
Shelves: 2013, history, paris, naughty
There are four major problems with The Book of the Courtesans:

1) Histories should contain more history than assumptions and fictional storytelling, and this one does not. Even though Griffin does state 'one can imagine' quite a few times before wandering off into fantasy land, that doesn't excuse the fact that this is more romanticized conjecture than actual history.

2) There was no logical progression and threatened at times to get bogged down in its own confusing narrative. The way the author j
Jun 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
Griffin focuses nearly exclusively on European, particularly French, courtesans and their world. She makes few references to the courtesans of Venice or Greece, although she highlights two American women she believes are part of the tradition: Marion Davies and Klondike Kate. The bibliography is also heavily weighted towards France.

Griffin's style is light and enchanting, almost as if she is imparting delicious gossip or advice. These are women who lived fascinating lives in great contrast to th
Jul 03, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is a very interesting and well-written consideration, through case studies, of the qualities that made courtesans successful.

Not to be confused with the Susan Dunant novel published a few years later with the same cover and almost the same title.
Jul 23, 2010 rated it really liked it
Susan Griffin presents a fascinating and in depth look of the lives of some of the most independent, fiery and well-educated women, from times when such qualities were generally frowned upon in "respectable" females.

Though she references priestess/courtesans from greek and Roman days, and touches on personalities of the early 20th century, Griffin turns her gaze mostly to the courtesans of France from 1700 -1900. She also includes the dancer Nijinsky. . . a male courtesan, by her accounts.

Her st
Kris Larson
Sep 28, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
Way too many abstract passages on the nature of joy, or how the very atoms in a woman's body can be charming, etc. Worth reading for the snippets about the lives of actual courtesans, but she seems to have gleaned these from questionable sources, such as the autobiographies of said courtesans, without bothering to authenticate her details. I'd rather read the actual autobiographies and skip the rhetoric.
Avery Grey
Oct 11, 2014 rated it did not like it
Griffin has an impressive resume and I wonder if this book was thrown together quickly to fulfill some contractual obligation. Other than the inane "virtues" categories, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to this. The author swings wildly between decades and centuries, trying to fit the courtesans into the categories, without actually delving into who they were as women. She includes women who weren't actually courtesans (Coco Chanel, Marion Davies) without expanding on why, and is almost clin ...more
Nov 30, 2007 rated it liked it
This was a fun book that felt weightier than it was. I really loved the bios of some fascinating women I wouldn't have otherwise met, along with the juicy anecdotes that will be fun at parties (if I end up at the right parties). I was not enamored with the book's organization, however. It too often felt like a stretch to match each profiled character to a particular virtue, just to keep the structure intact. If you're a not-too-serious history buff who enjoys salacious content, this will be a jo ...more
Nov 13, 2017 rated it it was ok
Interesting topic. But the book was kinda a bit hard to follow at times. It jumps from one courtesan to the next with just quotes showing that there is a change in topic. I was a little bit confused about the Cora Pearl "chapter". It shows a picture of Cora Pearl and her name is the headliner, but it's not about just her :/ same with the other "headliner" names and pictures.
Maybe it just wasn't the right time for me to re-read this book.
Rachel Adiyah
Jul 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in women's history
Instead of treating the lives of courtesans as an historical or biographical subject, their lives are rather analyzed in the light of the social sciences, specially that of culture. The Virtues of the title refer to an older meaning of the term which was not inextricably linked with the idea of goodness, but rather indicated traits which one possessed. Analyzing courtesans as a part of a pre-feminist world in which women in hard circumstances were often economically forced into some form of sexu ...more
Oct 02, 2018 rated it did not like it
It started off so hopefully. I enjoy the topic -- sexually powerful women -- but the book soon lost interest for me, for two main reasons.

1. There was soooo much speculation based on very little fact. Each section discussed a (presumed) characteristic of these women, but the examples were so extremely tenuous that all you were truly learning was the assumptions of the author. Extrapolation as an extreme sport.

2. The writing style. A plummy, juicy, overblown style that reminds me very much of how
Aug 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was such an interesting book… full of anecdotal evidence as to the power, influence, grace, charm, and wit of a group of women who have often been recast in history, or worse yet, written out altogether.
Eco Erin
Jul 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history and societal impact of courtesans.
Raven Hair
Jun 27, 2019 rated it did not like it
What started off as a juicy summer read turned out to be a bore.
I found myself questioning how these sinfully delicious women’s lives could be described so blah.
Jul 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely seduction and alluring. I turned the pages earlier to read the many examples of courtesans past.
Jul 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: she-study
I hadn't expected to want to keep this book; I figured it was another read-and-give-away sort, but I was drawn into the vignettes, the quick glimpses of women Griffin deemed "courtesans," from centuries previous to the 1930s. I'm drawn to Klondike Kate and think I might do some research on her for a poem. I appreciated how well-researched the book was, without showing its cards--the writing is clean enough to feel smooth, just enough. Her organization--by "virtues," as opposed by chronology or s ...more
Nina Singhapakdi
Apr 08, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: women-s-history
I struggled with how to rate this because I went back and forth between enjoying this and finding it very taxing. The author's writing style is very flowery, but in a way that reminds me of those times the night before a paper's due and I'm trying to get up to a certain word count as quickly as possible. The book was also about 50% history and the rest of it was flowery narrative speculation. That on its own is not a horrible thing because flowery narrative speculation can still be pleasant. How ...more
Dec 28, 2007 marked it as to-read

"I was fascinated by these women who when I wrote this book were hardly known in America. And though of course I don’t recommend this choice today, I came to recognize what they did was a brilliant strategy for survival over several centuries during which the only other work open for women was prostitution or employment with so little pay and such grueling hours that it dictated an early death. I also wanted to probe the seductive skills that women have, skills that have been either trivialized
Kate Lowell
Apr 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: research
I enjoyed this. It wasn't an indepth treatment of the lives of these women, but more of an overview of how they integrated in society and how society dealt with their prescence. There were some fun stories. The idea of presenting them under the categories of the different personality characteristcs was interesting, though it inevitably lead to breaking off the discussion of a courtesan just as the topic started to become a little more deep. I found that detracted somewhat from my enjoyment of th ...more
Svetlana Meritt
Nov 08, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Now a days we think of courtesans as prostitutes, but we forget that they were actually artists at creating beauty-in clothing, movement, conversation, sensuality, and pleasure. At the time, when there were only two paths that women could take-marriage or monastery- choosing the life of a courtesan was the path for women who had independence, rebelliousness, a brilliant mind, and other words, all the characteristics attributed to men. From Hetaera's in Ancient Greece to courtesans in ...more
Feb 17, 2009 rated it really liked it
I generally find lofty words questionable. But the method in which this book is written; granted lofty, romantically digs into the nature of the subject which is entirely a pleasure principle applied by the most basic need of the survival of women. Cunning are women indeed. Beautifully written. I love the idea of fashion being a religion & courtesans the life of the party. Though the era of courtesans has ceased to exists, their legacy is apparent and a foundation for powerful women is unden ...more
Colleen Wu
Apr 01, 2010 rated it liked it
This book was only okay. I've read better books on the topic. I get what the author was trying to do with going through the virtues of the courtesans and giving examples, but it came off disjointed and felt like she was skipping all over the place. The ending just felt tacked on..."oh by the way, here's a list of what happened to everyone." The authors writing style was not bad, she just needed better organizational skills. The book just did not flow well.
Dec 15, 2007 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I didn't finish it. While the information here is fascinating and her premise is right up my alley, I couldn't get into this book at the time.

Possibly I was put off by the affected, flowery language, which wasn't entirely bad, as it was suited for the subject and the author's approach.

Even with a partial read, there is plenty of history I never knew. I'll take another crack at it for that reason.
Apr 14, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone tired of the Pin-up Girl craze.
I was hoping I was getting a book describing and telling about the different courtesans of history. You get a few stories about them, but detailing the traits that described a courtesan and not exactly what was so great about them individually. At times the telling of the different women in one format and then jumping to another woman in that same paragraph left me confused. I really wanted to like this, but I just didn't.
This was somewhat intriguing, but not enough for me to bother finishing it. For one, the author likes to give really lengthy/poetic attempts at describing paintings or other images that are not actually shown in the book - or not identified enough for the reader to know which she is talking about. I feel like it would have been more readable and interesting enough to finish if there wasn't so much high-handedness.
Amalauna Brock
Jan 17, 2014 rated it it was ok
It's not surprising this book took me almost a year to read. The writing of this book is unnecessarily florid and flowery. I think the author meant it to be romantic, but it was grating.

The information in the book is interesting and perhaps in different hands could have been outstanding.

Until I looked it up, I was sure this book was written by a grad student trying to impress the professor.

At any rate! The material is interesting.
Feb 19, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I'm fascinatedby the lives of women denoted "courtesans" but this was less a series of short biographies than a chance for the author to waffle on about what she perceived as their "virtues". Which is a cute conceit and all, but was actually in credibly dull for the main part. Susan Griffin, I really don't give a rat's fart what goes on in your head; why should I? Tell me the juicy details about these women's lives!
I read this book around the same time I read Sex with Kings. While that work was good and fairly well researched, it just doesn't hold a candle to the lovely prose and witty storytelling of this work. This is an amazing history of the ways women have found to trade what for centuries was their most valued asset for money, security and power. This was an extremely enjoyable read and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Corinne Tr
Apr 21, 2013 rated it liked it
The author tried to imply some of the qualities that the courtesans might of had. But honestly I felt that her arguments and examples,although interesting and true, were not particularly showing these qualities. Like she could of chosen any other attributes and give the same examples. Also I was kind of getting lost between the stories she was telling going back and foreword between them. Nevertheless an interesting read.
Jul 30, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: books-i-own
I was little disappointed in this one. I bought it because I just finished a women's study class and there were some awesome literature on courtesans. I was looking for more empowering courtesans who used their wit or intelligence to achieve. This was literally about popular courtesans; more general. Not sure if I'd read it again
May 18, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: my-ancestors
Although there was very little on Cora Pearl, I enjoyed this book, and it gave me more of a flavour of the Grande Boulevards than I've had previously. I didn't feel Cora was well researched, but enjoyed it all the same.
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Susan Griffin is an award winning poet, writer, essayist and playwright who has written nineteen books, including A Chorus of Stones, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Named by Utne reader as one of the top hundred visionaries of the new millenium, she is the recipient of an Emmy for her play Voices, an NEA grant and a MacArthur Grant for Peace and Inter ...more