Friday, October 9, 2009

Teenage Courtesans in Historical Romance

When the latest book in Claudia Dain’s Courtesan Chronicles came out, I decided to give it a read. How To Dazzle a Duke (Berkley Trade) is the forth book in this series. I do recommend you read the other three books before it to get a good idea of the characters and the situation. I would say Claudia Dain’s writing, especially with How To Dazzle a Duke is a cross between Georgette Heyer and Julia Quinn.

Then I went ahead and picked up the first book, The Courtesan’s Daughter. Claudia has written a very unique and intriguing character in that of Sophia, the Countess of Dalby. The setting is London, England 1802 and twenty years before, Sophia was the toast of London as a much desired courtesan. She ended up snaring and marrying the Earl of Dalby and from that union Sophia had a seventeen year old daughter Caroline as well as a son. Sophia wants Caroline to get married. Caroline isn’t thrilled by this. Sophia wants the best for her daughter even though Caroline is a bit ashamed that her mother was a former courtesan.

Now as I was reading the dialogue between Sophia and Caroline, I was waiting for Sophia to talk about how old she was when she was a courtesan, because she is very open about her former profession to her daughter. If this was my mother, I would have fled the room as soon as she mentioned the word sex.

When Sophia admits her present age, my mouth dropped:

Caroline speaking to Sophia: “How do you make a man besotted? How do you, especially at your age, make a man… want you?”

Sophia responds: “I was enjoying this conversation until you said ‘at your age’ in that dumbfounded fashion. Really, Caro, I’m only thirty-four.”

Hold up here! If Sophia is only thirty-four and she was a courtesan twenty years ago, that would make her fourteen at the time.

I understand if women in the 18th and 19th century had no other means to support themselves and had no choice but to work in brothels or became prostitutes or mistresses at young ages. But to be the toast of the London courtesan scene at age fourteen? Wouldn’t Sophia need to build up her skills, gain experience before she became this great courtesan? Does that mean she began at say, age twelve or thirteen? Was she even fully developed with a chest and all her other female parts where she could ensnare a protector?

I have to admit, this really took me out of the story because it just didn’t seem feasible to me. If Sophia had been eighteen or nineteen at the time, I think I wouldn’t have such a problem with it. Even if Sophia came to London at thirteen and began to practice her trade and then became the experienced women that made all the men drop to their knees a few years later, I could wrap my head around that.

So, I went to the source. I contacted Claudia with my concerns:

“As I was reading, I was confused about something, so perhaps you could explain it to me? It is in regards to Sophia talking to her daughter Caroline. Sophia mentions that she is only 34 years old. This is where I am confused, because 20 years before, Sophia was one of the most beloved courtesans in London. If so, that would make her 14. Does that mean she started around the 12 or 13 because wouldn't it take her a few years to gain her experience? This age just seems very young to me, so I wasn't sure if the age of Sophia being 34 was a mistake or perhaps I read it incorrectly? Were women as young as 12 or 13 really courtesans?”

Claudia kindly responded to my email:

“Sophia's complicated, mysterious back story is revealed slowly in each of the books, to one degree or another. Yes, her age is correct. She was very, very young, but not any younger than other prostitutes of the time. What she had to her advantage, what made her stand out, was her character and her back story--where she came from and what life had taught her up to that point. She was unique in England in 1782 and continues to be unique in 1802.

Sophia's motivations are deeply tied to her mysterious back story, so I can't reveal anything not already in the books, but there is a definite purpose to everything she does. She's devious, but not dishonest. She's a survivor who will repay an evil done to her or to those she perceives as helpless, yet she doesn't hold a grudge. She's a fighter to the marrow.

If you haven't yet, be sure to read The Courtesan's Secret and The Courtesan's Wager, in that order. I think the books read more logically and you can track the clues better if read in order. The next book, Daring A Duke, is out in July and a lot of Sophia's back story comes to light in it. A whole lot! There's also an anthology, Private Places, that takes place the night when Sophia meets the Earl of Dalby, which is an interesting slice since we get to see her as a 'lady of the town' in her teen years.”

Now I am even more interested in Sophia and her past and I thank Claudia for clearing up some of these issues I had.

What do you think about teenage courtesans? Does it take you out of the story to read about a heroine or much beloved character having a sexual past at such a young age?



JenB said...

Doesn't bother me. That's just how it was back then.

Amy said...

I hate to say this, but while it may squick me out to think of her as a courtesan at the age of 14 - to make it more palatable during my reading, I would've mentally changed her courtesan age to 17 or 18. I'm weird that way.

rebyj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mandi said...

It doesn't really bother me. And the author explained it well :)

rebyj said...


In my opinion if there is sexually graphic descriptions of sex at 14 then it would squick me out and I'd put the book down in hyperspeed.

If she's telling her life story to her daughter in generalities then that's more acceptable since it is historical romance and was common in the times. I just do not want child pornish details.

It was nice of the author to respond to your questions.

RKCharron said...

Hi :)
I think it was Awesome of Claudia to answer your questions!
And, nope, it wouldn't bother me in the slightest, in fact, it WOULD bother me if she was in her 20s. Knowing history, I would stop reading, thrown out of the book. Congratulations to Claudia for knowing her history!

Barbara said...

I don't think Ive read any stories with teenage courtesans, I do remember some Brooke Shields movie like that, though.

heidenkind said...

13 or 14 does seem pretty young, but courtesans in the 18th century aged in dog years--I remember doing a paper on 18th century English courtesans once, and 17 was considered practically middle-aged. So I'm not surprised. At that time period, once you hit puberty you were basically considered an adult and sexually fair game, especially if you were poor.

That doesn't mean I want to read about it, though....

Claudia Dain said...


I'm with the majority on this. I wouldn't want to read about a young teen having sex so I can promise you that I didn't write about it! There are NO details about that period in Sophia's life. All the action of these courtesan books take place when she is in her 30s and that period of her life is long behind her.

Heidenkind said it so well; in that time period hitting puberty was the threshold. Once you hit it, you were considered a sexual being. That is the reality I wanted to convey. That, and Sophia survived very difficult circumstances to come out on top.

JenB said...

Eeek! I better clarify--it would bother me to read detailed descriptions of what the girl did as a young courtesan.

But not just knowing that the heroine was a courtesan years ago.

Oy. I hate being the first one to comment. :S

Enid Wilson said...

It's a sensitive topic now and the author is brave to touch on it.

Bargain with the Devil

Caren Crane said...

I was surprised when I did the mental math and learned Sophia had been a courtesan at 14, but I know enough history to realize that was not uncommon. The poor didn't live too long, so when a poor girl hit puberty, the race was on! I have read all of Claudia's "Courtesan" books and I adore them. Sophia is a wonderful character and I am dying for the next one to come out!

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

One of the reason I am enjoying Claudia's series is because of Sophia. She is so sly, sneaky and witty at the same time. She leads the men around on a merry chase. I can't wait to see what else is in store for her.

Also need Anne and Dutton's story!

Claudia Dain said...

Katie, if the series continues, Anne and Dutton are next!