Paul Johnson

The decline and fall of the femme fatale

The decline and fall of the femme fatale

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My old friend Peregrine Worsthorne was deploring the other day the decline in the quality of courtesans. And it is true that those who get themselves into the headlines today, either by the voracity of their sexual appetite or their status as mistresses of prominent men, do not strike one as notably interesting or desirable. But were they ever? And what is a courtesan anyway? A lady of easy virtue with court connections? A royal whore? Nell Gwyn did not hesitate to use the word, calling herself ‘the Protestant whore’ to an angry mob hunting for well-connected papists. There is in the Correr Museum in Venice a suggestive panel painting, done by Carpaccio in 1495, and known to Ruskin and Proust, who loved it, as ‘The Courtesans’. The well-dressed ladies, rather decolleté, sit on a Venetian balcony surrounded by pet dogs and birds, done in the loving detail which was the painter’s speciality. I remember thinking, when I first saw this work in 1948, ‘so that’s what courtesans look like’ — rather dull, not jolly, bored perhaps. Alas, modern research has established that these two were ladies of the noble Preti family, whose impeccable virtues are attested to by the symbolic image of pearls, lily and handkerchief, myrtle, orange, turtledoves, parrot and female peacock, and the red pattens of the younger woman — the older one is not a procuress but simply her mother. The ladies are expecting their menfolk to return from a lagoon-hunt, shown on the companion panel, which has been rediscovered and is in the Getty. The painting is now known, boringly, as ‘Waiting’.

To descend into tedium is the destiny of most femmes fatales. St Mary Magdalen, one of my favourite female saints and the patron of courtesans, escaped this fate by becoming a holy camp-follower of Jesus and thus the heroine of painters for two millennia. There is no evidence that she was beautiful or a fallen woman — just devout and tearful, and extravagant. What happened to Helen of Troy? Merely the usual disaster of age. In the 1860s a hideous and ragged hag, scrabbling around the Acropolis, was pointed out to an English traveller: ‘Behold — Byron’s Maid of Athens.’ Do such ladies, once notorious for their beauty, prefer to live on into a decrepit seniority, as walking object-lessons in the transience of worldly delights, to the merciful release of an early death, albeit a violent one? Messalina, third wife of the Emperor Claudius and an egregious strumpet, was executed in the Lucullan Gardens, aged 26. I suspect she would have preferred to live. Not so Cleopatra, who chose the venomous asp rather than survive ‘with Phoebus’ amorous pinches black, and wrinkled deep in time’. But then she was a classy dame, a queen by right (officially Queen Cleopatra VII) who spoke the Greek of Thucydides, or at least of Plutarch. But was she, as Plutarch himself and Dio Cassius insist, a supremely beautiful woman? Dio says she also had a most seductive voice. That old French windbag, André Malraux — now undergoing a revival in Paris — once coined a saying, in a speech to Unesco, ‘Nefertiti is a face without a queen, Cleopatra is a queen without a face.’ Not true, actually. She reigned for 21 years, and constantly issued silver and bronze coins with her image on them, of which ten are in good (but not mint) condition. They do not suggest beauty. On the other hand, a marble head in the Vatican Museum, identified as hers in 1933, has been described by Guy Weill Goudchaux, the great expert on her appearance (see his chapter in the magnificent British Museum volume Cleopatra of Egypt: from History to Myth [2001]), as ‘conveying an idea of a young, fresh, wilful woman’. The nose is missing, however. It is shown as aquiline in a stone head, now in the BM, described as of Cleopatra VII but lacking the royal diadem.

Nothing in history is more irrecoverable than a witty man’s conversation or a woman’s sex appeal. But there are probably good reasons why Cleopatra has inspired endless painters and poets, whereas Messalina survives merely as a term of opprobrium. Some strumpets appeal to our sympathies; others repel them. Who has not a soft spot for Perdita Robinson, so well preserved in the portraiture of the Romantic age, who ended as a tragic impoverished cripple? Or Nelson’s Lady Hamilton, once so slender and seductive in her poses — or ‘attitudes’ as she called them — but later in life a grotesque mass of flesh, and poor too? Another victim of time who evokes our pity is Mrs Jordan, whose delightful wiles as a comic actress inspired the plaudits of Charles Lamb and Hazlitt, and who bore the future William IV ten children before dying old and needy in Paris.

Happily not all royal mistresses met misfortune. I often pass the house, overlooking the canal in Little Venice, where Lily Langtry, ‘the Jersey Lily’, ma