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The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues Hardcover – September 11, 2001

2.7 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Poet and writer Susan Griffin is famously provocative, though her provocation takes very different forms, ranging from her classic feminist treatise, Women and Nature, which linked patriarchy with the oppression of women and nature, to her well-received A Chorus of Stones, which weighed in on the nature of war. But in The Book of Courtesans, Griffin is downright scintillating. Courtesans, she writes, were not prostitutes nor even kept women, though certainly they used their sexuality to financial gain. Rather, they were personages and celebrities, friends to royalty and the most famous writers and artists of their time, the subjects of gossip, the charismatic epicenter of the Second Empire, the Gay Nineties, the Belle Epoche, "Gay Paree." Their faces were immortalized in paintings by the Renaissance masters, by Degas, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec, their lives by Proust, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert. They lived in splendor, set fashion standards, owned fabulous jewelry collections. And they were talented authors, poets, actresses, and singers. In a time of prescribed roles for women, they turned the tables, creating lives of remarkable intellectual and financial freedom.

Griffin sings the praises of these women and enunciates their virtues, which, ironically, are the sort popularly thought to be made anachronistic by feminism. With her impeccable timing, the French dancer Mogador achieved legendary status the first time she danced on stage and later became a countess. Harriet Wilson seduced the Duke of Wellington with her cheek, and delivered him from boredom. Marion Davies' gaiety enlivened all those who saw her, Madame Pompadour was the embodiment of grace, and Sarah Bernhardt exuded so much charm she acted her way straight out of the role of courtesan. Griffin imagines herself into her subjects lives with sensitivity and sensuality--the rags to riches stories that characterized them and their creative responses to often dire circumstances. In the end, she not only immortalizes these feminist precursors, but reminds us that "the capacity to take pleasure in life is no less a virtue than any other." --Lesley Reed

From Publishers Weekly

Hard on the heels of the film Moulin Rouge comes this idiosyncratic meditation on that 18th- and 19th-century curiosity, the courtesan, the woman who, though usually from limited means, parlayed her beauty, sexuality and talent into a position of luxury and celebrity as the mistress of one or several men of means. Readers looking for a sober social history of the world portrayed in the film will not find it here, for Griffin's approach is almost as kaleidoscopic as the movie's. In a series of brief chapters, each devoted to a particular "virtue," that is, a talent central to the courtesan's success (such as "Gaiety," "Charm," "Cheek"), feminist critic, playwright and poet Griffin (What Her Body Thought; Women and Nature; etc.) mines the memoirs of her subjects for stories illustrating their ability to vault beyond the constraints of their age and gender. Some of her courtesans have slipped into obscurity; some are remembered chiefly for their associations with artists and eminent men; a few, like Colette and Chanel, achieved fame in a different endeavor. At least one, Nijinsky, was not a woman at all. What they all share, however, and what Griffin admires in them, is the daring to transgress the boundaries of a rigid code of prudery and hypocrisy and so exchange the poverty and toil they were condemned to at birth for champagne, diamonds and extraordinary lingerie. Griffin's writing is lively, and her stories are engaging. Agent, Katinka Matson. (Sept. 11)Forecast: An acclaimed writer A Chorus of Stones was a Pulitzer Prize finalist Griffin should garner respectable review coverage for this subject of timeless interest.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway; First Edition edition (September 11, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0767904508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0767904506
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,958,968 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I wanted to love this book, due to its fascinating subject matter and highly lauded author. However, I found myself continuously irritated with it, for a number of reasons:
1. The author has a talent for stating the obvious, ad nauseum.
2. The scholarship seems sloppy. Griffin makes much of a Courbet painting that includes a courtesan wearing a Kashmir shawl, placing a feminist significance upon the shawl as an object "made in a a far-off country by women for very little money." If the author had done her homework, she would have discovered that 19th-century Kashmir shawls were made by men (for very little money.) In another chapter, the author tells of a man supposedly named "Alfred Sert," the husband of the 19th-century art patron Misia Sert, who divorced her to marry a courtesan. However, the dastardly cad in question was actually Misia's second husband, Alfred Edwards. (Her third husband was the artist José Maria Sert.) These are just a couple of facts that I happen to know about, which causes me to speculate about what other errors might be lurking in the text.
3. The avoidance of grammatical sentence structure is annoying rather than artistic. There are at least two sentences on every page that start with the word "But." (In one place the author begins two sentences in a row with that word.) The text is also littered profusely with sentence fragments. A skilled writer can use such devices judiciously to good effect , but it makes for choppy reading when they are employed on every single blasted page.
Alas, I wanted to be beguiled and seduced by the courtesans, but instead, my ardor was dampened by the foibles of their champion.
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Format: Hardcover
The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues by Susan Griffin. Not recommended.

In The Book of the Courtesans, Susan Griffin tries to capture the magic that made courtesans some of the most noteworthy and notorious women of their times. According to Griffin, a courtesan would need to have several virtues to succeed, including: timing, beauty, cheek, brilliance, gaiety, grace, and charm. Mixed with these virtues are seven "erotic stations": flirtation, suggestion, arousal, seduction, rapture, satiety, and afterglow.

Griffin uses biographies to illustrate how various courtesans exhibited these virtues, for example, courtesan and poet Veronica Franco's beginnings and career are covered under the chapter on "Brilliance." Griffin, who earlier separated the concept of courtesan from those of mistress and prostitute, runs into trouble, for many of her plentiful examples do not fit her definition of courtesans. For example, she talks at great length about Mme. de Pompadour (mistress to Louis XV), Marion Davies (mistress to William Randolph Hearst), and "Klondike Kate" (gold rush saloon dancer). The point of naming these virtues is lost if a courtesan cannot be found who exemplified them.

Griffin's information is untrustworthy. She states that Jeanne du Barry's father was a monk as though this is an accepted historical fact. Most biographical information on du Barry, however, states that her father is unknown but could have been a cleric. There are numerous instances of this kind of misleading information throughout. She talks of a suggestive sculpture in the Musée d'Orsay based upon a body cast of courtesan Apollonie Sabatier, but art sources say this story is unconfirmed and originated from a rumour circulated at the salon where the sculpture debuted.
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Format: Hardcover
The subtitle of the book is "a catalog of their virtues". They are: Timing, Beauty, Cheek, Brilliance, Gaiety, Grace and Charm. The author tries to tie in these virtues with short biographies of, mostly French, cocottes of the 19th century. This simply does not work, no matter how much source material is dragged into the book. Besides, I have trouble describing Klondike Kate or Marlene Dietrich as courtesans. Besides, Ms. Griffin uses rather harsh and basic language, although she is given to occasional flights of lyrical fancy that can evoke a chuckle or two.
Any courtesan having all of the required seven virtues would be Wonder Woman. And the main item missing here is CLASS.
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Format: Hardcover
Certainly the subject material is interesting. It's the writer's style that is lacking. It's like she is writing a thesis for university and has to increase the size of the paper and so she writes on and on. It's overly scholarly and analytical when the reader just wants the story/history of these courtesans. As others have said, I mostly skim-read it, skimming over the paragraphs to try to pull out the tidbits of interest.
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Format: Paperback
One of my friends gave me this book as a late Christmas' present. I like reading about courtesans ever since I enjoyed reading "Nana" by Emile Zola. The subject is a meaty one, filled with lots of whimsy and cheekiness. This writer, however, managed to deflate every ounce of excitement I had for this book. Her writing style is best described as a mix of stream-of-consciousness and ultra-flowery wording. I managed to hang on for three chapters before I ended up donating this book to a local library. A total snooze on a very interesting subject. I would give it no stars if it was possible.
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