GETTING CLOSE TO THE COURTESAN
It’s strange, when you are writing a novel, how sometimes a character simply won’t leave you alone. Just when you think it’s safe to go back to the keyboard, they start badgering away at you again, demanding more of your time and insisting on being heard. Francesca Felizzi, the central character of my new novel ‘The Courtesan’s Lover , was a bit like this. She originally appeared as a secondary character in my first book, ‘His Last Duchess’. As I wrote that first novel, though, I had no plans to continue Francesca’s story. ( In fact, at one point, one of my sisters even began exhorting me to kill her off! My instant certainty that this was a total impossibility should perhaps have warned me that Francesca was not planning on going quietly at the end of the book.)
‘His Last Duchess’ (Sphere 2010) tells a possible back story to Robert Browning’s well known monologue ‘My Last Duchess’, and fictionalises the ill-fated marriage of the fifth duke of Ferrara and the very young Lucrezia de’ Medici in the mid sixteenth century. As part of that story, I gave my duke a mistress. He is a damaged and difficult man, though, and I knew that anyone prepared to cope with the demands of a relationship with so volatile and dangerous a lover would have to be a seriously resourceful woman. Which is exactly what Francesca turned out to be. Spotted by the duke and rescued by him from life as a street-whore in
, she spends the best part of eight years as his paid mistress, and learns much about survival and self-preservation along the way. Francesca is beautiful and sexy and clever and fundamentally adaptable, and she uses all these attributes shamelessly. Ferrara
I finished ‘His Last Duchess’, with a strong sense of having completed my journey with my characters. I was happy with where they all were at the end of the story, and I really didn’t need to know any more about them. I was ready to say goodbye to them. Except for Francesca. I couldn’t get her out of my head. She just kept on and on intruding, interrupting, elbowing her way to the front of my thoughts, and demanding to be given more space to exist. I knew I was going to have to listen to her.
It took time to discover what she was going to be doing in the course of this new book, in which she was going to play the starring role, though. She was, I knew, going to be fighting hard to become a courtesan – a cortigiana onesta - and she was going to be doing this in
. In his book ‘On Becoming a Novelist’, John Gardner says that ‘setting exists so that the character has some place to stand, something that can help define him.’ I had to stand Francesca somewhere, and it had to be somewhere new, away from the setting of the previous novel. The Naples of the sixteenth century, unwillingly under Spanish rule, was a chaotic, anarchic, ebullient melting-pot of a city- a perfect place in which to allow my complex, confused courtesan to tackle her problems. Naples
As you can imagine, I read and read and read about the great courtesans of history – Veronica Franco, Ninon de l’Enclos, Harriette Wilson and Cora Pearl amongst others – and I was simply blown away by the courage and independence of these extraordinary women, who basically functioned in society as autonomous, successful businesswomen in centuries in which their more virtuous sisters had little or no freedom, either financially, socially or sexually.
The courtesans were, in many ways, amazing. And seriously naughty! Even by today’s standards, in some cases. As an example, one nineteenth century Parisian courtesan appeared at a high-society fancy-dress ball one year ... as “Eve”. Wearing not even a fig leaf! I can’t imagine even the most outrageous of today’s celebrities getting away with that. Can you?
Life as a courtesan was not all plain sailing though, for even the most successful. Penury, danger and disease lay in wait around every corner and many of them ended their lives in anonymous poverty. As Veronica Franco says, (in a quote I decided to include at the beginning of my book) “It is too miserable, and contrary to human reason, to force your body and energy into such slavery: terrifying even to think about.” She goes into graphic detail about the terrors that await the unwary courtesan – not least of which was the ever-present fear of going to hell. I was anxious not to allow myself to be too caught up in the romantic exuberance of the great courtesans, and wanted to be certain that the potential danger and degradation of Francesca’s situation would not be overlooked as I began to tell her story. So to bring myself back down to earth, I read a number of accounts written by modern, contemporary sex-workers – frank, honest, vulgar, frightening, touching, heartbreaking descriptions of a way of life most of us can’t actually even contemplate. These accounts were sobering and shocking, and they provided the contrast I needed.
I felt I understood Francesca better, for having heard in such detail from her twenty first century counterparts. I hope, if any of them read the book, they will feel I’ve understood them.
It’s been an extraordinary journey for me, getting this close to a courtesan. Something of a privilege. Francesca’s story – ‘The Courtesan’s Lover’ will be published by Sphere (an imprint of Little, Brown) in November 2011.