The Comfortable Courtesan
NB: We have a guest squee from Castiron, who has a series that might be of interest to many of you. It’s epistolary-esque in nature and sounds all sorts of fun.
When not data-wrangling or family-wrangling, Castiron divides her time between textile crafts, reading, and genealogy.
She says of this series:
The Comfortable Courtesan series is the memoir of Clorinda Cathcart, a (fictional) courtesan in Regency London who eventually moves up in the world. Originally written as entries on the author’s online journal, it’s now being made available in ebook and print format, in a projected twelve volumes. The first two volumes, *The Comfortable Courtesan* and *Rustick Exile*, are out now, and the third, *A Change in Station*, is coming out in a few weeks. I love this series (as you can tell from my squee, pasted below), and I suspect a lot of SBTB readers would enjoy it, especially readers who get annoyed by the “chaste prostitute” trope.
A few years ago, L. A. Hall wrote this opening paragraph as a writing exercise:
“I shall not say how, and why, at the age of 15 I became the mistress of the Earl of Craven, because I never had the kind of opportunities that Harriet Wilson wasted. However, at the age of 27 I fell in with a wealthy Northern ironmaster, whose generosity and sound financial advice have ensured me a comfortable old age without the need for blackmail, indeed with the ability to support a number of charitable enterprises for the benefit of some less fortunate sisters in the trade. This narrative sets out to encourage a rational and prudent approach to the profession of harlotry and to dispel the notion that a ‘fallen woman’ is bound to die in the gutter, penniless and diseased, before her 30th year.”
That paragraph eventually grew into a several-hundred-thousand-word series of the memoirs of Clorinda Cathcart, a.k.a. Madame C- C-, covering the many events and changes in her life over several years. Hall is now releasing the series in ebook and print formats and estimates that it will be around twelve volumes; the first two volumes, The Comfortable Courtesan and Rustick Exile, are available now, and the third, A Change of Station, comes out shortly. Each volume wraps up its major storylines by the end, so there’s no worry about cliffhangers.
I’ve followed this series ever since the author posted the first entry in her online journal, and it’s become one of my favorite reads. I am the person who’s such a big fan that I’m buying the print volumes as they come out.
What I love about this series:
First, Clorinda herself. She’s clever and intelligent, good at reading people and influencing them. She is compassionate; she’s also able to set boundaries. She’s a kind and fair employer who appreciates that she couldn’t do her job without good household staff, and she treats them accordingly.
Unlike many sex worker characters in romance, Clorinda actually performs her job during the book, though there is very little explicit sex on-page — she would be the first to say that most of her work as a courtesan takes place outside the bedroom. But sex remains part of the deal. She has clients, plural. Some of them she likes or even loves; some of them she finds tedious. But sex work is her job, she does it well, and overall she enjoys it. In other words, this is not a series for someone who’s only okay with the viewpoint character being a prostitute if all her sex-with-men-not-the-hero happened before the story starts.
Then, there’s all the other characters. Clorinda has many people in her life — her household staff and their connections, clients and their friends (and occasionally their wives), fellow courtesans, musicians, actors, and more. All are individuals with distinct personalities, some of whom clash. They come from different social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. It’s a delight to meet these characters, see them through Clorinda’s eyes, and follow their stories. (For those concerned about losing track, each volume includes a guide to the characters.)
The writing style reflects Clorinda as a woman who is well-read and well-informed despite a lack of formal education; the spelling is idiosyncratic, but plausible for the time period and still easily readable. Most characters are referred to by the first initial of their surname and a dash, e.g. Mr. F-. Hall did a careful job of keeping the characters distinct even with the abbreviated names, so there’s minimal confusion, though some readers may want to consult the character guides.
Hall also strikes a good balance between the realities of Regency English life and the views of modern readers. Clorinda may have had an overall successful career, but she knows she’s an outlier. She’s well aware of the hazards of her profession and indeed has suffered from some of them, though she’s avoided STDs and uses what birth control devices were available at the time. While Clorinda’s friends tend to be tolerant of homosexuality beyond what might have been likely at the time, the illegality of male homosexuality is never forgotten. Nor are the lack of legal rights for women glossed over.
So, what does all this have to do with romance, besides the Regency setting?
While I wouldn’t classify this as a romance because the romantic relationships aren’t the central storylines, Clorinda absolutely has romantic relationships that have, if not HEAs, certainly HFNs. I’d even make the argument that Clorinda is a polyamorous heroine, with primary and several secondary relationships.
If you want many hours of enjoyable time with a delightful narrator and many fascinating characters, I heartily recommend the Comfortable Courtesan series. More information is at the series website, www.clorinda.org, along with supplemental articles about the Regency era.
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