March 2016

Carla Stockton


Scarlet Women: The Scandalous Lives of Courtesans, Concubines, and Royal Mistresses by Ian Graham

Scarlet Women: The Scandalous Lives of Courtesans Concubines and Royal Mistresses by Ian Graham sounded like an interesting book. And it might have been if I were a tween. Graham, whose previous publications include popular science books geared toward young readers, maintains a bland voice and colorless style that targets youngsters, though the "scandalous lives" of concubines, mistresses, and whores hardly seems fitting for readers of the 9-14 set. Especially when the author offers no insights into the women's motivations, the circumstances that extenuated their predicaments, or the justifications for their choices.

The sentences are mere lists; there is no variety in structure, in color, in emotional content. The monotonal recitations of the incidents that make up the women's existences can be found on any page at random:

Diane de Poitiers died on April 22 1566. She was buried in a chapel at the Château d'Anet, but she didn't rest in peace. Her grave was desecrated during the French Revolution, and her remains were thrown into a common grave outside the château's walls. The grave was investigated in 2009 and Diane's remains were identified.

Or later:

The South Sea Company had been established in 1711. [...] Shares in the company rose rapidly in value. Everyone who had some spare money, including members of Parliament, lords, and clergymen, bought shares. Many others who couldn't afford to buy shares from their own resources took out loans to buy them.

Nothing new is illuminated. Nothing in the book offers us any more perspective on these women's affairs than what could be found in Wikipedia entries. By now, most of the anecdotes that make up this book are worn-out tales whose superficial details do little more than create an appetite for substance. But substance is not this book's métier.

The portrayals of the women here comprise a litany of basic events: they are born -- Graham tells us more about each of their fathers than he tells us about the women themselves -- they leave home to infest some men's beds, and they die. No struggles are investigated, no zeitgeist examined, no psychological underpinnings questioned. The book reads simply as a kind of town crier's version of the lives of women, whose only attribute would seem to be a propensity for sexual adroitness.

Yet the women in the book held the attention of some of the most powerful men in history and made friends and/or enemies among some of the most influential women. They were not women who merely existed in their lovers' beds; they participated in government, in social politics, in shaping the worlds they inhabited. There is more detail about the nature of syphilis than there is of any of the women's stories; we learn more about the background and construction of the guillotine than we do about the circumstances these women escaped and the lives they refashioned.

A book that claims to examine the lives of women who were, for various reasons, required to survive by their ingenuity and intelligence, who were, by necessity, iconoclasts, should be a foray into the underpinnings of history. A reader should be rewarded with the tales of intrigue and king making that lie beneath and about the sheets, the details of those who shaped the chronicle by living out escapades that have hitherto been concealed from us. Graham had an opportunity to create a compendium of stories about women who lived by their wits and succeeded in turning their sex into power. They must have been compelling and fascinating, even if they were difficult to handle.

But the book fails to captivate. Besides being unsure how to write for an adult audience, Graham is far too facile in offering these minimal facts of birth, seduction, and death, obfuscating character dimension, and consequently passing judgment on a class of women whom society has already judged stringently enough. Instead, it offers faceless, soulless pencil sketches of single, flat aspects of the people they were.

At least part of the problem may stem from the fact that the author is male, and his writing seems to lack empathy for the women he purports to examine. Any psycho-emotional layers considered are decidedly male and, one suspects, possibly personal.

From this male perspective, the women in the book lack sentience: they are, mainly, bloodthirsty, unfeeling, and unreasoning witches who use their men for their own gain. There is no sympathy for the condition that was a woman's -- that still is a woman's in far too much of the world -- for the limits imposed on her creative outlets, on her options for finding a better way of life and bettering her station, on her means for earning respect from the closed society that imprisoned her. "The ruthlessness she displayed," he writes of a Polish woman who found her way into the bed of Napoleon III, "typified her cold, calculating attitude to men, who, to her, were merely sources of money." He speaks of men falling in love, of men losing themselves in their pain over the women, but there is no discussion whatsoever of any woman's emotional content. When France's King Louis XIV is mentioned, for example, we learn through the author's sly snicker that the King had an eye for the ladies and dallied with several women at once, despite keeping one woman as his maîtresse-en-titre. When Louis XV dies, the sympathy goes to the King, not to his beloved Madame Du Barry, whom we learn, somewhat too gleefully, the guillotine beheaded.

In many instances Graham contradicts himself, as where he says that Louis XIV's maîtresse-en-titre Madame de Montespan was accused of attempting to poison her king, causing "a rift between them that never healed." But in the very next sentence, he goes on to say, "They remained on good terms."

Likewise, he makes ridiculous assumptions. Speaking of Mary Boleyn, whose story has been far better told than it is here, Graham writes, "Mary quickly acquired a reputation as a girl who knew how to enjoy herself between the sheets." Enjoy? How would he come to such a conclusion? Like so many of the women perfunctorily profiled in these pages, Mary's situation is not examined. She has no persona, no dressing at all. There is not even the suggestion that she, like many of the other women Graham writes about, made few of her own choices, her own arrangements. She was brokered by her father, by her king, by her handlers, and yet she is credited with nothing but an overreaching hunger for sex, an assumption that is not proven in the slightest. Graham seems to want to wallow in salaciousness, but having spent his life as the writer of children's material, he cannot offer enough detail provide so much as a modicum of prurient interest.

The writing -- or the writer -- simply fails at every turn. Scarlet Women is the sad skeleton of a body of stories that could have been juicy, meaty, delicious reading. Instead, they languish on the page, waiting for someone who is genuinely aroused by them to expose the subjects' true selves.

Scarlet Women: The Scandalous Lives of Courtesans, Concubines, and Royal Mistresses by Ian Graham
Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 978-1250062635
304 pages