The Courtesan

The Courtesan. Sex Work, Kitty Fisher, Edward Thompson.
The Courtesan
The Courtesan
The Courtesan
The Courtesan
The Courtesan
The Courtesan
In satirizing one of London's most successful courtesans, a poem reveals how she socially constructed her power
The Courtesan

London: J. Harrison in Covent Garden, 1765. First edition. Contemporary panelled calf with gilt to spine and boards. All edges marbled. Marbled endpapers. Rubbing and shelfwear to spine and front board with some chipping and loss along edges; front joint and front hinge cracked but textblock holding tightly, and rear tender. Bookplate of J.O. Edwards to front pastedown. Internally fresh and wide-margined, measuring 265 x 210mm. Collates [2], 48: bound without half title, else complete. A scarce representation of London's sex workers, who were made more infamous by the Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies, ESTC reports only 11 copies. In the past century, it has appeared only twice at auction; the present is the only copy on the market.

Edward Thompson's position as a satirist "has drawn the attention of commentators from Dr. Johnson to modern times," and as his "verse and prose was generally in the manner of his declared mentors, the ancients Horace and Juvenal and Ovid...his targets were frequently political, and ad hominem as much as general" (Bibliographic Society). Fascinated as Thompson was by tropes of metamorphosis, it is no wonder that he was drawn in the present poem to consider Kitty Fisher, one of the courtesans listed in the Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies. The premier 18th century guide to London's sex trade, it offered readers the names, biographies, locations, prices, and specialties of the city's most infamous sex workers. Both a source for practical information as well as the foundation of a range of pornographic fantasies, in the guide's pages, sex workers "become so many things" and "the women described seem at times to undergo all of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Men, too, are transformed, though chiefly by implication" (Denlinger).

Among "the most celebrated women" in her field, Kitty Fisher was categorized in Harris' List alongside other "Covent Garden Characters and Reigning Celebrities." Yet her entry stands out among the others, for instead of including her biography and expertise, the publisher (notably the same as Thompson's) includes a letter allegedly from the lady herself, bribing him to withhold her personal details. This elision puts Kitty Fisher in a position of power on a practical level; she neither commits to nor denies any activity, and those who seek her services gain an equal level of discretion. On a fantasy level, it also makes her a blank screen onto which readers can cast their own desires. Thompson's poem capitalizes on this potential for metamorphosis; as he satirizes Kitty, her courtesan community, and the clients who seek them out, he highlights just how varied Kitty's identity performances can be. A wanton Amazon, a Daphne, a Europa, a Penelope -- regardless which role a man wants her to play, the only consistent demand is that she perform desire. To openly admit or focus on her own body as a commodity is to knock the ego and threaten the virility of her partner: "Great as a pleasure, vulgar as a trade. Her I despise, whose prostituted mind Is more to money, than her joy inclin'd." Leaving acts and prices unwritten, Kitty's mysterious entry in the list opens the door to this fiction as well.

ESTC T74546.
(Item #4227)

Price: $2,950