The best books about courtesans

1 authors have picked their favorite books about courtesans and why they recommend each book.

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The Rossetti Letter

By Christi Phillips,

Book cover of The Rossetti Letter

The Rossetti Letter is absolutely my favorite book of all time. This dual-timeline novel tells the story of Alessandra Rossetti, a 17th-century Venetian courtesan who becomes embroiled in dangerous political intrigue. In the present, PhD candidate Claire Donovan is writing her dissertation on Alessandra and the letter she wrote to warn the leaders of the Venetian Republic about what is known as the Spanish Conspiracy of 1618, and tries to uncover the courtesan’s role in the plot. I’ve never read a book that better describes my favorite city, Venice, more perfectly, both past and present. I reread this book about once a year, and am planning to do so again soon!

The Rossetti Letter

By Christi Phillips,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rossetti Letter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Alessandra Rossetti, a courtesan, becomes entangled in a conspiracy that threatens to destroy seventeenth century Venice. She alone has the power to reveal a Spanish plot. Centuries later, Claire Donovan is writing her dissertation on the young courtesan. She knows that Alessandra wrote a secret letter exposing the Spanish conspiracy. But how Alessandra learnt of it, or what happened to her afterwards is still a mystery. Claire hopes to uncover the secrets of the courtesan's life within Venice's ancient libraries and prove Alessandra deserves her place in history. But upon arrival in Venice, Claire learns that Cambridge professor Andrew Kent…

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by history my whole life, and have been reading historical fiction for as long as I can remember. I have a particular passion for the history of Italy, in all its complicated, bloody, and dazzling glory, from the politics to the music to the art to, of course, the food and wine. There is so much within Italian history that captivates, and as a woman of Italian descent it holds a special interest for me. I try to capture the drama, beauty, and complexity of Italy in my own historical novels, and the books on this list all do that in the most compelling way.


I wrote...

The Borgia Confessions

By Alyssa Palombo,

Book cover of The Borgia Confessions

What is my book about?

Rome, 1492. Cesare Borgia is the eldest son of Pope Alexander VI and has been forced to follow his father into the church. Maddalena Moretti comes from the countryside, where she has seen how the whims of powerful men wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary people. 

As war rages and shifting alliances challenge the pope’s authority, Maddalena and Cesare's lives grow inexplicably entwined. Maddalena becomes a keeper of dangerous Borgia secrets and must decide if she is willing to be a pawn in the power games of the man she loves. And as jealousy and betrayal threaten to tear apart the Borgia family from within, Cesare is forced to reckon with his seemingly limitless ambition.

Book cover of In the Company of the Courtesan: A Novel

Sixteenth-century Italy. A much-sought-after courtesan, Fiammetta Bianchini, and her confidante, foil, and pimp Bucino, a dwarf, resettle in Venice after the sack of Rome and establish her prowess in and amongst the glitterati of the time. Over time, the two outcasts grow apart. Their connection frays, almost to irreparable. Dunant’s research brings Venice’s glitz and its grunge alive. There are four others, not really in a series per se, but alike enough because they share the Renaissance that they group loosely together. A courtesan was one of the few women of the time who owned herself. For me, an absolute necessity in subversive heroines. Those nice girls who follow the rules of the time or the place are meh-meh-meh.

In the Company of the Courtesan

By Sarah Dunant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked In the Company of the Courtesan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’ve been reading historical fiction since childhood—it’s my preferred method for learning history. I want to know who people were in an everyday way, not as broad-brush reporting. My tastes are not limited to particular eras although I do my best to skip as much battle detail as I can. I like historical fiction that has character as its throughline. Who are these people? What do/did they want? How did they get it? I think my theatre background and training are what make me ask questions like these. What did they have for dinner? What did they talk about? Their excesses, their eccentricities, their excellences.


I wrote...

Jezebel Rising

By Susan Corso,

Book cover of Jezebel Rising

What is my book about?

Four sisters. Four buildings. Four visions of what women can—and need—to be, do, and have. Jezebel is the youngest of the Bailey sisters. Heiresses to multimillions of nouveau riche wealth, the four have been raised in direct antithesis to the fainting flowers of womanhood to be found in the notoriously fickle, corrupt Gilded Age Society in which they live.

These women think for themselves, dream big, speak up, and take no prisoners. Four towering yellow-brick buildings on Chelsea’s 23rd Street cause Jezebel to propose that the four go eyes-wide-open into the business of vice to mask their real purposes, their true callings, their nefarious agendas, their mystical imaginings—to answer and fulfill the four real greatest needs of women in their generation.

The Search for Delicious

By Natalie Babbitt,

Book cover of The Search for Delicious

This classic middle grade fantasy tale is what first taught me an appreciation of figurative language and lyricism in writing. It revolves around a young courtesan tasked to provide a definitive definition of delicious to resolve a court dispute. He asks many people throughout the land, which yields answers such as “a cold leg of chicken eaten in an orchard early in the morning in April when you have a friend to share it” or “a drink of cool water when you’re very, very thirsty.” At an early age, those descriptions made clear to me the power of making comparisons that evoke memory and mood. It also heavily influences my food and drink reviews to this day!

The Search for Delicious

By Natalie Babbitt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Search for Delicious as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

Born to three generations of poets, I’ve always appreciated a certain quality in the prose I read: lyricism. I want to catch my breath at a beautiful turn of phrase or gasp when I figure out a metaphor’s double meaning. My own writing seeks to reproduce that joy of discovery while preserving the plot-forward conventions of good speculative fiction. The books in this list balance literary style and genre expectations. Snatches of song, poetic prophesies, the perfect comparison—I hope these jewels delight my readers as much as they’ve delighted me in these works.


I wrote...

Wings Unfurled

By Rebecca Gomez Farrell,

Book cover of Wings Unfurled

What is my book about?

Wings Unfurled returns readers to the kingdom of Lansera, picking up six years after the main characters Vesperi, Serra, and Janto first learned they were the embodiment of the prophesied bird of creation. Mythical monsters are rampaging their way through Lansera, and a new horror is brewing from the same land as the invisible claren they once defeated. With the king ailing and the princess missing, they must find the strength to raise the bird again. But will this menace, with the might to drain a moon, devour them first?

My Blue Notebooks

By Liane de Pougy,

Book cover of My Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan

‘Father, except for murder and robbery, I’ve done everything.’ So confessed the notorious courtesan Liane de Pougy, and her diary offers a tantalising peek into the mind of a fast-living, turn-of-the-century ‘It’ girl. After a teen pregnancy, Liane was swiftly married, shot by her husband, then finally fled to Paris where she became a courtesan. Glamorous, forthright, and unashamedly vain, Liane turned herself into a fashion icon.  A social butterfly among high society, Liane’s address book reads like a literary Who’s Who of the roaring 20s (Jean Cocteau, Marcel Proust, the Rothschilds, and the poet Max Jacob all featured). From her spicy affairs – with men and women – to her marriage to Romanian Prince Georges Ghika and ultimate taking of the veil, ‘Princess’ Liane’s candid revelations make an eye-opening and unexpectedly moving read.

My Blue Notebooks

By Liane de Pougy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked My Blue Notebooks as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating and provocative glimpse into the life of the legendary early twentieth-century courtesan--a Folies-BergFre dancer who became a princess and died a nun, details her many acquaintances including poet Max Jacob, Colette, and Marcel Proust, and vividly discusses her numerous sexual encounters with both men and women. Original.

Who am I?

My passion for 19th-century French art, literature, and social history was enkindled in academia, but when my doctoral research uncovered the remarkable story of a forgotten 19th-century courtesan, I set out on a career in biography. During the 19th century, the ‘woman question’ was marked by both radical change and fierce dispute. Based on careful research, my writing seeks to lift this history out of the dusty annals of academia and bring its characters and events vividly to life for the 21st-century reader. My books introduce real women, piecing their stories back together in intimate detail so that readers can really share their successes and frustrations.


I wrote...

The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret

By Catherine Hewitt,

Book cover of The Mistress of Paris: The 19th-Century Courtesan Who Built an Empire on a Secret

What is my book about?

Comtesse Valtesse de la Bigne was a celebrated 19th-century Parisian courtesan. She was painted by Édouard Manet and inspired Émile Zola, who immortalised her in his scandalous novel Nana. Her rumoured affairs with Napoleon III and the future Edward VII kept gossip columns full.

But her glamorous existence hid a dark secret: she was no comtesse. She was born into abject poverty, raised on a squalid Paris backstreet. Yet she transformed herself into an enchantress who possessed a small fortune, three mansions, fabulous carriages, and art the envy of connoisseurs across Europe. A consummate show-woman, she ensured that her life – and even her death – remained shrouded in just enough mystery to keep her audience hungry for more.

The Lotus Palace

By Jeannie Lin,

Book cover of The Lotus Palace

Lin is well-known among romance aficionados for her groundbreaking Tang Dynasty historical romances. With The Lotus Palace, the first novel in her Pingkang Li Mysteries series, she expands into crime and political intrigue. This is the only non-fantasy or science fiction title on this list, and it’s here because Lin not only crafts an engaging story of murder and romance, she also handles the historical setting like an absolute master. The world of the 9th century Tang capital Changan—from the seedy gambling dens and bars of the Pingkang Li red-light district to the luxurious family compounds of the exclusive northeast quarter—feels familiar and lived-in, rich and complete, fully detailed without reading like a history textbook.

The Lotus Palace

By Jeannie Lin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lotus Palace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’m Mary Sisson, award-winning writer blah-blah-blah, and when I need to pry myself off the feeds before my head explodes, I reach for a particular sort of book: story-driven with a lot of adventure, a dash of humor, another of romance, and set in a well-developed, immersive fictional world. While all of these titles can be read alone (I hate books that were clearly written to sell a sequel—600 pages of filler ending with a cliffhanger? No thank you!) they all also form parts of series, because when my head is about to shoot right off my neck, it helps me to know that I have the remedy at hand. Enjoy!


I wrote...

The Weirld

By Mary Sisson,

Book cover of The Weirld

What is my book about?

Treenie is seven years old and loves her doll Bear. She also loves her oldest sister and her brother, Violet and Dougie, who are always sweet and kind—at least on the weekends when they are home. Treenie feels somewhat less love for Becky, her surly, makeup-wearing, bug-fearing, 14-year-old sister who—like it or not—is home all the time.

But Violet, Dougie, Becky, and even Bear have secrets—lots of secrets. An entire world of secrets, as Treenie is about to discover in this young-adult novel. A spell goes wrong, and Treenie finds herself in the magical, strange, and dangerous land her siblings have dubbed The Weirld!

Courtesans and Fishcakes

By James Davidson,

Book cover of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

Davidson demonstrates that sexual relationships with courtesans and youths in ancient Athens paralleled the markets in other luxuries such as fish and wine rather more than resembling the modern ideal of romantic love. In a society where marriages were mainly business arrangements made between families to ensure the production of legitimate heirs to their estates, such formal relationships were frequently loveless. This led the male partners and those as yet unmarried to resort to employing mistresses, courtesans, and youths as luxurious distractions from the mundane matter of marital maintenance of the bloodline.

Courtesans and Fishcakes

By James Davidson,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Courtesans and Fishcakes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliantly entertaining and innovative history of the ancient Athenians' consuming passions for food, wine and sex.

Sex, shopping and fish-madness, Athenian style.

This fascinating book reveals that the ancient Athenians were supreme hedonists. Their society was driven by an insatiable lust for culinary delights - especially fish - fine wine and pleasures of the flesh. Indeed, great fortunes were squandered and politicians' careers ruined through ritual drinking at the symposium, or the wooing of highly-coveted, costly prostitutes.

James Davidson brings an incisive eye and an urbane wit to this refreshingly accessible and different history of the people who invented…


Who am I?

When I voyaged into the ancient world in the readings of my youth, it led me to realize that the gay-straight divide in modern perceptions of sexuality and relationships is an artifice. It was constructed by the conceit of the ascetic religions that the only legitimate purpose of sex is the production of children within a sanctified marital relationship. In Antiquity, the divide followed a more natural course between the groups who were the sexually active partners (mainly adult men) and those who were sexually passive (mainly women, youths, and eunuchs). My hope is to disperse some of the confusion that the obscuration of this historical reality has caused.


I wrote...

Alexander's Lovers

By Andrew Chugg,

Book cover of Alexander's Lovers

What is my book about?

Alexander's Lovers reveals the personality of Alexander the Great through the mirror of the lives of his lovers, including his companion and deputy Hephaistion, his queen Roxane, his mistress Barsine and Bagoas the Eunuch. It includes all the intimate details and obscure references that standard modern accounts leave out and reveals a more convincing, realistic, and human picture of the king as opposed to the fake persona of a rampaging conqueror conjured up by many modern accounts. If you would like to get to know Alexander on a more personal level, then this book provides you with a unique opportunity.

Winterlong

By Elizabeth Hand,

Book cover of Winterlong

Hand’s sentences are always beautiful, and this novel, her first, is dense with new ideas and original imagery. She evokes a bizarre future in a post-apocalyptic city where twins go on a hallucinogenic quest. Reads like a somewhat disturbing mythology. Gods and talking animals, autistic prophets, feral children, and death is personified. Unforgettable.

Winterlong

By Elizabeth Hand,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Winterlong as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I’m a Canadian science fiction writer who writes very, very slowly. I’m interested in experimental fiction and books that are unique, both thematically and stylistically. I’d like to think my books fall into this category, or at least that’s what I aspire to. I used to read science fiction exclusively, and the five books I’ve listed here were all read during those formative years; they were fundamental stepping-stones for me, as a writer, and each of them left a profound mark on my idea of how good, or effective, novels can be.


I wrote...

Filaria

By Brent Hayward,

Book cover of Filaria

What is my book about?

I wanted to write a novel that took place in an odd, run-down setting, with relatable characters put into bizarre situations. A structure of rules, like those of the Oulipo books, was added as a challenge to me. I decided that four main characters would occupy separate chapters and never actually meet, yet each would have significant influence on the story of the others; each chapter would take place in a location that’s never repeated; each character would have a different spin on the setting, so that the reader, ultimately, when they get all the perspectives, could interpret it for themselves. To me, there was something about real life in this process, collecting and processing parts with our subjective take on the world to try to form a coherent whole.

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