Books: A Point of View: Blog de Jour |
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Blog de Jour : on the self-marketing courtesan

(S06E05, broadcast 20th and 22nd November 2009)

"Belle de Jour and the myth of the happy hooker"

For several years, the true identity of Belle de Jour, author of a blog called Diary of a London Call Girl, had been a mystery. Journalists, always excited by mysteries, strove to find out who she really was. Was she really a woman at all? Experienced male journalists who could do sentences with three clauses in them speculated that she might be a male journalist because of her unusual literary skills. Some of them suggested that Belle de Jour might be Toby Young, a wag about town who is not on the face of it a figure to arouse agonies of sexual desire among males, but who knew?

When Belle de Jour’s daintily scurrilous blog was collected into a hit book, several critics noted that she had a command of language comparable to that of Martin Amis. Perhaps Belle de Jour was really Salman Rushdie. Surely no mere female could concoct a diary so exactly fulfilling male fantasies. When the book was turned into a television series, Billie Piper was up there on screen like Catherine Deneuve in the art-house movie from which our blogger, knowledgeable about art-house movies, had lifted her, or his, name.

The Catherine Deneuve movie was the story of a refined woman answering her imaginative needs by spending her afternoons in a bordello, taking on all-comers, but never chipping her nail polish. In the blog of our latter-day Belle de Jour, that was the soignée image that the author strove to project. In the TV series, as Billie Piper delicately primped, it sounded, and looked, very like a male’s imaginative needs being fulfilled. But finally, last weekend, Belle de Jour stood revealed as a female after all.

And what a female. The voice behind the most celebrated of all soft-porn blogs had turned out to belong to a woman of outstanding beauty and brilliance called Dr Brooke Magnanti, student of informatics, epidemiology and forensic science. She must also have been a student of military strategy. When it became clear to her that one of the tabloid newspapers was about to blow her secret, she reacted like Rommel. Attacking out of defence, she stepped in ahead of time and spilled all to one of the weekend broadsheets, thus positioning herself invulnerably upmarket, where she will undoubtedly stay, the glossiest British-based femme fatale since Lady Bienvenida Buck, and much less likely to be forgotten.

Judging from her qualifications, Dr Magnanti’s sudden appearance at the top of the media heap was only fitting. She would have been wasted down there in the land of tabloid fantasy, where the mind is not regarded as an erogenous zone to be expanded, though every other erogenous zone is expanded to the limit. Dr Magnanti is a different kind of sex goddess altogether, with the emphasis on the goddess. She is the thinking man’s dream girl, and as such she is a nightmare for all those who occupy themselves with the condition of what we now know as the sex-worker. Common sense tells us that sex-work ranges from outright slavery at the bottom end, where kidnapped foreign girls are kept drugged by ruthless pimps, to a delusional miasma at the top end, where supposedly high-toned escorts delude themselves that they are doing the using instead of being used.

Above all this Dr Magnanti floats like a lily on a bog, but she makes a good show of having turned the work into an art form, first with a book deal, then with a TV series, now with an all-media fame that is already looking highly exploitable. Just think of the merchandizing possibilities. Belle de Jour Informatic foam bath crystals. Belle de Jour Forensic Science foot-massage cream. The only question is whether all those other females with doctorates in informatics are going to feel inadequate if they have never been courtesans. Not for the first time in history, a courtesan has made honest women look a bit pedestrian.

Proving that sex-work, even at its most elevated, has the same relation to work as bad breath has to breath, our Belle de Jour is in a modern tradition of the higher hooking that reached its first peak in nineteenth-century Paris, where fashionable society was briefly dazzled by the short career of Marie Duplessis, who presaged Dr Magnanti in every aspect except the blog.

The blog, and an early death. Marie Duplessis, born merely Rose Plessis, lived only twenty-three years, but in that brief span she emerged out of nowhere to become one of the most socially accomplished women of her day. She enslaved men, and they gave her things in return for her favours. When she transferred her favours to other men, the original men still gave her things. One of the men was the writer Alexandre Dumas the younger, who was her lover for a year. When she transferred her affections upwards beyond mere writers, he took no revenge but wrote the book that made her immortal, The Lady of the Camellias. Eventually Verdi turned the book into one of his greatest operas, Traviata, and Garbo starred in Camille, the most beautiful of her movies after Ninotchka.

The richness of Marie Duplessis’s life after death should not distract, however, from the richness of her life while she lived. She reached a high state of mental cultivation and could converse delightfully on many subjects, although it is not certain whether informatics was among them. She loved music and musicians loved her. One of them was Liszt, who wanted to move in with her.

The brilliance of her mind, along with her startling sexual attraction, made her salons the focus for all the fashionable men of her time. These eventually included the nobility, and when she succumbed to tuberculosis the French count she had married was in attendance, while, even more remarkably, the Swedish count that she hadn’t was there too. She died broke but hundreds of men came to her funeral. She was a poetic young lady and they were all proud that she had spent their money, but there can be no romantic view of how she had earned it.

The myth of the happy hooker dies hard, mainly because it isn’t always a myth. Another nineteenth-century courtesan, Lola Montez, slept her way so close to the very top that Ludwig I of Bavaria was shaken on his throne. Liszt was on her list, too. She had a ball all the way. It isn’t easy to think of a woman like that slogging away at an honest job. But that’s where the catch comes in: just at that point where men get sentimental on a woman’s behalf. When Dr Magnanti tells us that she could never have financed her degree course unless she had yielded to the hard fact that what she would have earned from a boring week behind the cake-stall was comfortably exceeded by what she could earn in half an hour on her back, she isn’t saying that she found a better kind of work. She’s saying that she found something better than work. And it might even feel like that, but it still leaves the idea of work sounding like something that only stupid people believe in.

As long as men are romantic, there will be women realistic enough to cash in. Or anyway they fancy themselves as realists, although I notice that most of them, however they proclaim the legitimacy of their trade, get out early if they can. But let’s forget about the women’s realism for the moment, and concentrate on the men’s romanticism, which is surely the nub of the matter. Far from looking for a relationship uncomplicated by feeling, a romantic man, when he tries to solve his problems with his wallet, is looking for a feeling uncomplicated by a relationship. As far as I know I’ve never met a sex-worker, but to the extent that I can intuit what goes on, she offers the illusion of a contact that consists of nothing but emotion. It can’t be had in real life, so men pay up to enter the dream world where they can find it.

After Dr Magnanti got in early and gave her story to the broadsheet, the tabloid that had tracked her down was left stuck with the revelations of some of her acquaintances. My favourite among these — you understand I read this only for purposes of research — was an ex-boyfriend who still pines for the lyricism of what they had together. Apparently they plighted their troth with two rings, buried the rings in the beach, walked along the beach hand in hand, leaned back against haystacks and gazed up at the stars. He is still convinced that her love for him was true. And so it might have been, but it was also perfectly suited to his dreams. With Dr Magnanti we are dealing with a master, or let it be a mistress, of public relations.

One of her female acquaintances fears for Dr Magnanti’s future. ‘I wonder, though,’ wonders the female acquaintance, ‘if she is ready for the inevitable media blitz.’ I would be surprised if she is not ready for it like Robbie Williams. She has been getting ready for it all her life. My own guess is that she will marry a future crowned head of Europe, but if she settles for mere showbusiness she will probably be the first person to win Celebrity Come Dancing and The X Factor in the same year. There can be no doubt that she dances like Ginger Rogers and sings like Anna Netrebko.

There is nothing this woman can’t do, and you can tell by the history of her blogging. She has been blogging since blogging was invented. Fresh out of school, she blogged about restaurants. After that, by a sequence of events that will no doubt be explained to us in due course, she blogged about autopsies. She wrote short stories for her blog. She was Ernest Hemingway. She knows everything. She even knows what informatics is. I looked it up, and basically it means information theory. Someone interested in that was never going to keep a secret. She was only ever going to decide when she would sell it.


There is no getting out of it: pulsing beneath the veneer of my moralistic sermon is the eternal male response to the allure of the adventuress. Given space, no commentator should ever dodge the question of why Ludwig I, with all the beauties of Bavaria to choose from — their mug-shot portraits sill decorate the Nymphenburg Palace — risked his throne for Lola. Surely it must have been the soft light of the half world, the flattering shadows that it casts not only on the adored one, but on the helpless males who adore. It makes them feel like pirates, even when they are already kings. Verdi, whose love affair with Giuseppina Strepponi was as powerful as it was decent — doubly decent because it remained a love affair even after he married her — had nothing frivolous in him on the subject of passion. But Traviata proves that there was nothing frivolous either about the passions that the doomed young courtesan aroused.

As a type, the Lady of the Camellias is most at home in Paris, which is probably why she wreaks her greatest devastation in London, where theoretically she is not at home in the least. My mention of Lady Bienvenida Buck was, as the academics say, no accident. Except for a sufficiency of funds, Bienvenida had everything, including the foreign extraction. She had a particularly fatale appeal to men placed high in the Defence department and the armed services. She was like Beachcomber’s beautiful spy Dingi Poos: she had only to stand there in a peignoir and generals would hand her the plans. Before I get carried away by romanticism, however, it would be honest to record that the brilliant career of Britain’s very own Belle de Jour was happening at a time when the traffic in East European slave girls in London became too blatant for the police to ignore. The traffic was, and alas remains, entirely horrible, and it seems a fair inference that all organized prostitution is horrible enough. But for the women out on their own, running their own lives and thriving on the adventure, sympathy sounds patronizing. Gladstone took prostitutes home with him in order to save them. He was probably sincere, and they probably needed saving. But what about the woman who doesn’t need saving, and who has the gift of convincing you, the customer, that you are the one leading a restricted life? And what is to be done about her argument that she would earn so much less in an ordinary job that she would never be able to complete her degree in particle physics? It’s yet another of liberal democracy’s dilemmas. East of the Elbe, in the good old days of the Warsaw Pact, women like that all worked for the security services, and their contribution to society was beyond cavil.