Courtesans have been present in every culture for as long as human civilization had kings. And as I read this book about the courtesan to the King of the largest empire ( at that time) in the world I couldn’t help but replay an old Himachali folk song in my head about a King who took a washerwoman home. So, I went looking for it and found this extremely tacky, almost ‘home-videoesque’ video on the internet; though it does show the entire story very clearly for anyone who doesn’t understand the language. Try hard not to cringe when you see the King and his Queen.
Storytelling time :
(Just can’t help myself. I love explaining folk songs to people who don’t understand Himachali/pahari, which would be 99.9% of India and 100% of the rest of the world.)
A washerwoman, wearing her brand new black ghagra/lehenga/long skirt goes out to fetch water from the stream where the king’s men are camped. Her husband tries to dissuade her, but she refuses to listen to him. As she takes the first step to the water source the king hits her with a pebble. On the second step he takes hold of her hand. She asks him to let her go as she belongs to a lower caste than him (reference to the rampant caste system in our country). He replies in true kingly fashion that he has nothing to do with her caste as her face is too beautiful. So he takes her to his palace. The queen is informed that her ‘souten’ ( which is a very Indian word meaning almost a co-wife, and probably a step higher than a mistress eg. Camilla Parker was Diana’s ‘souten’) is here, to which she calmly replies in true royal fashion ‘ let her come, I will never let her settle down’. The Queen then poisons her, stuffs her in a wooden box and then throws her into the river. The box washes ashore where the washerwoman’s husband is washing clothes; who opens it and then laments the unnecessary loss of a beautiful woman’s life.
So though the washerwoman never made it to courtesan status, there were many more who probably did. My mother remembers a really old lady from her childhood in the village, who owned a mango orchard given to her by the king for ‘services rendered’. I doubt that all of them were as lucky as that old woman or Mrs. Keppel.
I picked up this book just out of curiosity around the time of William and Kate’s marriage and didn’t read it till now. I researched a little bit about Mrs. Keppel and imagine my shock when I found out that she was great- grandmother of Camilla Parker. Talk about life coming full circle.
The book is written almost as if an old aunt is reminiscing about old friends/acquaintances, with extracts from letters and diaries of the people who moved around in the same circle in that era. Though interesting in the beginning when it explains the dynamics of life at the King’s court it became severely tedious as it dragged into the extremely drawn out and over-the-top love affair of Violet and Vita.
Mrs. Keppel comes across as an extremely accomplished woman who was able to balance the duties of the courtesan, the wife, the socialite and the financier of the her family with easy aplomb. I cannot understand her husband’s exact role in this whole elaborate charade. He must have felt some level of resentment or were the elitist class too bourgeois for such petty sentiments as possessiveness and jealousy. Mrs. Keppel, who knew her importance as someone who had the king’s ear was invariably polite to lesser mortals, being ‘too clever to be malicious’ and a great social success. Mrs. Keppel’s daughter’s, Violet and Sonia, were aware to the presence of an elderly gentleman who came out of mother’s bedroom in the afternoon’s and could not really understand the relationship. Like the author says, it taught the girls that marriage was a legitimate cover to carry on illegitimate activities without censure.
Violet and Vita were childhood friends and then eventually became lovers after Vita had been married 4-5 years. This is when it all gets too tedious for words with Violet’s crazy obsessiveness, Vita professing that she loved her children most in the world and then running away with Violet for 2-3 months, then coming back home, Vita’s letters with declarations of love to both her husband and Violet, Violet’s marriage out of sheer spite, the extremely callous behaviour of the women towards Violet’s husband, who for some reason had no idea what ‘lesbianism’ meant, Vita’s promises of elopement and then backing out umpteen number of times, the amount of family intervention and above all Violet’s raging, hormonal, obsessive letters to Vita. It was almost nauseous to read the whinnying and constant single-minded devotion of Violet and I was unable to feel any amount of sympathy for her. The best thing her mother could have done would have been to throw her out and let her earn her living, which would probably have made her a much happier person. Too much time and too much money will lead to some form of disorder unless you are an extremely elevated being.
The book is almost a commentary on how not to bring up children. King Edward’s parents who forbade him playmates with the fear that they may pollute his mind and brought him up in virtual seclusion ended up with a promiscuous, spendthrift and flamboyant son. We can only be thankful that he didn’t go the American way and end up being a serial killer. He was generally well liked and seemed to have no qualms about making friends with ‘Jews’ and getting along with people. Mrs. Keppel on the other hand brought up daughter’s in a home where there was almost no love only a strict adherence to what was acceptable in society and what was not. For Violet to become as impassioned as she was about Vita is perfectly understandable when seen through the prism of loneliness and lack of love she grew up with as is her disillusion with the institution of marriage. It just doesn’t seem to have been a normal childhood of running around in gardens and playing games or picnics with the parents. A childhood lost in the ambitions of a mother and the aloofness of the father.