Insufficient attention has been paid to the history of naughty girls, who deployed allure to prosper in a male-dominated world. Moralists insisted that they would all come to a bad end. From Jezebel to Cleopatra, Lady Hamilton to Becky Sharp, many did so. But not all. Salomé died a queen; Pamela Harriman, an ambassador.
There are also fates which transcend earthly glory. Mary Magdalene is often conflated with the woman taken in adultery. In a wooden sculpture, Donatello depicted her in old age, a pitiless portrayal of the ravages the flesh is heir to. Yet she rises above suffering. The expression on her face is beatific. ‘I know that I have been a wicked woman,’ she seems to be saying. ‘I also know that my Redeemer liveth. As I succoured Him in His hours of agony, He will succour me and forgive me in mine.’ No work of art has more pathos. Nothing expresses the essence of Christianity with such intensity.
Sometimes wicked girls have an ambivalent fate. ‘Let not poor Nelly starve,’ said Charles II on his deathbed, referring to Nell Gwyn. Was she the most bewitching whore of all? The king’s wishes were granted, partly because Nelly knew how to save for her old age. But it was all in vain. The poor creature was dead within a couple of years from a syphilis-related illness. Yet even in dust, she achieved immortality. Half the grander entries in the stud books — Debrett’s or Burke’s — spring from her loins.
Most of these girls knew what they were doing. They struck bargains that their male patrons honoured. But there’s one appalling example of male hypocrisy, which almost justifies feminism. Oddly enough, it comes from France. The French pride themselves on being grown-up in such matters, unlike the clumsy Anglo-Saxons. This makes the treatment of the most successful French post-war diplomat even more inexcusable.
Since 1945, French foreign policy has been in the grip of fantasy. From de Gaulle’s assertion that France had liberated itself, through to the absurd claim to retain superpower status, buttressed by the illusion that Europe could be run as a French jockey on a German horse, France has proved the folly of allowing government by group-think among highly intelligent and assertive administrators, all determined to help each other retain their illusions. While all that nonsense was taking place, a girl was ensuring that at a basic and commonsense level, French diplomacy worked.
Madame Claude ran a brothel. When filles de joie of the highest class were needed to woo allies or win contracts, she provided them. Membership of the Légion d’Honneur has been awarded for much lesser services. Her reward was two prison sentences. In dealing with supercilious officials, she had a problem: her record in the French resistance. It was genuine.
Those thoughts occurred to me on my way to Shepherd Market, home over the years to many a cat-house. I was dining with David Cameron at Kitty Fisher’s, an excellent restaurant run by his brother-in-law, Tom Mullion. The name is appropriate. In the mid-18th century, Kitty was London’s best-known tart. She, too, died young, but first she married into the gentry and lived in a house that is now Benenden School. I wonder whether she figures in the careers mistress’s guidance?
Sashimi apart, the Spanish are unsurpassable on fish, but in my experience they do not really understand beef. Yet there are exceptions. David and I ate the best Spanish beef I have ever encountered, from a ten-year-old Galician dairy cow, fattened for a year after it ran out of milk. It had succulence and flavour. To accompany it, we stayed Spanish: a Rioja Gran Reserva, Bodegas Urbina, 1996, a wine to convince those who claim Rioja can never achieve sophistication. Sophistication goes well with raffishness.
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