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Belle de Jour and the myth of the happy hooker

Billie Piper in Secret Diary of a Call Girl
Belle de Jour's story has been blog, book, and TV drama


The unmasking of Belle de Jour makes us think of a litany of brilliant courtesans, writes Clive James in his weekly column.

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.

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.

Belle de Jour film
Catherine Deneuve fills her afternoons as Belle

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 soignee image that the author strove to project. In the TV series, as Billie Piper delicately primped, it looked very like a male's imaginative needs being fulfilled. But finally, last weekend, Belle de Jour stood revealed as a female after all.

Clive James
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And what a female. The voice behind the most celebrated of all soft porn blogs 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.

User or used?

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 merchandising 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.

Portrait of Parisian courtesan under jewels she was given
Courtesans could be richly rewarded by their lovers

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 19th 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 23 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 Alexander 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 tuned 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 was Liszt, who wanted to move in with her.

Unhappy hooker

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 married 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.

19th Century courtesan Lola Montez
19th Century courtesan Lola Montez

Another 19th 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 from start to finish. 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 the surely the nub of the matter.

My own guess is that Belle will marry a future crowned head of Europe, but if she settles for mere show business she will probably be the first person to win Celebrity Come Dancing and The X Factor in the same year

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," says 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 Strictly 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.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Sex work is work. It's not better than work. It is work. Just as journalism is still work even if it's travelling around the world writing about the quality of the champagne you had in Monte Carlo rather than dredging through Lily Allen's bins looking for something salacious to titillate your tabloid editors, so sex workers are workers whether they're hooking on the streets or dining at Michelin-starred restaurants with foreign dignitaries.
McDuff, Manchester

Women working (that's working) in the sex industry are employed in the most dangerous occupation in the UK. They are more likely be killed or injured in the course of their work (it's more dangerous than fire-fighting) or die from work-related disease. If economic power wasn't still gripped in the clammy hands of men, women would no more sell their bodies than other exploited groups would sell their organs to rich donors. But you know that already, don't you? So what's it all about?
Usquebaugh, Oxford, UK

The article says: "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." It is poetic license to describe any man willing to look for a feeling he can solve with his wallet as "romantic". Romance is the last thing on his mind, even if self-delusion has turned the feeling he has into a romantic notion. Equally, I think it is true of many women that they are capable of having sex, without the motivation being one of romance, as Belle du Jour has proved. This whole field is one strewn with mines many of which are left-over from our Victorian forefathers. Belle du Jour has proven that an intelligent person, can eschew the social norms and look out for number one in the way she chooses.
Geoff Davis, East Dulwich, London

So much for the government's stated objective to make Britain a world leader in academic scientific endeavour, when graduate students have to finance their research degrees through prostitution.
T J Sackville-West, London

I am not sure what Clive James means when he says, "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....". From what she herself has done and said, and what Clive James himself says, Dr Brooke Magnanti has proved the complete opposite - that her sex work has the same relation to work as breath freshener has to breath.
Bon Nuit, Derby, UK

I am a PhD student and although my parents financially support me, my lifestyle in London requires further funding. Did I become a hooker? No, I got a lecturing job, a tutoring job and private tutoring work and I retained my self-respect and professional credibility. This fallacy of stripping/lapdancing/prostituting being OK if it is funding a post-graduate education is misguided, there are other options - well-paid, easily available, options. There are many ways to support yourself through post-graduate education and one of the most lucrative ways is teaching at a university, such work is offered to any PhD student on a plate.

Fine, if you choose prostitution as work, maybe it will mean fewer sex-traffic victims being forced into prostitution and that's good, but don't try and use financing post-graduate education as a reason to be a hooker, in academia there are many other options for earning money.
Julia, London, UK

Maybe there are some prostitutes who enjoy their work, but it must be a tiny minority. It's well-known that a high proportion of women in the sex industry are forced into it, some violently, some by getting them hooked on heroin and controlling the supply. Prostitutes are at much higher than average risk of being beaten, raped and murdered, or of committing suicide. Belle de Jour will no doubt be welcomed by the porn industry who would love people to think that hookers are having a good time... unfortunately this is rarely true.
Tom Foxe, Norwich, UK

I'm sorry - where is the actual argument that sex work isn't work? I slave 60-hour weeks for £20K a year so that my company director can swan into the office a few times a month, swear at me and head off on another foreign holiday. I could be making more by pandering to his and other men's fantasies a few evenings a week. You really think Belle has been used more than I'm currently being? Sex work is not a job like any other, but it is a job. Why on earth does it have to be romantic? I don't think common sense has told you anything whatsoever, to be quite frank. Whenever we sell a service for money, we are both user and used - no matter what the service is.

Nice job if one can restrict their clients to those they would be willing to have sex with for free. If not, many of us women would rather clean toilets for 40 hours + a week.
Cathleen, Seattle

Courtesans have wielded tremendous influence and power throughout history, either as villains or as heroines. The geishas of Japan and dancing nautch girls of Lucknow have been immortalised in eastern culture. The sex worker comes from various strata of society, from the lowest "caged and bonded prostitutes" to the consorts of the rich and powerful. Remember the Profumo Scandal or the Umrao Jaan?
Rudolph A Furtado, Mumbai

"Lola Montez" was actually the Irish-born Eliza Gilbert and was schooled in Sunderland. Rather less glamorous than she portrayed herself.
Peter, Notts

"There is nothing this woman can't do." Well, she clearly can't find a decent job and get a degree like many of us before her. It sounds like those of us who work in regular jobs are mugs, and those (sorry, just women - I notice that Mr James failed to mention male prostitutes) who sell themselves are geniuses. What a strange way to look at the world.
Bella de nuit, Birmingham

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