Table of Contents
“Prioleau is almost incapable of writing a dreary sentence. . . . Delightful philosophy and wickedly wonderful advice. . . . Girlfriend, you need this book.”—Deirdre Donohue,
“A whirlwind romp through the lives of the great temptresses of history. . . . This tantalizing book proves that real sex appeal begins in the brain.”—
Year End Round-Up
“Ms. Betsy seems just the woman for the job of lauding the seductress. . . . [S]he’s got the brains and the roots to tackle the siren’s enormous historical import. . . . Prioleau’s verve [is] infectious.”
The Washington Post
“The alluring Betsy Prioleau entices with her siren’s song of the seductress.”—
San Francisco Chronicle
“Betsy Prioleau’s sharp scholarship makes for entertaining reading.”
—Richmond Times Dispatch
“Far from self-help guides and ‘How-To-Have-Better-Sex for Dummies, ’ historian and English professor Prioleau has gathered together history’s sexiest vixens and given them a delicious voice. The women of
harmonize that women can be feminist while being femme fatales.”—
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Prioleau proves that it is brains, not just boobs, that powerful men crave. . . . [Her] charged-up history will spark smart unattached women to . . . hunt down their own Caesars to conquer.”
“Telling wonderfully peripatetic tales of self-possessed sirens and seductresses throughout the aeons, Prioleau makes a strong case for women to take back their ancestral birthright of sexy wholeness. . . . Wildly engaging reading and faultness scholarship.”
“An exhuberant tribute to female physical, intellectual and spiritual power, Prioleau’s book is a feast of language and ideas that spans centuries.”
About the Author
Raised in a Southern belle culture in Richmond, Virginia, Betsy Prioleau earned a Ph.D. in English literature from Duke University. She has been a scholar in residence at New York University and a professor at Manhattan College, and she is the author of
Circle of Eros: Sexuality in the Work of William Dean Howells.
She lives in New York City.
Dedicated to Phoebe
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2003
Published in Penguin Books 2004
Copyright © Elizabeth Prioleau, 2003
All rights reserved
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint a selection from
Moving Beyond Words
by Gloria Steinem. Copyright © 1994 by Gloria Steinem. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.
PHOTO CREDITS: I. Réunion des Musées Natioaux/Art Resource, N.Y.; 2. Goddess of Laussel, 25000- 20000 B.C. rock carving, 54 × 36 × 15.5 cm. Dordogne. Collection Musée d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux, France. Inv.61.3.1. Photo J. M. Arnaud; 3. From
The Prehistory of Sex
by Timothy Taylor, copyright © 1996 by Timothy Taylor. Used by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc.; 4. Statuette of a snake goddess, Greece, Crete. Late Minoan I, about 1600-1500 B.C. or early twentieth century; ivory and gold; H: 16:1 cm (6 5/16 in.). Gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz, 14.863. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission, © 2002 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All rights reserved; 5. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; 6. Department of Antiquities, Cyprus; 7. Alinari/Art Resource, N.Y.; 8. From
The Price of Genius: A Life of Pauline Viardot
by April Fitzlyon, copyright © 1964: by April Fitzlyon. Used by permission of John Calder (Publishers) Ltd.; 9. © Bettmann/CORBIS; 10. Courtesy of Paul Popper Ltd.; II. Picture Collection, The Branch Libraries, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations; 12. AP/Wide World Photos; 13. Lou Andreas-Salomé Achiv, Göttingen; 14. “Lady Newton,” Emilie du Châtelet, c. 1735. By an unknown artist; 15. From
Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse
by Jessica Douglas-Home. By permission of The Harvill Press; 16. Roger Viollet/Getty Images; 17. Bibliothèque nationale de France; 18. Picture Collection, The Branch Libraries, The New York Public Library; 20. Courtesy of Münchner Stadtmuseum; 21. © Bettman/CORBIS; 22. By Benedetto Gennari. Courtesy of a private collector, England; 23. Roger Viollet/Getty Images.
eISBN : 978-1-440-68446-3
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The subject of the seductress is a siren song drawing everything to it: the whole realm of knowledge, imagination, and personal experience. With a song like that (regardless of the best libraries and inner resources), you need others. Since the idea for the book first dawned on me, through the actual five-year writing process, I’ve been aided and sustained by an extraordinary group of people.
They’ve been there from the beginning. The strong
I grew up with in Richmond, Virginia, provided the core inspiration for
My mother, Adeline Howle Stevens, ranks foremost—a sparky man magnet who taught me the ropes and the meaning of feminine sexual pride and fascination. Next were my schoolmates, neighbors, and the formative presence of African American women. From them I learned to boogie and admire female sexual agency in action.
More recently, I have Manhattan College to thank—the students of my “Seductress in Fiction” course and my colleagues, particularly Professors June Dwyer and Mary Ann Groves, who loaded me with information and literature. The most influential of these was Professor Mary Ann O’Donnell—a stellar scholar, counselor, believer, and critical court of last resort.
The path from inception to realization was paved by too many to number. To Dr. Frederick Lane I owe key ideas and the courage to state them. And no one has ever been blessed with better boosters and coaches—Professor Edwin Cady, Sylvia Chavkin, and Sydelle Kramer—or the many informants (some of them strangers on planes) who directed me to potential seductresses. Claudia Thompson introduced me to Violet Gordon Woodhouse; Professor Mike Parker to Catherine Sedley; and Karen Gunderson to Grace Hartigan. Grace herself was a high point of my research—a great creator, great
and generous to a fault with her stories, wisdom, and hospitality. Soprano Kate Hurney supplied priceless information about Pauline Viardot; Sydney Stern about Gloria Steinem; and Dr. Jennie Freiman about contemporary female sexual dysfunction. I am also grateful to New York University for awarding me three productive semesters as Scholar-in-Residence.
Friends from every quarter contributed lavishly of their time and energy throughout the book’s preparation. Neide Hucks rescued me from countless time crunches and gave me crash courses on Brazilian and African American sexual mores. Both Ann Gaylord and Smidgie and Alasdair Macphail ran informal clip services on my behalf, and Barbara Thomas provided invaluable leads and contacts. From my French cousin Nicole Priollaud and Courmes’s neighbor Jean-Jacques Celérier, I received critical historical and cultural insights, plus numerous donations of books, articles, and photographs. Bookstore personnel at the Corner Bookstore and Crawford-Doyle also kept an eye out for me and my investigations, as did my oldest friends from Richmond—Kate Roy and Dixon Christian, Frances Lee Vandell, Meredith Scott, and the late Martie Davenport Reed—who endured long monologues and buoyed my morale.
Without the Allen Room at the New York Public Library, its director, Wayne Furman, and occupants, the book could never have been written. Ella Foshay deserves a halo for introducing me to it. There I had vital access to the library’s premier collection, peace and quiet, and the company of learned, helpful colleagues: Gloria Deák, Gretchen Besser, John Demaray, Rita Gelman, and Laura Schenone. All were prodigal with their knowledge, expertise, and encouragement. The Writer’s Room at the Mercantile Library was another sanctuary, and I thank Harold Augenbaum for the privilege of working there through one long, hot summer.
While I wrote, I was guided and assisted by a dream team of distinguished professionals. Besides my two translators, Chris Scala (French) and Carlos A. Johnson (Spanish), they include those who read and critiqued my manuscript: John Clubbe and Joan Blythe, Shelley Wanger, and my first editor, Dawn Drzal. Because of Molly Peacock, I found my voice, the figure in the carpet, and the title “Silver Foxes” for Chapter 4. She also revved my confidence and walked me through the rough patches. So did Renata Adler, a wise counselor who went out of her way for me on more than one occasion. My appreciation, too, to Polly Howells and the Women Writing Women’s Lives group for inviting me to speak on the
and giving me A-1 feedback. Were it not for computer mavens Kevin Meredith and Chris Arnett, I’d have been lost; my PC crashed three times midstream.
Last are the indispensables: Edward Lavitt, my photography procurer; Marc Daniels, my artistic adviser; my agent, Eric Simonoff; and especially Peter Mayer, who believed in the manuscript and launched its publication. Brett Kelly, Jennifer Jackson, and Alessandra Lusardi have been life supports, and my editor, Molly Stern, more than that. To her brains and perfect editorial pitch, she adds the charm and alpha personhood of my seductresses.
The ones, though, who really made this book happen are my daughter, Phoebe, to whom it’s dedicated, and my husband, Philip. I wrote
for Phoebe and her generation, and if it works, it’s because of her guiding spirit. Every page bears the imprint of her critical flair and radiant grand prix personality. As for Philip, there’s no beginning or end; he gave me faith in the project and put his whole heart and brilliant mind behind it. That meant sacrifices beyond the call of matrimony: tedious errands, sacrificed weekends and evenings, daily crisis management, incessant manuscript evaluations, and the love and support that kept me and the work afloat. Best of all, he made me feel like a seductress when I was least like one, giving me the pizzazz to persevere, to feed the flame, and finish the job.