In the Company of the Courtesan – Sarah Dunant
By the time she began this, her eighth novel, Sarah Dunant had certainly learned how to open an extended narrative:
My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting colour into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman emperor’s army blew a hole in the wall of God’s eternal city, letting in a flood of half-staved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.
At the dawn of the Reformation Fiammetta Bianchini and her dwarf, Bucino, the narrator of this tale, escape from Rome and return to the courtesan’s birthplace, Venice. And it is in Venice that they decide to re-build their business, which amounts to the trade of a high-class prostitute.
The narrative of the novel follows their fortunes in the pursuit of this quest and along the way introduces us to the city and the characters who help and hinder them along the way.
Let me say immediately, I am an admirer of Sarah Dunant’s work. I have enjoyed all of her novels, especially Transgressions and Mapping the Edge. And though I am not generally a fan of historical fiction, I also enjoyed The Birth of Venus, her last novel, which was set in 15th century Florence.
But I don’t feel so happy about this one. Mainly because Dunant seems to forget that life in Europe during the first half of the 16th century was carried on without a real knowledge of the importance of hygiene, that there were no antibiotics, and that indulging in the sex trade, at any level, was a certain way to find an early grave through a variety of venereal diseases which devoured both body and mind.
With this in mind I found it difficult, no, impossible, to take the privileged and relatively trouble-free life of the courtesan seriously. This undermined an effective characterization of Fiammetta and left us with a shadowy picture of the woman, when the narrative demanded that we know her much more intimately.