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Literature / The Comfortable Courtesan

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The Comfortable Courtesan is a Web Serial Novel by L A Hall, initially published as a Dreamwidth blog in 2015-7 (regular daily chapters ended then, a number of side stories and future stories have been posted irregularly since), and then from 2017 on as a series of ebooks and hard-copy collections. It is loosely within the Regency Romance subgenre, although the author, a professional historian and a feminist, is interested in both historical accuracy and the depiction of less mainstream sexual orientations and relationship styles than was common until the 2010s in genre romance.


The story deals with Madame Clorinda Cathcart, an extremely High Class Courtesan in Regency London, along with her clients, servants, friends, and enemies. As well as managing her own life with great success, Clorinda is also addicted to gently manipulating everyone around her in the cause of maximising felicity.

The Comfortable Courtesan contains the following tropes:

  • Acrofatic: Agnes Simpson is fat but a very good dancer and horse rider.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Miles O'Neill kidnaps Agnes Simpson to try and force her into marriage so that he can get her money.
  • Animal Assassin: Nuttenford's downfall comes after he loses control and sends Clorinda a live (stolen) cobra in a parcel.
  • Autoerotic Asphyxiation: A minor member of Lord Raxdell's set dies this way, and the death is initially mistaken for murder.
  • The Beard:
    • Clorinda to Lord Raxdell.
    • Lady Zellen to Sir Hartley, after Clorinda explains things to her.
    • Admiral Knighton to Lady Jane, although she still has a child with him.
  • BBW: Lady Demington is repeatedly described as a "pretty little dumpling".
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Sandy and Maurice, it turns out.
  • But I Can't Be Pregnant!: Downplayed, Clorinda was told that she wouldn't be able to conceive after the injuries von Ehleben inflicted on her, although she still uses contraceptives as a precaution, the need for which becomes clear after she gets pregnant by Josiah.
  • Camp Gay: Maurice the male ladies' fashion designer. It's natural, but he also plays it up to ensure that his clients' husbands or lovers aren't jealous.
  • Cast Full of Gay: Less than 50%, but there are a significant number of LGBT characters to make it clear that they existed in history. For example, Clorinda and Eliza are bisexual, Lord Raxdell and Sandy are a gay couple, Lady Jane is lesbian, Belinda, Marchioness of Bexbury, is asexual, and Docket is a trans woman.
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  • The Consigliere: Maurice plays this role to his boyhood friend, the gangster Nat Barron.
  • The Dandy: Lord Raxdell is a famous fashion plate, and Danvers Dalrymple is an aspirant one.
  • Deadly Distant Finale: Clorinda dies in 1872, at advanced age, just after reading the final installment of Middlemarch.
  • Death by Childbirth:
    • Clorinda only narrowly survives Flora's birth.
    • The first Duchess of Mulcaster dies suddenly shortly after her son's birth.
  • Death Glare: Sandy's "dour Calvinisticall stare", as Clorinda puts it.
  • Defeat Means Respect: The Dreadfull Crocodile hires Mrs. Darton Kendall as her paid companion after Mrs. Kendall stands up to her in public.
  • Direct Line to the Author: In framing material in the ebook and print versions, Hall pretends that the book is an actual nineteenth-century memoir discovered in the loft of an English stately home. (It's clearly fictional, as the stately home is a fictional one named within the narrative.)
  • Disney Villain Death: Von Ehleben falls to his death from a balcony due to shock at seeing Clorinda, who he apparently believed he had murdered.
  • Domestic Abuser:
    • Darton Kendall, who violently abuses his wife and forces her to have sex with other men when it's advantageous to him. This eventually drives her to murder.
    • The Earl of Nuttenford is a chillingly cold one, whose abusiveness manifests not so much in direct physical or emotional violence as in his utter indifference to the physical and emotional welfare of his wife and children.
  • Dominatrix: Mrs. O'Callaghan's speciality in special pleasures.
  • Elite Man–Courtesan Romance:
    • Subverted. Everyone believes that Clorinda and Lord Raxdell are an example of this, but she's actually The Beard for him, although they are very close friends. The men who Clorinda has most emotional feelings towards tend not to be of the highest class.
    • Happens for real in a gay version with Bexbury and Marcello, although Bexbury died still believing that Marcello was only in it for the money.
  • Emphasise EVERYTHING: Clorinda really likes her italics.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The reaction of everyone else present when Mrs. Darton Kendall, a notorious spreader of malicious gossip, reacts angrily to the Dreadfull Crocodile implying that Clorinda is a lesbian.
  • Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Nuttenford is eaten by a bear in Virginia. The similarity to Shakespeare is noted.
  • Fag Hag: Lampshaded when Maurice tells Clorinda that she is rumoured to be "Molly's friend".
  • Friend on the Force: The Bow Street Runner Matt Johnson, to both Clorinda and Sandy.
  • Gaining the Will to Kill: After Osgood starts blackmailing her, Clorinda takes several chapters to get to the point where she can kill him.
  • Geeky Turn-On:
    • The courtship of Miss Gowing and Mr. Thorne, over probability.
    • The courtship of the Rev. Mr. Lucas and Agnes Simpson, over theology and classics.
    • Narrowly averted due to Incompatible Orientation between Sandy and Lady Jane, over classics.
  • Give Him a Normal Life: Clorinda giving her daughter Flora to the Ferrabys, although Josiah is genuinely Flora's father and Clorinda still plays a big part in her life.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: There's a lot of Good Adultery, justified because the cheated-on spouse is gay, just doesn't care, or is taking-part in a three-way. Particular note must be made of the Ferrabys. After Eliza nearly suffers Death by Childbirth and the doctors warn that any further pregnancies would risk the same, Josiah resolves to end their marital relations until it will be safe for her - i.e., menopause. Worried that the strain of such prolonged restraint would be bad for his health, Eliza advised him to find a mistress. That's love.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Viola and Sebastian Knowles are the antagonists of the first major plot arc, but later make friends with Clorinda (they were very young initially and were being manipulated by the malevolent Mr. O'Callaghan).
  • High-Class Call Girl: Clorinda's profession and that of some of her friends. Later on, we also get the unnamed "club" for upper-class gay men, which employs male versions.
  • Hijacked by Ganon: The people behind the plagiarism of Maurice's designs and the blackmail/espionage plot are Karl Pfaffenrath and Miss Minton.
  • His Heart Will Go On: Sandy ends up in a relationship with Maurice after Gervase's death in a road accident.
  • Historical Domain Character: Averted — despite the concern for cultural accuracy no real historical figures appear outside hearsay and allusion.
  • Homoerotic Dream: Matt Johnson confesses to having them about Sandy.
  • Hot for Preacher: All of Clorinda's female servants for Elisha Roberts. Since he's a lay preacher, and Methodists don't require celibacy even for ordained ministers, there's no impediment to a happy ending when he marries Seraphine.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Abby is so changed by the hardships she's been through when she returns from Australia that hardly anybody recognises her, which she's happy about.
  • Incompatible Orientation:
    • A running gag with Sandy, first when Viola Knowles proposes to him out of misplaced guilt and nobility, and then when he and Lady Jane find themselves questioning their orientations after studying together.
    • Miss Addington has a long-term desire for Clorinda, who is very picky about women.
  • Intimate Psychotherapy: Clorinda shocks Biffle out of his initial grief-stricken catatonia over his wife's death by having sex with him, and continues to regularly comfort him in that way for some time afterwards.
  • Inverse Law of Fertility: Clorinda gets pregnant after once forgetting in the heat of the moment to use protection with Josiah.
  • Ironic Nickname: After Clorinda and Eliza make friends with each other, they refer to Josiah as "the Grand Turk", in mockery of the assumption that any man who consensually has relationships with more than one woman at once must be some kind of barbaric domestic tyrant.
  • The Jeeves: The imperturbable and intelligent Hector, Clorinda's butler and bouncer.
  • Kavorka Man: Admiral (originally Captain) Knighton is described as short, squat, plain-featured and prematurely balding, but has a lot of success with the ladies due to a charming personality and, it is implied, considerable skills in bed.
  • Ladykiller in Love:
    • Danvers Dalrymple falls in love with Clara Richardson after initially seducing her to prevent her from (he thinks) seducing Gervase.
    • Maurice, ex-male prostitute and continuing cynic about sex, falls in love with Sandy.
  • Let Off by the Detective:
    • Clorinda actively helps cover up Mrs. Darton Kendall's murder of her spendthrift, abusive and otherwise extremely unpleasant husband. Sandy eventually agrees.
    • Johnson actively helps Clorinda dispose of Osgood's body after she shoots him in cold blood.
  • Mama Bear: Clorinda kills Osgood primarily out of rage that he threatened to ruin her daughter's life by exposing her true parantage.
  • Manly Gay:
    • Lord Raxdell is a widely-admired swordsman and sportsman with all the manly virtues.
    • Bexbury's lover Marcello is an extremely handsome Latin Lover who is very good with a knife.
  • Marriage of Convenience:
    • Clorinda marries the gay and dying Marquess of Bexbury, mostly to spite his heir, her old enemy Gorston, and to ensure that his unentailed assets will be disposed of as he wants them to be.
    • Admiral Knighton and Lady Jane, as he needs somebody to manage the land that he's inherited and she needs a beard.
  • Mentor in Queerness: Marcello helps Julius realise his homosexuality and educates him on the matter, although it's not clear whether they actually had sex with each other.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: In one of the stories from Sandy's p.o.v, a matter of plagiarism of fashion designs turns out to be related to a larger plot involving blackmail and international espionage.
  • Moral Guardians: Lord Demington makes his relatives very unhappy for a while with his extreme puritanism (due to guilt and paranoia over having caught crab lice from a courtesan during his Grand Tour) until Clorinda persuades him to calm down.
  • Must Have Caffeine: A Running Gag involves Sandy's capacity for coffee-drinking, especially in the morning.
  • No Pregger Sex: Averted, as Josiah and Eliza discovering that Clorinda is pregnant with Josiah's baby leads to their first three-way.
  • Nobility Marries Money: A running issue in the earlier part of the story involves Viola Knowles and her wealthy, non-noble parents' desperation to get her married to someone with a title.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Sir Barton Wallace's unpleasant mother is known only as the Dreadfull Crocodile.
  • Origins Episode: Good Practices depicts how many of the initial cast of characters became Clorinda's clients or domestic staff.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: The Ironmaster's Tale, which tells the story from Josiah's PoV, and Mistress in her Household, Above Rubies, and The Chatelaine, from Eliza's.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Happens in a lengthy and complicated way between the Marquess of Offgrange and Lady Anna Merritt. They can't resist meeting in secret while they're engaged, which leads to a Two Person Love Quadrangle in which they're accused of cheating on each other with each other.
  • Plagiarism in Fiction: The incompetent poet Walter Yewall steals a poem from Agnes Simpson and first achieved success by plagiarising unpublished poems written by a dead friend.
  • Politically Correct History: Averted. The story makes it very clear that, yes, non-white and LGBT people did exist in reasonable numbers in early-19th-century London. However, Clorinda and her circle are explicitly unusually liberal, and period racism and homophobia are depicted.
  • Polyamory: Clorinda has no issue with loving multiple people, and ends up in a three-way relationship with the Ferrabys while continuing to have the odd fling. The lack of concern with fidelity among parts of the Regency upper class is also depicted.
  • Poisonous Friend: Bexbury's lover Marcello is very keen on using his stiletto on people who he thinks are a threat to Clorinda and others.
  • Pre-Mortem One-Liner: In her final confrontation with Osgood Clorinda draws her pistol and declares "Silence to the death!". Osgood assumes she's threatening suicide and mocks her because he thinks she won't go through with it. Clorinda declares "Not my death" and shoots him.
  • Precocious Crush:
    • Bess Ferraby has a brief crush on her father's chief engineer Mr. Dalgliesh, which gets crushed when he makes his growing relationship with her governess obvious in front of her.
    • Teenage Geoffrey Merritt initially can't decide whether to crush on Clorinda or Sandy.
  • Questionable Consent:
    • Clorinda's encounter with the smuggler Jones, in which he seems to be about to rape her until she manages to seduce him in a more genteel way.
    • Clorinda's Intimate Psychotherapy with Biffle ended well, but it's a bit questionable that he was so mentally disturbed the first time that he didn't recognise her until after they'd completed the act.
  • Rescue Introduction: In the backstory, when it's revealed that Hector's first introduction to Clorinda was rescuing her when von Ehleben tried to kill her.
  • Running Gag:
    • The various references to the wombatt, initially imported by the Reverend Mr. Thorne and later given by him to Sir Sir Zoffany Robinson. Clorinda posed with it as "Antipodean Flora".
    • Clorinda claiming to be just a foolish, frivolous creature whenever she's just done anything particularly calculating.
    • Clorinda hitting Sandy with her fan and accusing him of flattering her.
    • German characters turning out to be villainous to some degree.
    • Getting rid of troublesome people by sending them to the USA.
    • No-one supposing that Raoul de Clerault could be a Frenchman.
    • Mrs. O'Callaghan's extremely plain son.
  • Scary Black Man: Hector is very effective at this on the rare occasions when it is necessary.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Mrs. O'Callaghan's "extremely plain" son reportedly grows up to be considerably more attractive.
  • Shoot the Dog: Or in this case, shoot the blackmailing secret policeman and sell his corpse for surgical research.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Played With in what we hear of Josiah and Eliza's courtship - in their case it was her father who was reluctant to allow the marriage to happen and the pre-marital pregnancy was deliberate on their parts to force him to consent.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Clorinda reads books including The Vindication of the Rights of Women, Frankenstein, and Emma.
    • After Agnes escapes O'Neill's kidnap plot by climbing out of a window, Clorinda notes that she was more level-headed than Clarissa Harlowe.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Viola and Sebastian Knowles are implied to be named after the young twin brother and sister in Twelfth Night.
  • Sinister Minister: The Reverend Mr. Gorston, later Marquess of Bexbury, who starts off as simply annoying and bigoted and is gradually revealed to be truly villainous.
  • The Social Expert: Clorinda's success is down to this as well as beauty - sexual skills are if anything the least important elements of succeeding as a courtesan.
  • The Sociopath: The concept doesn't exist at the time, but Nuttenford's combination of self-centeredness, utter, depraved indifference to the physical and emotional welfare of anyone else, and murderous vindictiveness when his anger is aroused strongly suggests it.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: The main narrative does this for all middle- and upper-class characters, in the style of the era. The ebook and print versions include a list at the beginning giving all the characters' full names.
  • Spell My Name with a "The": Clorinda almost always refers to von Ehleben simply as "the Junker", as she hates him so much and his attempted murder of her was so traumatising that she can't bear to speak or write his name.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Lord Kettlewell falls in love with Mrs. Darton Kendall, she initially sees him as an attractive suitor but his transparently lying attempts to arrange interactions between them and obsessive possessiveness eventually come to creep her out.
  • State Sec: Ranulph Osgood, who sees the Raxdell House set as dangerous political conspirators and tries to blackmail Clorinda into informing on them.
  • Subordinate Excuse: Sandy is officially Lord Raxdell's secretary.
  • Take That!: The opening lines of the story:
    I shall not say how, and why, at the age of 15 I became the mistress of the Earl of Craven, because I never had the kind of opportunities that Harriette Wilson wast'd.
  • These Hands Have Killed: Averted when Clorinda is pleasantly surprised by her lack of this reaction after killing Osgood.
  • Unequal Pairing: Causes some problems when Hector falls in love with Euphemia, as he's convinced that because of his managerial position over her it would be abusive.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: The inheritance from General Yeomans that starts Clorinda towards financial success.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Explored in great depth. Clorinda is entirely happy to be a prostitute, but a major subject of the story is the amount of effort and intelligence that it takes her to keep things positive for herself, and she still sometimes fails to escape some of the hazards of the lifestyle.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • Clorinda never states exactly when she first slept with Eliza, although a third-person later post on the blog explains that it was when both the Ferrabys rushed to join her after Sandy told Josiah she was pregnant by him.
    • There is also just a little ambiguity about whether von Ehleben accidentally fell off the balcony or not.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The later Marquess of Bexbury goes completely insane when his attempted bigamy is publicly exposed.
  • Virgin-Shaming: The eventual revelation of what lies behind Hector's unwillingness to set a date with Euphemia — he's worried that he'll disappoint her on the wedding night due to his lack of sexual experience.
  • Write Who You Know: In-Universe, many characters in Clorinda's novels are based on her friends and enemies.


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