During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a small group of women rose from impoverished obscurity to positions of great power, independence and wealth. In doing so they took control of their lives -- and those of other people -- and made the world do their will. Men went to great lengths in desperate attempts to gain and retain a courtesan's favors, but she was always courted for far more than sex. In an age in which women were generally not well educated she was often unusually literate and literary, and courted for her conversation as well as her physical company. Courtesans were extremely accomplished and exerted a powerful influence as leaders of fashion and society. They were not received at court, but inhabited their own parallel world -- the demimonde -- complete with its own hierarchies, etiquette and protocol. They were queens of fashion, linguists, musicians, accomplished at political intrigue and, of course, possessors of great erotic gifts. Even to be seen in public with one of the great courtesans was a much-envied achievement.In this riveting social biography, Katie Hickman focuses on five outstanding women -- Sophia Baddeley, Elizabeth Armistead, Harriette Wilson, Cora Pearl and Catherine Walters -- each of whose lives exemplifies the dazzling existence of the courtesan. She reveals their extraordinary exploits -- including their stints in Paris, New York and California -- and offers insights into the glamorous history of courtesan life.