Betsy Prioleau began the research that led to Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love because of the reaction to a course she taught to packed lecture halls at Manhattan College — “The Seductress in Literature”. Students of both genders were avid to learn the secrets of fabled sirens. And after class, she writes, “the women flooded my office. Over and over I heard the same laments: elusive bad boys, soulless hookups, sapped confidence, wrecked pride, and total mystification about how to prevail in love.”
Prioleau came to think that this was indicative of a larger problem in our culture, that though decades of feminism have benefited women in the workforce they haven’t made women much happier in their romantic lives. She considered that there was a dearth of research on successful women in history, and decided to track down some role models herself in hopes that it would be a step towards changing things. The result was Seductress, in which Prioleau serves up an array of historical dishes.
I first became aware of the book when I read this Salon interview with Prioleau, which so intrigued me that I promptly visited the Toronto Public Library web site to put a hold on her book. While I was waiting for Seductress to become available I read some other the other book she recommended — the novels A Sport of Nature, by Nadine Gordimer and Justine, by Lawrence Durrell, plus some bios on some of the other women she considers successful, such as Catherine the Great and Beryl Markham. I admired Catherine the Great and enjoyed reading about Beryl Markham, but didn’t care for the novels. Both described the heroine as “an honorary man”, and I was irritated by the inference that the ultimate woman is one who has learned to successfully ape men.
Seductress was a surprise to me, though I am not quite sure what I had expected, and indeed when I try to define my prior expectations of it they sound silly. Was I expecting a typical self-help book? Perhaps something that was a combination of The Rules and an issue of Cosmopolitan which would advise me to never call a man and to wear nice undies? Fun as it would have been to mock such a book (supposing I’d read it all the way through), I doubt I would have learned much from it. Self-help books are not usually very helpful. The specific advice is usually not suited to the circumstances of every life or to every personality; the general advice is usually so obvious as to be condescending and silly. I stopped reading one such guide when it listed the items I should have in my night table drawer.
Prioleau is far too intelligent and has done her homework too thoroughly to make any such rash promises or to try to outline any kind of facile methods or magic formulae for succeeding in love. She writes that “love resists glib formula” and instead presents a selection of history’s sirens in all their complex, messy glory. Mini-bios constitute most of the book, and are the best of it, since outside the bios Prioleau has a tendency to concentrate on belabouring the tenuous connections between the women she profiles and ancient goddesses. The famous and the almost forgotten appear one after the other: Isabella Stewart Gardner, Catherine Sedley, Tullia d’Aragona, George Sand, Colette, Mae West, Diane de Poitiers, Cleopatra, Ninon de Lenclos, Elizabeth I, Martha Gellhorn, Violet Gordon Woodhouse, Gloria Steinem, Josephine Baker, Agnès Sorel, and Eleanor of Aquitaine are only a sample of the women she discusses.
When determining which women to include, Prioleau set the bar quite high. A successful woman is one who was able to get the men she wanted, “men who were good for her”, who were “rarely discarded or two-timed” and who “successfully combine[d] erotic supremacy with personal and vocational achievement.” She includes Wallis Windsor, but takes her to task for “shirking the task of self-development”.
Prioleau’s alpha women are by no means perfect. They were generally terrible mothers and amoral types who annexed married men without a qualm. And their effect on those who knew them was often disastrous – eight men committed suicide over Parisian dancer La Belle Otero. These women are also wildly diverse. They are drawn from many different eras and cultures. Sometimes they were educated, as with Cleopatra, who spoke eight languages and studied literature, rhetoric, philosophy, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, medicine, drawing, signing, lyre playing, and horsemanship, and sometimes they weren’t, as in the case of Eva Perón. Sometimes they were young, and sometimes they were old. Sometimes they were beautiful, and other times they decidedly weren’t, as in the case of Edith Piaf, who was 4’10”, with a “boxy build and an oversize head with a thick neck and wide-set Pekinese eyes”. Some were extremely promiscuous from an early age, and some weren’t – as in the case of Lou Andreas-Salomé, who remained chaste until her thirties, despite the pressing attentions of many men, and then joyously made up for lost time.
By this varied parade, Prioleau seeks to debunk the myths of love and sexual attraction that have burrowed into our culture like parasites. A siren needn’t be young. When Josephine Baker died in her sleep at 69 she had rave reviews piled on her bed and a recently acquired man who loved her passionately living in her home. A successful woman needn’t be beautiful, and beauty alone is no guarantee of success in love, as Elizabeth Taylor’s multiple marriages and Elizabeth Hurley’s multiple humiliations prove. She needn’t be a silent, passive muse or hide her smarts, as Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir would have us believe. Émilie du Châtelet told Voltaire, “The light of my genius will dazzle you.” It did. The two of them worked in frenzied intellectual competition for years, and she was the only woman with whom he ever fell in love, despite the fact that intellectual groupies pursued him avidly. A woman can finesse love without playing by society’s rules — many of the hussies in Prioleau’s book made off with smitten, unhinged men like bandits of eros.
The actual siren’s checklist of characteristics only becomes clear when one looks at these women in aggregate. The mad welter of detail recedes into larger, more general patterns. All of these women had enormous self-confidence. Throughout the course of their chequered lives they all determinedly pursued their own goals and happiness first and foremost. They knew their own self-worth, and paid no heed to their detractors. Many experienced considerable adversity – they were brutally raped, or forced into bad marriages or prostitution, or were subjected to racism and misogyny, or were penniless in the days when it was next to impossible for women to earn their own livings, but they hurtled over such obstacles with style and proceeded to claimed success as though it was their birthright. Prioleau highlights the fact that almost all of these women had horrible childhoods. Instead of becoming emotionally crippled by such formative experiences as one might expect, these women were galvanized by it — they learned early that it was up to them to take care of themselves, and that knuckling under to others led only to more abuse. They were creative and intelligent and very hard working. They had — and used — excellent judgment. They surrounded themselves with kind men who loved and nurtured them. And though the sirens may have loved and nurtured and pampered those men in return, it was not at the expense of their own self-development. They were non-conformist. If a social norm got in the way of what they wanted to do, they smashed it. Jane Digby of the ultra-conservative nineteenth century went from marriage to marriage before finding the love of her life at age 45 — a black, Muslim man who was young enough to be her son. Her family disowned her, but she cared nothing for that and enjoyed 25 years of happiness with her tribal prince, and he never remarried after her death.
It would be impossible for a modern woman to imitate these women too literally. Most of Prioleau’s babes had servants to take care of the tiresome details like cooking and changing diapers. I also wouldn’t recommend the calculated and wholesale use of men as practised by many of the women profiled in this book, especially when it’s not necessary in contemporary times. A modern woman needn’t be a courtesan to earn money nor a monarch’s mistress or wife to have political clout. I doubt that a modern Cleopatra would attach herself to the 21st century equivalent to Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and not only because Caesar and Antony have no modern day peers. She would know full well that modern political spouses of either gender are (rightly) powerless and would run for office herself. Sex and romantic love are now merely an element of a woman’s life instead of her only means to success.
Prioleau’s book can’t be classed as a self-help book, but I can’t help thinking it’s a guiding light to what self-help books could be — works that teach without presuming to dictate specific applications for our lives. One is not supposed to emulate these women or try to use any of their specific methods. Rather, Prioleau’s mosaic of women is meant to provide historical precedents, to inspire, to enlarge our sense of the possible, to demonstrate to women that we needn’t resign ourselves to being sidelined romantically because we happen to be, say, a plain, awkward teenager or divorced 50-year-old. By providing us with examples of successful women Prioleau is attempting to demonstrate that we can feel empowered when in love or in hardship rather than subject to it. And in this she has succeeded remarkably well.