I Came Up Stairs: A Victorian Courtesan's Memoirs, 1867 to 1871
By MC Halliday
Published by Eternal Press, 2010
I've read a good deal of Victorian erotica. The heroine of my novel Incognito is a graduate student doing her dissertation on the topic and of course I needed to do my research! In fact, even before I wrote that book, I was fascinated by the paradoxical Victorian era, with its conservative public morality and its private lasciviousness. Sometimes I've speculated that I had a previous incarnation in Victoria's London.
MC Halliday's novel I Came Up Stairs beautifully captures the style of the period. Ms. Halliday's heroine Mae is rescued from incredible degradation and poverty to be trained as a courtesan. Her sponsor Mr. Vickers raises her from her squalor for purely monetary reasons. He somehow recognizes a spark of brilliance in the filthy young girl he adopts and sets about fanning that spark to full flame, expecting her to make his fortune.
He meets more success than he could have dreamed. Mae (originally Mabel Gray, rechristened Marisa Montague) grows into a charming, sensual woman with the manners of a lady and the lusts of a kitchen maid. She attracts the attention of noblemen and princes, catering to their desires and frequently satisfying her own. Her tastes run to women as well as men, and she's never so happy as when she's lounging naked, drinking champagne.
Mae earns her independence from Vickers by becoming a featured dancer in a music hall, where her risqué, “Oriental” gyrations earn her huge acclaim. However, she is subject to the typical risks facing a woman of the period. She becomes pregnant, possibly by the heir to the British throne, and is forced to slip away to France for the period of her confinement. There she meets her true love, but their relationship comes to a tragic end in the heat of war.
I Came Up Stairs feels genuine. The sex scenes are rife with euphemism but still arousing. Actually, it is Mae's enthusiasm that lights up every encounter. She is a true hedonist and as is typical in real Victorian erotica, will eagerly indulge herself with whomever happens to be present—a handsome earl, her buxom maids, or her well-hung gardener.
However, Mae is far more complex and engaging than the women in The Pearl or My Secret Life. Remembering her own origins, she is unfailingly kind and generous to her servants. She acts with a spontaneity that is consistent with her youth. When she loses the love of her life, she descends into a drunken slough of despond. She feels quite real, unlike the cardboard cut-out women in many Victorian tales, who exist mainly as willing orifices.
Ms. Halliday also excels at painting a picture of the rigid, hypocritical, class-oriented society in which Mae exists. Mae herself is in some sense immune, far freer, due to her anomalous history, than any true lady of the time.
The language in I Came Up Stairs is deliberately archaic. Readers who prefer more direct locutions may find it tedious, but I was impressed by its ring of authenticity.
My one complaint about the book relates to what seems like a factual slip. When Mr. Vickers first takes Mae away from her impoverished existence, she comments that she had not yet started to menstruate. Yet after a period of tutelage that is not specified but seems no more than a year or so, she seems to have blossomed into a voluptuous, physically mature young woman. Ms. Halliday is not explicit about the time involved, but there's no suggestion that it involved anything like the time necessary to effect this transformation.
Of course, it is true that modern women reach menarche quite a bit earlier than women a century ago. Furthermore, the malnutrition that Mae likely suffered in her early life would also have affected her physical development. Nevertheless, this nagged at me through the first half of the book.
By the time I reached the middle of I Came Up Stairs, however, Mae had charmed me, just as she did everyone else who met her. I didn't care about her past; I was just concerned about her future.
I Came Up Stairs will delight anyone who enjoys historical fiction, especially from the Victorian period.