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by Donna George Storey
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Sex Is All Metaphors
by Jean Roberta
Holiday Ghosts
Love and Romance
An "Interracial" Epic
Trying to Make It Go Away
Sexual Etiquette
Sex and Children
People Against Bad Things
Virtual Acceptance
His Cold Eyes, His Granite Jaw
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I Came Up Stairs:
A Victorian Courtesanís Memoirs, 1867 to 1871

by M.C. Halliday

Book Review by Jean Roberta

 

I Came Up Stairs

The long reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) established a standard of sexual hypocrisy that hasn’t ended yet. The period is still attractive to erotic writers because of the amount of sexually-explicit literature that has survived from that time, and because Victorian life featured a dramatic tension between Christian respectability in public, and illicit, non-marital sex (including masturbation, called “self-abuse”) in private. The Victorian Age was also a time of extreme contrast between the propertied classes and the desperate poor.

This big, juicy historical novel resembles the underground fiction of the time. It is the first-person story of a woman who was born into such squalor that she had nowhere to go but up.  The author begins by quoting a passage from a play which explains the novel's title:

"I came up stairs into the world,
for I was born in a cellar."
- Love for Love by William Congreve (1670-1729)

Then the narrator, Mabel Gray, describes her childhood with her drunken parents and six brothers and sisters in a London slum:

The squalid room where I was born was much less than a cellar, for the
stairs led only downward to the stinking streets of Whitechapel, where
misery draped over us as heavy as the coal soot-laden air. We were filthy
and neglected as the derelict structures, and our subsistence was made
worse by the urine and feces ever emptied from chamber pots onto the
street cobbles.

Before she has had her first period, she is rescued or kidnapped by a "gentleman" who provides her with food, shelter, a hot bath and clean clothes. While it is clear to the modern reader that the man, Mr.Roger Vickers, must have a vested interest, his attention is convincingly described by Mabel as a great relief. As he washes her, she is seduced:  

No one had ever touched me beyond the toe of a boot at my back... I
could not move nor speak. He took my silence as consent and soaped my
hair . . .Then he laid me back in the large bucket and rubbed his hands
over my chest and shoulders. . .I found myself pleasured at his
smooth hands gliding and slipping over me, and when he poured the
water over my breasts, I sighed. . .The strange heat blazed brighter as he held
me in his arms and roughened the blanket against my back and my bottom, and I let the warmth swell through to my fingertips. When he stepped away to set the blanket around myshoulders, I raised my arms and let the mantle fall from me.

Mr.Vickers accepts her unspoken invitation to touch her further, and she loses her virginity to him. When she tells him her name, he says there is "no pleasure" in the sound of it, so he gives her a fancier one: Marisa Montague. (However, this reviewer disagrees about the name Gray. Several of my English ancestors had that name, spelled just that way, and they emigrated to America in the 1880s to escape from poverty.)

Mr. Vickers clearly wants to make a profit by selling "Marisa's" favors. Toward this end, he teaches her to be a "lady," much as  Professor Higgins  does for another London street urchin, Eliza Doolittle, in the play Pygmalion (made into the musical, My Fair Lady). Marisa especially enjoys learning to dance, and she goes beyond what she is shown. She devises new moves and suggestive costumes for herself, and becomes a kind of exotic dancer, a sensation on the London stage.

Marisa's career enables her to escape from Mr.Vickers, much to his dismay, and to find more socially prominent patrons. The reader is cheering for her as she grows accustomed to having her own rooms, hearty food (sometimes eaten in restaurants), regular baths, fashionable clothes, and thunderous applause from her adoring fans.

The narrator's relatives never look for her, and she makes no effort to contact them. However, she never forgets where she came from. When a royal lover gives her a country house, complete with a household staff, she treats her servants with consideration, and becomes so intimate with them that a fortune-hunter who pretends to befriend her tells her openly that she is a fool with no idea of how to run her own household.

Marisa's adventures in the demimonde are not completely surprising to anyone who has read similar stories, but the combination of explicit sex and a fast-moving plot is irresistible. The sex scenes are detailed but true to the period, and Marisa retains a refreshing honesty and innocence through numerous affairs, some of which are really affairs of the heart. While she openly enjoys sensuous pleasure in various forms and knows how to negotiate an advantageous business deal, she is generous, trusting and sometimes too inclined to respect those who don't deserve it.

For lovers of literary erotica and historical fiction, this book is a treat. And not all the loose ends are tied up by the last scene, so it seems likely that the author is planning a sequel. This reviewer, for one, will be watching to see where Marisa goes next, and whether her awareness of an unjust class system and of women's general lack of power propels her to become a social reformer. She is no lady by the standards of her lovers' wives, but the girl is all right.

Jean Roberta
April 2010

I Came Up Stairs: A Victorian Courtesanís Memoirs
(Eternal Press, 2010; ISBN 1590210344)
Available at Amazon

______
© 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written

About the Reviewer:†Jean Roberta is the thin-disguise pen name of a writer who teaches mandatory first-year English classes in a Canadian prairie university and who writes fiction (erotic and otherwise), research-based articles, opinion pieces and reviews. She joined ERWA in December 1998, and has never looked back. Several of her stories can be found in the "Treasure Chest" gallery. Over sixty of her erotic stories have been published in print anthologies, and Eternal Press has released her single-author e-collection of erotic stories in various genres and flavors, Obsession (2008).
Jean is a staff reviewer for the monthly reviews site, Erotica Revealed (edited by D.L. King). She blogs on Livejournal as "Lizardlez" and at www.goodsturdyjeans.blogspot.com. Her website (www.JeanRoberta.com) is a work in progress.
Read Jean's full bio at Erotica Readers & Writers Association.



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