In pre-20th century culture, to be a courtesan or concubine was a highly coveted honour, usually bestowed upon aristocratic ladies; it could even be formally recognised in a ceremony much like marriage.

In pre-British India, young noblemen were sent to courtesans for social education. These women were considered the authorities on the traditions of music, dance, language and etiquette and some even became the mothers of the children of Mughal monarchs. However, like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to entertain their guests and, while sex was often incidental, it was not contractually assured.

So why is it that, over time, our idea of courtesans and concubines has changed to become synonymous with prostitution? Were these women simply high-class prostitutes? Or have their traditions and legacies been warped by a lack of understanding in contemporary culture?

Join event chair, Jodie Matthews, and authors, Lesley Downer and Moni Mohsin, as they deconstruct perceptions of these fascinating women and unpick over 400 years of history to explore how this once prestigious and sought-after role has declined into depravity.

About The Speakers

Lesley Downer

Lesley Downer is an award-winning author and journalist and one of the very few westerners ever to have broken into the closed world of the geisha. She has written many books on Japan, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, and The Shogun Quartet, a series of novels set in the shogun’s harem in nineteenth century Japan.  Her latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is a prequel, the first in the series.

Moni Mohsin

Moni Mohsin was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. Now based in London, she is a freelance journalist and author of two novels, the prize winning The End of Innocence and Duty Free. Her best selling collection of satirical columns, The Dairy of a Social Butterfly and The Return of the Butterfly, are based on her long running column for the Pakistani weekly, The Friday Times.

About The Chair

Jodie Matthews

Jodie is an academic and critic specialising in 19th-century literature and culture and the ways in which we interpret texts from that period. She is a proud feminist and left-winger, and firmly believes in research and writing that is politically aware and engaged.