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Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them

Betsy Prioleau

Aldous Huxley, nearly blind from an incurable eye infection, married a cultivated Belgian beauty who consented to an open union, selecting his lovers and organising their rendezvous. She reasoned that he needed the sexual escapades as a relief from his mental exertions.

Gabrielle D'Annunzio a born interior decorator. He never went back to the woman's place - his apartments designed to intoxicate the senses - scented flowers, shaded light and luxurious fabrics.

The art of praise is dying out in an era where 'negging' seen as a useful tactic. "Flattery will get you everywhere (but it has to be smart and sincere".

... the artist who mixes high culture with lively anecdotes.

... an era of lukewarm, melancholy marriages.

Too many men angry and unhinged by the loss of traditional privileges and power.

Women impatient with shy men who won't make the first move.

Best lovers keep things interesting

(London Times)

What do Adonis, gored in the groin by a wild boar, Juan Belmonte, the Spanish bullfighter who inspired Ernest Hemingway's matador-lover in The Sun Also Rises, and Douglas Day, a professor at the University of Virginia in the 1970s who favoured a trim red beard and safari outfits with biker boots, have in common?

According to Betsy Prioleau, the author of Swoon, they are all supreme ladies' men; the kind that can charm any woman regardless of class, race, wealth, temperament and sexual inclination. Far from being stock ravishers and a lower sort of rake, these gentlemen crackle, phosphoresce and create a whirlpool of sexual allure that sucks up every woman in sight.

They managed this, Prioleau argues, not in spite of, but because of their flawed manhood. The hairline crack in the armour of their otherwise alpha-male appearance is one of the secret weapons, she says, that can catapult a man to greater intimacy with the fairer sex. Adonis was scarred in his battle with the porcine beast; Belmonte was small, ugly, crippled, and tortured with fear yet rose to become a master in the bullring and the bedroom. And Day? Well, he was married five times, he had window-rattling sex appeal, charisma that took your breath and heart away but had a mysterious gimp leg. Despite this, when he limped down Cabell Hall [at the university], women dissolved.

Vulnerability, it transpires, is just one of the many attractions, in Prioleau's opinion, that can make the unlikeliest men irresistible to women. In Swoon, she surveys the whole gamut of these characteristics, ranging from social grace and high artistic cultivation (as demonstrated by Albert Camus, who had three mistresses on the go plus a wife when he died) to flattery and simply smelling divine.

Written almost as a self-help guide or a manifesto of masculinity - and sporting overwrought chapter titles such as Charisma: Lightning in a Bottle, Lassoing Love and Torching Up Love - Prioleau's book argues that her panoply of virtues or amorous artistry is one to which all men can aspire - and, she pleads, really should: 'We've sprung an erotic energy leak, with the genders in a state of terminal indifference and apathy.'

What women want, according to the professor, who has taught cultural history at New York University, is more men like the dashing little duc de Richelieu, an 18th-century diplomat and war hero, who was busted out of the Bastille in 1718 thanks to the cadre of infatuated former mistresses who joined forces to free him. He embodied many of the skills of the supremely seductive: he was no more handsome or clever than many others at court, but his special gift was his ability to keep women infatuated through surprise - during one assignation he tunnelled into a lover's bedroom through the fireplace, and in another he dressed in a nun's habit and met his mistress at her convent.

Prince Klemens von Metternich, the hugely influential 19th-century Austrian diplomat and Adonis of the drawing room, was equally adept at sweeping women off their feet. For Prioleau, what made him unsurpassed as a seducer were his exquisitely tuned social antennae and arts of ingratiation. She puts his success down to the fact that he was close to his mother (an upbringing shared by many of her great seducers) and his sexual adoption by an older, beautiful mistress who educated him in the ways of making women fall in love with him.

Even the writer Aldous Huxley - near blind and resembling, according to Virginia Woolf, a giant grasshopper - proved irresistible to women. His magic formula, he claimed, was nothing more than intelligence. Indeed, it is creativity - not good looks or a trim physique - that seems to be the key to the charisma of a great seducer. It is why women would apparently tremble like poor little larks in the wake of Franz Liszt, and why Voltaire would brag: Give me 10 minutes to talk away my ugly face and I will bed the Queen of France.

Other seductive traits include curiosity (Kingsley Amis, Roland Barthes); an edgy disregard for common authority (Jack London, Warren Beatty); and a naughty, dark sense of humour (Casanova, Roald Dahl). It is also necessary to be direct and clearly passionate, as Robert Louis Stevenson, a ladies man himself, would surely advise. He would berate anaemic and tailorish men who dithered about desire.

How does she reach her conclusions? For the most part she doesnt ask women what they want, which, let's face it, could have got to the bottom of the matter rather more quickly, but with far fewer lively anecdotes. Instead, she rushes from historical examples to fictional fantasies. It is a little erratic - veering from the erudite to the bawdy - and a little windblown. She does flirt with some science and more rigorous research (she mainly cites Geoffrey Miller, the evolutionary psychologist), but the overall sense of one theory fits all is a bit rickety.

On the upside, Swoon doesn't conform to the dreary do-gooding of the worst of self-help literature. Instead, Prioleau offers a romp through centuries of amorous liaisons and seduction techniques. The result isn't a lustful knee-trembler of memorable proportions, but if you are willing to be seduced into some entertaining badinage, it is worth a read. And if it's all too much - or too beneath you - then you are in good company with Barthes, whose advice on erotic education was: Just leave it alone.

The gift of the gab, writes Betsy Prioleau, is one of the greatest skills wielded by ladies' men. She cites Desmond MacCarthy, a member of the 1920s Bloomsbury group, who was so tongue-enchanted that despite apparently having smallish genitals, missing teeth and the face of a bald, battered Roman emperor was known as Delectable Desmond, and whose conquests included Lady Cynthia Asquith.

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