‘Tis a Pity…


Again, I am looking at illusions we hold about the modern world as compared to the past. Aren’t we all so progressive and decadent and sexual these days? Regular libertines. Surely no age has ever been as licentious or pleasure-driven as we are now, practically freed from the fear of hell or hope of heaven as we are. We are just so NAUGHTY, aren’t we?

Not really, or as Christopher Isherwood wrote in his Berlin Diaries “Femme Fatale? She was just about as fatale as an after dinner mint!” Not only was the past often far more immoral then we are now, they also seemed to have so much more FUN being immoral. Consider the following essay that looks at the writings of famous whores of the past (and I use that term professionally, thank you). It is enough to make me long for the Hellfire Club, or at least a randy Duchess and a few naked maidservants.

The following is reposted from History Today.

Blaming and Shaming in Whores’ Memoirs

Sex, scandals and celebrity were all part of a blame and shame culture that existed in the 18th century, one that often fed off the misfortune of women at the hands of men. Julie Peakman looks at how prostitutes, courtesans and ladies with injured reputations took up the pen in retaliation.

Just as the exploits of the likes of Britney Spears, Amy Winehouse and Charlotte Church fill today’s gossip magazines, notorious 18th-century women frequently found themselves in the limelight for their emotional outbursts, drunken revellings or pub brawls. Juicy titbits about them and other famous people were delivered in exposés of their affairs, adulteries and divorce cases, which in turn became part of the social make-up of public life. Gossip about sexual liasions first started to be broadcast in an explosion of print at the beginning of the century. Sex and how it figured within the lives of prostitutes, bawds and aristocrats became a topic aimed at an audience with an increasing appetite for titillation.

This market had been fostered by a long literary tradition. Daniel Defoe wrote about the adventures of Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724). The theme where the subject is a feminine protagonist who uses her sexual attributes to advance her fortunes was taken to its most extreme form in the adventures of Fanny Hill in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749), which, though initially suppressed, was one of the most popular pornographic novels of the 18th century. Real-life prostitutes such as Sally Salisbury, Fanny Murray and Kitty Fisher became the subject of a genre of memoirs now known as Whore Biographies in books such as The Effigies, Parentage, Education, Life, Merry-Pranks and Conversation of the celebrated Mrs Sally Salisbury (1723), Memoirs of the celebrated Miss Fanny M*****(1759) and The uncommon Adventures of Miss Kitty F*****r (1759). Their full names in the titles were tantalisingly omitted, although everyone would have recognised who they were. Gossip around these women and their lovers filled the taverns. Broadsheets and pamphlets rec orded their activities. Songs and poems were written about them and cartoons depicted them. Later memoirs often appeared as a series of instalments in magazines or cheap pamphlets, each ending in a cliff-hanger to keep the audience on edge. Those who could afford to might indulge in the full versions bound in calf skin.

The bricklayer’s daughter Sally Salisbury (c.1690-1724) was one of the first prostitutes to feature in biography. Two books on her life appeared in 1723. A woman popular with lords, baronets and libertines, one of these volumes declared:

She learnt everything unless t’was the Practice of Piety and to walk in the Paths of Virtue, to which most believed her Natural inclinations made her almost a Stranger, she giving very much the Loose to her Passions.

Men flocked to her but, at the height of her fame, she ruined it all when she stabbed with a bread knife one of her lovers, the Hon. John Finch, son of the 2nd Earl of Nottingham. She died of fever in prison but not before Finch had sent word of forgiveness and pleaded with the authorities to let her go. In the memoirs Sally is depicted as generous and witty but foolhardy and hopeless with money. These characteristics were to become standard in the writings about women of the town and featured in their own self-promotion when they wrote about themselves.

Early remonstrations of irate deserted wives also contributed to the genre of whore biography. A number of men who accused their wives of sexual philandering had in fact been adulterous themselves. During the 18th century, women whose reputations had been called into question by their spouses or ex-lovers gradually began to write their autobiographies. In telling their stories, not only would women generate much needed income but the memoirs would provide them with a platform to reveal their paramours for what they really were. 

One of the earliest of these women was Laetitia Pilkington (c.1709-50), a recognised wit and poet, married to an ambitious and uncaring clergyman. The Reverend Matthew Pilkington had his designs on fame but was disappointed to discover that his wife was the better poet. She became a friend of Jonathan Swift and mingled with his literary set. In 1733, Laetitia followed her husband to London where he had taken up a new position as chaplain to the Lord Mayor, only to find her husband in the midst of a fully-fledged affair with an actress, Mrs Heron. Meanwhile, Pilkington set up his wife in a situation with one of his friends, a painter James Worsdale, and tried to fob her off on to him. She complained that her husband ‘did everything in his Power to forward and encourage an Amour between his Friend and me’.

The Pilkingtons returned to Dublin at the end of Matthew’s chaplaincy, whereupon he immediately took up with a wealthy widow. In an attempt to set up his wife on charges of adultery, he burst into Laetitia’s bedroom one night when he knew her to be in the company of a young surgeon, Robin Adair. Though his wife claimed to be reading at the time, Matthew assaulted Adair and threw Laetitia out of the family home with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Subsequently, in order to make some money to survive, she sold her writings to Worsdale to pass off as his own. Her marriage in tatters, at the end of 1738 Laetitia went to London to try to establish herself as a writer. Here she gained the patronage of the actor, playwright and later Poet Laureate, Colley Cibber. Determined to make a go of it, she opened a print shop below her lodgings  in St James’s Street, but soon fell into debt and was incarcerated in a debtors’ prison. Returning to Dublin in 1747, she decided to write her memoirs in a last ditch attempt to make money and expose those who had harmed her. Published by subscription, the first volume came out in 1748.

Around the same time that Pilkington’s autobiography appeared, the courtesan Constantia Phillips (1709-65) also published a biographical account, An Apology for the Conduct of Mrs Teresia Constantia Phillips. She had begun her life as a kept woman more than quarter of a century before with a man she identified as ‘Thomas Grimes’. He is thought to have been either Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, or (more likely) Thomas Lumley, who would later become 3rd Earl of Scarborough.

Constantia had met Grimes in London while working as a needlewoman, having run away from home to escape her stepmother’s brutality. Family cruelty was a common reason given by the ‘whores’ for leaving home. While some girls were gently seduced by their predatory first lovers, others had a far more violent introduction to a sordid world of sex. Fanny Murray had been raped by Jack Spencer, grandson to Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. Phillips’s career as a courtesan was set on course after Grimes tied her to a chair, stripped and raped her: she was 13 years old.

Grimes soon abandoned Phillips who entered into a sham marriage with professional bigamist, Francis Delafield or Devall. Her next husband, Henry Muilman, whom she married in early 1724, sued for annulment after he discovered her lurid past. According to one historian, she then began affairs with ‘at least seven wealthy and well-connected men’, including a gardener, a baronet MP, and even her own surgeon. Walpole declared her on par with Catherine the Great in the realms of nymphomania but in fact she probably had little choice in deciding what to do with her life.

Trying to eke out a living was nearly impossible for a woman alone at the time. Women had few job opportunities and little legal standing. A girl might find a job in domestic service but still risked being seduced or raped by her master or his sons. Dressmaking and the cloth trades offered possibilities but the pay was a fraction of what men could earn elsewhere. Like many others before and after her, Constantia Phillips was imprisoned for debt, then fled to France to avoid her creditors. (She ended up in Jamaica, having followed a lover to Kingston where she eventually died.)

Many of the better-known whores found themselves without a man’s protection only to discover that biographers had already turned embellished versions of their life stories into hard cash. A flurry of books about courtesans who had made their names through their alliances with famous men appeared in the 1750s and 1760s. These so-called ‘memoirs’ were in fact written by hard-up male hacks eager to make a living. They tell us more about contemporary ideas of prostitution than about the women themselves. A set pattern emerges in descriptions of the women: they came from poor backgrounds, they had fallen into prostitution having been seduced or raped, their reputation ruined because of a single initial sexual misdemeanour; others clawed their way out of a life of poverty, acting as mistresses to a string of rich men.

The authors of these memoirs had latched on to a readership keen to know more about famous people. They cornered the market in depicting the celebrity culture of Dublin, Bath and Covent Garden. In 1759, when the Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Fanny Murray hit the shelves, Murray herself was already a well-known figure of libertine society and, as a result, was the focus of much gossip and admiration. Her memoirs avowed:

A succession of lovers now produced her not only a sufficiency to live genteely, but to amass a considerable sum. She found that she must agree to their oddities, and even court their caprices.

Murray had been mistress to the famous dandy, Beau Nash (1674-1761), and lived with him in Bath for a time. She was also the lover of the political rebel, John Wilkes (1725-97), who wrote about her in his sexually explicit poem and parody, An Essay on Woman (c.1754), declaring, ‘Awake, my Fanny!’ She was a member of the Divan Club which the politician and rake Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81) had founded in 1744 as entertainment for his friends. The club was intended for a small coterie who had an interest in Ottoman culture and had visited Turkey but with the added bonus of sex, gaiety and drinking. Dashwood held regular meetings at his home in Buckinghamshire, West Wycombe. He had portraits painted of the Divan members dressed in Turkish outfits, including Fanny, the toast of the ‘harem’, whose portrait still hangs at the house.

Dashwood later founded an even more rumbustious and exclusive club, the Brotherhood of the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, which met in a ruined abbey leased by Sir Francis at nearby Medmenham. The Medmenham Monks, as the members were known, would dress up in monks’ habits, get drunk and perform mock religious ceremonies. Murray was one of the ‘nuns’, as the whores who livened up their celebrations were known. Her memoirs would have added colour to those interested in Dashwood, Wilkes and John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, all of whom were involved in the political scene in London at one time or another.

Many readers did not care whether the tales were excessive or not – they knew the characters involved and liked to read about their scandalous behaviour. Increasingly the women themselves started to wise up to these idealised memoirs, which presented a male-orientated view of prostitution and frequently fabricated details. Why let unscrupulous hacks and publishers make money out of their stories? However, like the fake ‘whore’ memoirs, the auto-biographies of real courtesans are also not necessarily true statements of fact, but filled with exaggerations, outrageous adventures and crises. There was a stock of virtues from which they portrayed themselves – they were charitable, kind to the elderly, honest and loving – although they also come across as extravagant and vengeful. Naming and shaming was a sure way to attract the attention these women felt they deserved. Courtesans took the opportunity to slate their erstwhile lovers who had reneged on their promises or who had not provided for them adequately.

One of the first brothel-runners from Ireland to edge into the writing scene was the Dublin madame, Peg Plunkett, also known as Mrs Leeson, who had  worked her way through the echelons of society as a courtesan. Peg was born in 1727 at Killough in the county of Westmeath, Ireland, the daughter of an Irish landowner and his wife. She rose to prominence in Dublin for entertaining its libertines – ranging from lawyers and businessmen to soldiers and aristocrats. She had relied on IOUs and the promises of clients to protect herself from poverty in old age, but these were not honoured. As a result, she ended up in a debtors’ prison. She confessed to writing her memoir not merely for money but to avenge herself on those who had not honoured their debts to her.

Her first target, however, was her family. Christopher Plunkett, one of eight surviving children of the 22 born to her mother, inherited the family estate. Peg exposed his brutality, telling how as a girl he had beat her black and blue with a riding crop. As a result she left home with the first man she could find, one of her brother’s friends, who soon deserted her. She took the name Leeson from a subsequent lover, but the man she professed truly to love, John Lawless, was the one who let her down the hardest. They had lived together for over five years and she had borne him five children (none of whom survived) when he deserted her suddenly. Depressed and devastated, she flung herself into the role of coquette, later ruminating:

The ill usage of Lawless, had changed me to what I never was before. In short, I was become a compleat Coquet. I entertained every one who fluttered about me, I received every present that was offered, accepted every entertainment that was made for me; gave them all the hopes, yet yielded to none. I was disgusted with the man of my heart, therefore gave my heart to none. I looked upon all men as my lawful prey, and wished to punish the crimes of one on the whole sex.

Jealousy frequently led to fights. Peg describes how when, returning from a dinner party, she accused Lawless of paying too much attention to another female guest, he became irate, ripped off her clothes and threw her on the bed. She claimed:

He then cut the strings of my cloaths … I twisted from him and got under it; he, greatly enraged at my obstinacy, pulled me out, and in the struggle hurt me so much, that he was obliged to send for Surgeon Gleghorn …

These were not mere lover’s tiffs but serious incidents of brutality and Leeson lost a child as a result of Lawless’s violence. Violence was a common feature and most of the autobiographies describe ferocious arguments or batterings. Yet part of the narrative was in describing themselves as ‘women of spirit’ – tempestuous, feisty and provocative women who invited jealousy from their paramours as proof of their attraction. Vengeance became the courtesan’s medicine; they harboured their every rejection to present in vitriolic exposés.

One of the ways to safeguard against a dwindling income in later life was for courtesans to secure annuities from their lovers at the height of an affair. These took the form of a certificate drawn up by a solicitor promising an annual sum to be paid by the man to the woman in return for her having given herself to him. In theory these would continue to be paid after the affair had died. Most men subsequently reneged on the deal.

The whore autobiography reached its apogee in 1825 with the publication of  the memoir of the notorious courtesan Harriette Wilson (1786-1845). Harriete was renowned in the late 18th century as a wit and thrower of good parties. Part of the demi-monde, she skirted the edges of respectability, taking her lovers from the elite. Walter Scott described her as ‘A smart saucy girl … with the manners of a wild schoolboy’. She displayed herself in theatrical boxes, entertaining young men and dropped titled men as she felt like it. Her lovers included Lords Craven, Ponsonby and Lorne. At the top of her profession, she could demand small fortunes for her company, but once she aged, her clientele dwindled into a handful of older and less well-off beaus.

Harriette Wilson conceived her memoir as a crafty blackmailing tool in order to squeeze money out of men for fear of being named and shamed. It was prefaced by a list of the names of gentlemen who were to be mentioned in forthcoming instalments unless they paid up. Some did so promptly and their names were expunged. Others refused and were outed for their mercenary treatment of Harriette. While some reviewers denounced the memoirs as ‘disgusting and gross prostitution of the press’, Walter Scott delighted in their scandalous effect reporting that ‘the gay world had been kept in hot water lately by this impudent publication … the wit is poor but the style of the interlocutors exactly imitated… she beats Con. Phillips and Anne Bellamy and all former demi reps out and out.’

At the same time as Wilson’s book was published, a memoir also appeared by her former friend and rival Julia Johnstone. The women had shared homes, theatre boxes and even lovers. Seduced when she was 16, Julia Johnstone was among the elite of the courtesans of her generation. She was born in 1777, probably at Hampton Court where her mother the Hon. Elizabeth Proby,  daughter of Lord Carysfort, was attendant to Queen Charlotte. The less well-off Harriette was born into a large family of 15 children. The two women met around 1803 and eventually moved into the Bloomsbury house of the Marquis of Lorne, with Lorne footing their bills. Bitterness erupted after Harriette’s portrayal of Julia in the first instalment of her memoirs as ‘poor as a church mouse and a cold and frigid lover … her heart, unlike mine, was as cold as her imagination was warm.’

In The Confessions of Julia Johnstone, written by herself in contradiction to the fables of Harriette Wilson (1825), Julia  declared her reasons for publishing, ‘because I have a character to vindicate, and a great regard for my friends.’ Julia was desperate to rescue her reputation. Both memoirs were printed in instalments at roughly the same time and batted catty remarks back and forth. This was the first time courtesans had written in public response to each other.

Harriette was no holds barred in her ridiculing of Julia. Men ignored Julia, she claimed, because she was ‘in fact, so reserved, so shy, and so short-sighted, that, not being very young, nobody would be at the trouble of finding out what she was.’ Johnstone struck back:

Since the appearance of that scandalous work, Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, I have suffered much by my own reflections and those of my friends: she has calumniated me whenever she has mentioned my name, and appears to delight in reducing all to her own disgusting level. Though I have fallen, it is not certainly beneath my own good opinion, nor am I so lost as to despise the censure, or be indifferent to the approbation of the wise and the good.

Although Julia’s autobiography was titled Confessions, she revealed little, merely using her book to refute Harriette’s claims. The raciest part reveals that Harriette’s previous lover, Lord Craven, caught her on the knee of his black servant … although, of course, Harriette shrugged this off as a total fabrication. 

Harriette’s publisher John Joseph Stockdale believed Confessions of Julia Johnstone was ghost-written by Jack Mitford, a down-and-out alcoholic intellectual working at the behest of the publisher William Benbow, although there is no proof of this. Harriette’s revelations of her affairs with the elite of London were immensely popular. According to Stockdale, the first volume ran to 35 editions and netted several thousand pounds (although the claimed print run might well have been a publicity stunt). There was such a rush for the book that the publishers had to erect a barrier outside their premises to control the crowds.

These whore biographies gave the public a new insight into the scandalous life of a handful of disreputable, but well-known, women. The exposés of their errant husbands and cruel lovers gave the men themselves pause for thought. It is doubtful, however, that they radically changed the minds of many young rakes, who continued to indulge their fantasies with attractive courtesans. What it was to confirm was the notion of the fallen woman. The public now recognised the girl who had started off in a respectable family, who had been abused by men and, through no fault of her own, ended up in a life of whoredom. In response to her ill-treatment, she herself had also become duplicitous.

Blaming and shaming was a new cultural phenomenon of the whore autobiographies that emerged in the mid-18th century. Women were now making a claim in the publishing world and writing their own side of their stories, revealing all to an eager public. Harriette Wilson would not be the last to bring out memoirs of sexual dalliance. These books were merely the precursors of today’s tabloids and celebrity memoirs. As we see today, the popular revelations of women who exploit their sexuality, such as Jordan or Madonna, remain the bestsellers.

Adam and Eve ban


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