7/31/09 - whores

In today's excerpt - stories of prostitutes, courtesans and ladies with injured reputations explode in the new mass media of 18th century Europe:

"Gossip about sexual liaisons first started to be broadcast in an explosion of print at the beginning of the 18th 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 tantalizingly omitted, although everyone would have recognized who they were. Gossip around these women and their lovers filled the taverns. Broadsheets and pamphlets recorded their activities. Songs and poems were written about them and cartoons depicted them. Later memoirs often appeared as a series of installments 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. ... 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. ...

"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. ...

"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 idealized 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 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). Harriette 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. 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."


Julia Peakman


'Blaming and Shaming in Whore's Memoirs'


History Today


August 2009


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