IN BED WITH THE GEORGIANS: SEX, SCANDAL & SATIRE IN THE 18th CENTURY
By Mike Rendell
Pen & Sword History. 166 pages. £14.99/$24.95. ISBN 978-1-47383-774-4
Reviewed by Jim Burns
It’s more than likely that among the best-known representations of the sexual side of life in London in the 18th Century is Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress, his series of illustrations following the rise and fall of a young newcomer to the city. She’s taken in hand by a procuress named Mother Needham, who was an actual person active in the role at the time Hogarth created his story, and moves quickly through entertaining various gentlemen until her final downfall when she has contracted syphilis and dies.
Hogarth wasn’t the only illustrator to chart the downward spiral that was the fate of many prostitutes, and the ill-fated Richard Newton’s Progress of a Woman of Pleasure has his subject going through stages of success as a courtesan until drink overtakes her and she ends as a streetwalker. The last scene shows her dying on a doorstep after she has been turned out of her lodgings so that no-one will be responsible for the cost of her funeral.
Mike Rendell suggests that Newton is less moralistic in his tale than Hogarth in his, but the end result in both cases is essentially the same. The sex trade can only lead to a grim death. And Rendell’s account is full of women dying young, and penniless, after glamorous, but brief episodes in the limelight. And, of course, they are only the ones we know about. There must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of others who never achieved any kind of fame or notoriety, and plied their trade until disease or drink overtook them and they died without anyone noticing.
The figures given for the number of prostitutes in London are staggering. The life of a high-class prostitute may have looked desirable to a shop girl or servant working long hours for low pay, and he suggests that many “entered the profession knowingly and willingly”. But only a few would ever attract the attention of a wealthy aristocrat or politician who could provide for them, at least until they’d served their purpose. For most it was a “seedy life of depravity, degradation, poverty and debilitating illness”.
The pleasure gardens of Ranelagh and Vauxhall were popular paces for pick-ups and assignations, but Covent Garden figures prominently in accounts of where the best brothels were often located. Rendell names a few other areas where prostitutes could easily be found, but he selects Covent Garden as “the epicentre of whoredom”. The magistrate, John Fielding, said that: “One would imagine that all the prostitutes in the kingdom had picked upon the rendezvous”. There’s an illustration in Rendell’s book which shows a “young man (“a lobby flesh-monger”)” negotiating terms with an old woman for a “prime piece” standing nearby. It has a sub-title saying “Buying fruit at Covent Garden for an evening’s entertainment”. No-one looking at this illustration at the time would have been in any doubt about what was taking place.
The aim of all the young women who were either inveigled into prostitution, or went into it willingly, was to be taken up by one of the rich men who frequented the “taverns, the jelly houses and the brothels” in Covent Garden. If they were lucky they might land a duke or an earl, and get rich. Their names would then be mentioned in the gossip columns of the numerous newspapers (53 in London by 1776) and other publications. They were sometimes even painted by one of the foremost artists of the time, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and portraits of Kitty Fisher, Frances Abington, and others, can be seen in In Bed with the Georgians. Abington had talents besides providing sexual satisfaction for her gentlemen friends, and worked as an actress. She appeared at the Haymarket and the Drury Lane Theatre and was popular in the role of Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love.
As Rendell points out, “not all actresses were prostitutes, just as not all prostitutes strutted their stuff on the stage”, and he refers to Elizabeth Farren who arrived in London in 1776. She had some theatrical experience in Liverpool, and soon attracted attention on the London stage for her “portrayal of MissTittup in David Garrick’s farce Bon Ton or High Life above Stairs”. Later, she starred as Miss Hardcastle in Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer and Lady Teazle in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal. Charles James Fox was said to have “very publicly lusted after her”, but she seems to have had the sense to refrain from indulging in numerous affairs. The Earl of Derby fell in love with her, and the press then suggested that she was a “gold-digger”. There’s a print reproduced in the book which is entitled, Contemplation upon a Coronet, and clearly meant to imply that Farren was planning to get the Earl to marry her, which he did after his first wife passed away. Farren retired from the stage, raised several children, and died at what was, for the time, the respectable old age of 70.
Prints and portraits were not the only ways in which some of the notable courtesans were recognised and remembered. John Cleland’s scandalous novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in 1749, took its inspiration for the character of Fanny Hill from the real-life Fanny Murray. She had certainly worked as a prostitute and was in Jack Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, where she was described as “A good side-box piece, she will show well in the Flesh Market”. Murray certainly had numerous liaisons, including an episode with a notorious highwayman, and at one point looked like sinking into a pit of poverty and imprisonment for debt. But she married an actor and, to everyone’s surprise, “turned over a new leaf and appears to have remained a faithful and devoted wife throughout their marriage”.
John Cleland certainly knew at first-hand the world he wrote about in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Mike Rendell’s book focuses a great deal on the visual side (prints and portraits) of this world, but the denizens of Grub Street were the writers who supplied the gossip that the newspapers used. They wrote satirical, and pornographic, poems and prose, and anything else that brought in enough money to get by on. They were hacks for hire.
Grub Street was an actual street in London and was associated with struggling poets, playwrights, and any others prepared to try to make a living with a pen, or quill, as it would then have been. Norma Clarke’s recent, Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street (Harvard University Press, 2016), gives an insight into their world. Grub Street was later renamed Milton Street (see the illustration in Vic Gatrell’s The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age, Allen Lane, 2013), and was in the area now covered by the Barbican complex. Rendell quote from the Grub Street Journal and other publications to show what the hacks got up to. And charts the activities of Edmund Curll, who was highlighted in Pope’s The Dunciad, his attack on the Grub Street hacks. Rendell describes Curll as someone with a reputation as a “huckster” and a “peddler of indecent literature”. He wasn’t the only one active in that line.
It was, as Rendell makes clear, a man’s world, and the aristocracy, or at least some of them, indulged themselves to the full with gambling, drink, and sex. The men used prostitutes as well as seducing each other’s wives and daughters. To be fair, not all the women were innocents and they happily had affairs. Rendell mentions one high-class lady who rented a room in a brothel to meet her lovers. Her husband, meanwhile, was in the same establishment using the services of prostitutes.
Needless to say, venereal diseases, and especially syphilis, were widespread, and difficult to cure. When Lady Seymour Worsley appeared in court in a case involving her alleged infidelities with up to twenty-seven men, she was said to have contracted a venereal disease from the Marquis of Graham. There were suggestions that Lady Seymour’s husband was more than happy to encourage his wife to have sex with his friends, and a cartoon by Gillray showed her in bed with one man while nine queue on the stairs, and another is leaving by a nearby door. There was a television drama based on the trial not too long ago. As Rendell says, the press, and cartoonists such as Gillray, had a field day with anything like this, and the woman involved usually came off worst in their eyes and that of society in general. Lady Seymour lost custody of her children and had to agree to live abroad in order to get any maintenance from her husband, despite having brought a substantial fortune to the marriage.
Another lady who suffered from having made a wrong marriage was Mary Elizabeth Bowes, “one of the wealthiest heiresses in the whole of Europe”, which made her a target for men in search of a rich heiress or widow. The law at that time ruled that whatever a woman owned automatically belonged to her husband when she married. When Mary’s first husband died she met Andrew Robinson Stoney, “an Anglo-Irish adventurer” who conned her into marrying him by claiming to have been mortally wounded fighting a duel to protect her reputation. His dying wish was that they should be married, which they were, and Stoney then miraculously recovered. And, of course, had access to Mary’s money which he spent wildly while he treated her abysmally. As Rendell puts it: “In an Age characterised by violence, depravity and greed, he was perhaps without equal. Thirty years after the brute died, the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray used his story in his novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon”.
Other novels picked up on events of the day. Herbert Croft’s Love and Madness used the shooting of Martha Ray as the basis for its story. She had been taken up by the Earl of Sandwich and had several children by him. But a one-time soldier, who had become a vicar, developed a passion for her, though she rejected his advances more than once. Convinced that she was having an affair with someone else, as well as her relationship with the Earl, the Reverend James Hackman waylaid Martha and shot her. He was found guilty of her murder and hanged at Tyburn, which led to various poems and pamphlets about the case, as well as the aforementioned novel by Croft.
The curious Chrystal – the adventures of a guinea was published in 1760 and ran “to twenty four editions by 1800”. According to Rendell, “readers would have been able to identify the elderly Field Marshall, who wishes to have sex with a ten year old girl as John, Earl Ligonier, Commander of the British Forces. The old lecher was notorious for his paedophilia”. Rendell further notes that in 1760 The Town and Country Magazine reported that “as the old soldier increases in years, the age of his mistresses diminish and now he is near eighty, he gives it as his opinion that no woman past fourteen is worth pursuing”. That such comments could be openly published says a great deal about how those in high positions in what we would now call the Establishment could act with impunity. They knew full well they would never be accused of any crimes, or if they were they would never be convicted. Rendell adds that “other identifiable individuals in Chrystal are the Duke of St Albans, Lord Anson and Lord Deloraine, all infamous for their immorality and debauchery”.
There are many more such accounts and anecdotes included in In Bed with the Georgians that throw light on the period when sex and satire provided entertainment for a public anxious, just as they are now, to know everything about the fashionable and the famous. People delighted in the prints showing the sexual misdemeanours of others. The Prince Regent, no slouch himself when it came to sleeping around, was said to have amassed a collection of pornographic prints which were in the Royal Collection until they were destroyed when Queen Victoria came to the throne and high-minded morality went on parade. Anyone knowing even a little about the Victorian period will be aware that, underneath the surface veneer of politeness and purity, there was an underground of ,pornography, child abuse, and prostitution that was just as prevalent, if not as obvious, as it was at the time of the Georgians. But that’s another story.
Despite, or perhaps even because of, its sometimes sleazy subject-matter, In Bed with the Georgians is an entertaining book. Briskly written, and anecdotal in content, it moves quickly from subject to subject, and is sufficiently illustrated to complement the text. Being able to see the prints and portraits that Rendell refers to adds to its interest. There is a short, but useful bibliography.