SELF-PROMOTION AND EXPLOITATION
The rising popularity of courtesans was therefore part of a whole series of interrelated developments in eighteenth-century society. It was the product of new attitudes to fame and notoriety, of novel forms of writing, of changing attitudes towards public opinion, and of shifting assumptions about personal identity. It also epitomized the emergence of a new type of mass media, in which private affairs and personal opinions were publicized on a previously unthinkable scale. Its lasting significance can be interpreted in two contrasting ways.
The first is to highlight the artificiality of material that celebrated immoral women. A lot of it – whether memoirs, or anecdotes, or portraits – was designed, at least superficially, to look truthful. Yet if we look closer it is equally evident that most of it was made up, by male writers and publishers. As with all biography, one attraction seems to have been the promise of authenticity, the revelation of private information and secrets about well-known people. So tempting are the style and format of many made-up accounts, and so scarce other sources, that many modern historians, and even the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, have tended to treat them as essentially true.1 We should also remember, though, that eighteenth-century readers loved ambiguity about fact and fiction. Whether or not particular stories were accurate was ultimately not necessarily important: their purpose was to entertain and to instruct. From this perspective, most writing about courtesans was no different, in form and function, from contemporary fiction. It can tell us quite a lot about eighteenth-century culture, but very little about the women it purported to describe. As much as it reflected and amplified their fame, it also distorted and abused it, projecting onto them, without their consent, other people’s lies and fantasies.
Yet reputation in any society is not just a matter of public perception and projection. It also depends on one’s own actions. The other way to interpret the publicity surrounding infamous women in the eighteenth century is therefore to recognize their own complicity in it. Many of them cultivated their own celebrity, indeed broadcast it loudly. Much of this was done through personal appearance, word of mouth, and manuscript correspondence within the circles of fashionable society. However, leading courtesans also actively promoted themselves, in print, to a much wider public audience.
One way they did this was through the publication of authorized prints, in which they collaborated with some of the leading artists, engravers, and publishers of the period. We can date the point at which this practice took off with remarkable precision. In the last week of March 1759, the courtesan Kitty Fisher took out a newspaper advertisement, deploring the constant exploitation of her persona by base ‘little scribblers’ and print-sellers, who foisted spurious writings and images of her upon the public (it is printed at the head of this chapter). A few days later, she went to see the most successful painter of her day, Joshua Reynolds, who immediately set to work crafting more appealing images of her, for conversion into mass – market prints. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership, for no one was more adept than Reynolds at the creation and manipulation of visual celebrity. From then on, he painted major portraits of the leading demi-mondaines of the time, exhibited them prominently, and got them published as cheap prints in all shapes and sizes. Like other portraitists who took up the practice, he was simultaneously boosting his own public profile, and fuelling the celebrity of his sitters, to their mutual benefit (see plates 16 to 18, and illustration 45).1
This was also the age in which scandalous women first published real autobiographies and vindications of their own behaviour. Such writings served a variety of purposes. They allowed the author to present a favourable picture of herself to the world, and to name and shame her enemies. They earned her money from eager readers and booksellers. Most lucrative of all was the practice of blackmailing former lovers and clients, by threatening to publish their names and letters. This was one of the central aims of the serialized Apology of the courtesan Teresia Constantia Phillips, which was a runaway bestseller when it started appearing in 1748. In the same year were published the first two volumes of the Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, denounced by her estranged husband as ‘an incorrigible prostitute’. By 1800 the genre had become well established. When Margaret Leeson, the most fashionable prostitute and brothel-keeper of eighteenth – century Dublin, found herself down on her luck in the 1790s, it was thus obvious to her what to do. Like any modern celebrity seeking to capitalize on her moment of fame, she began publishing her memoirs. In three volumes, over several years and several hundreds of pages, she told all, drawing on her extensive private papers, accounts, and correspondence. It was a heady brew. There was the inevitable narrative of her own seduction into unchastity and courtesanship, with vignettes of her many keepers; the even fuller story of her life as a madam to some of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom; copious tales of high jinks in high society; letters from her lovers; histories of all the famous prostitutes she had known; and endless details of sexual commerce and scandal (see illustration 50). No wonder the work was ‘bought up with the greatest avidity’.3
This development overlapped with the growing use of sexual histories as political weapons. There was obviously a long history of discrediting political opponents by associating them with sexual scandal: the tactic itself was not new in the eighteenth century. But three things were. Mass opinion was now increasingly acknowledged to be a legitimate, important, and inescapable arena of political debate. This was an idea that can already be glimpsed in the revolutions of the 1649 and 1688; a hundred years later it had advanced exponentially. The second change was the incomparably greater power of publicity. In previous centuries most politico-sexual satire had been transmitted only orally or in brief, ephemeral, manuscript lampoons and libels. Now there had grown up entire genres of permanent, widely circulated public print devoted to the exposition of sexual scandal. Fictional memoirs, newspapers, titillating magazines, and satirical prints – all of them were regularly used, overtly or surreptitiously, to undermine politicians by associating them with particular courtesans or general immorality.
The final novelty was the increasing use of sexual satire for radical political purposes: not just to attack particular individuals, or even to condemn a particularly licentious court, but to agitate against the whole corrupt system of aristocracy and monarchy. From the 1760s onwards, French writers based in London put out an extraordinary stream of slander and pornography directed against the French church and government. Some of them were motivated more by greed than by principle, but the effect of their writings was the same. As Robert Darnton and other historians of eighteenth-century France have skilfully revealed, this flood of scandalous material helped shape French public opinion and seriously undermined the legitimacy of royal government, both before and after 1789. By the 1790s, English writers and publishers were increasingly adopting the same tactics in their
appeals to a mass audience. In the radical underworld of late Georgian London, the publication of anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic pornography came to be closely intertwined with the advocacy of democratic and revolutionary politics.4
Most extraordinary of all was the huge campaign of sexual muckraking, blackmail, extortion, and scandalous publicity orchestrated by, for, and against George IV’s estranged wife, Queen Caroline, between 1806 (when he was still prince regent) and 1821 (when she died). He was a notorious rake; she was plausibly alleged to have taken lovers of her own. Their antagonism became a battle for public opinion that provoked hundreds of thousands of middle – and working-class men and women into serious political demonstrations and agitation across the land. It was waged in every medium of print, by every class of politician, from the king and queen themselves down to the lowliest Grub Street hacks (see plate 19).
Queen Caroline was in an exceptional position, and she always maintained her innocence. Yet by 1800 the media revolution had made it possible even for avowedly immoral, low-born women to manipulate their sexual power to previously unheard-of political and commercial effect. In no former age, for example, would a royal mistress have dreamed of challenging monarchical authority or of exposing sexual scandals to a mass public. Now this was exactly what happened, repeatedly. In 1781, the actress, author, and feminist Mary Robinson, who also happened to be one of the most celebrated courtesans of her day, publicly threatened to publish the letters of her former lover, the Prince of Wales – until she was granted a ‘reward’ of £5,000 and an annuity for life. In 1806, when the Duke of York cast off his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, without an adequate financial settlement, she likewise threatened to publish details of their affair. Then, when it became public knowledge that she had been at the centre of a ring of bribery and corruption, trafficking in the duke’s patronage over army, church, and civil service positions, she colluded in several ghost-written pamphlets excoriating the royal family. Finally, she had printed 18,000 copies of a sensational memoir, complete with the duke’s love-letters to her. Her reward was a gigantic pay-off from the government (a lump sum of £10,000, and large annuities for life for her and her daughter), in return for the suppression of this dangerous
text (see plate 20). The great courtesan Harriette Wilson went further still, maximizing her profits through a combination of extortion and titillation. First she announced the imminent appearance of her memoirs, which caused consternation amongst her innumerable former lovers, not least the king. Next she wrote privately to each man, threatening to expose him unless he immediately sent her hundreds of pounds. This tactic alone netted her several thousand pounds. Then her advance publicity advertised the names of those clients who were included in the book. Finally, the work was published, in instalments, to overwhelming success, bringing her many thousands more. In its first year alone it ran to thirty-one editions, in addition to innumerable pirated, plagiarized, and spurious versions (see plate 21).5
The eighteenth century thus saw the rise not just of novel forms of communication and new attitudes towards publicity, but also of a new type of immoral female celebrity. Such women did not shy away from scandal: they revelled in it. When James Boswell first met his future mistress, Mary Rudd, in 1776, she was already notorious, and proud of it. ‘Oh Sir,’ she cried when he introduced himself, ‘pray sit down – I have often heard of you, we are both characters – pray Sir, sit down.’ This self-consciousness, the awareness of being a character in the public gaze, was a key ingredient in the culture of celebrity. It fuelled the careers of successful prostitutes as it did those of female writers and performers. Such public assertiveness was never the preserve of more than a small minority of sexually independent women. It was widely deplored by conservative commentators. In the course of the nineteenth century it was to come under sustained attack. Nevertheless, its emergence after 1700 marked a watershed in the perception, and the self-presentation, of female sexuality.6