Although many eighteenth century women were far from being docile and submissive, the laws were made by and in the main, for men, and consequently there were not as many career options for women then as there are today.
In general, it was expected that a woman’s role in life was to marry, look after the house and produce children. That’s not to say that women didn’t work outside the house, of course, especially if they were poor. Poorer women could work as servants, needlewomen, shop assistants and washerwomen, amongst others. There were women who ran their own businesses, although many of them either worked with their husbands, or continued his firm after he died, which was then considered perfectly acceptable.
However, if a woman found herself in a position of having to support herself without a partner, her prospects were very limited, and the jobs that were available usually involved working for long hours for a low wage. Consequently, the prospective earnings from prostitution could seem very enticing indeed, and a number of menial servants and factory workers entered this profession to try to improve their standard of living.
At this time, a woman was generally expected to remain a virgin until marriage. Of course many didn’t, and it was not uncommon for marriages to take place very hastily, when the bride was already heavily pregnant. But a good number of girls were seduced by men and then, when they got pregnant, were abandoned, and the prospects for such ‘fallen women’ were very poor. Few men would marry a woman who was known to be of easy virtue, and few people would employ one as a servant or other worker. So often these women if rejected by their family, had no choice but to starve or become prostitutes.
As with any profession, there were categories of prostitution, and the highest was the courtesan, which is the class of prostitute I will look at in today’s post.
Some courtesans were the kept mistresses of wealthy, often aristocratic men, and these ladies were at the very top of the profession. They would sleep only with the man who kept them rather than with a number of clients, and usually had their own household, which was often beautifully furnished. Some of these women effectively had a good deal of power in as far as they could influence the views of their male keepers, sometimes to an extraordinary extent, the most notable being the mistresses of the current monarch.
Some courtesans came from extremely low backgrounds, rising to be wealthy celebrities. One of the most extraordinary ‘rags to riches’ tales is of Lavinia Fenton. She was the illegitimate child of a sailor, whose mother, once ruined, decamped to London with her baby to make a new start. Once there, she married a coffee-house owner, then discovered that her husband was a brothel-keeper. The young Lavinia was first sent to boarding school, and then was pimped out by her mother, who was hoping to get a fine fee for her daughter’s maidenhead. However, while the mother was negotiating, Lavinia gave herself to a Portuguese nobleman, who was, however, shortly after the deflowered, imprisoned in the Fleet for debt.
Infatuated with him, Lavinia decided to become an actress to try to earn some money to help her lover, and this decision changed her life. At the age of nineteen, although inexperienced, she could sing well, she was given the role of Polly Peachum in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. This play proved to be a runaway success, and catapulted Lavinia to stardom.
In those days, this meant that she was courted by men of the aristocracy, who had seen her performance and became infatuated with her. One of these was the Duke of Bolton, who attended the first night of the opera, and returned night after night, to see Lavinia, eventually becoming her lover. As he was married, more than twice her age, and Lavinia was low-born, this caused a high-profile sensation, but nevertheless the relationship continued. Lavinia soon gave up acting, and during the next twenty years, lived with him and had three children by him. Finally, when his estranged wife died, he married her, and she became the Duchess of Bolton.
Women who rose from such low starts to such dizzy heights were incredibly rare, but those who did became extremely wealthy. A report published in 1782 stated that the top eight courtesans spent around £3,000 a year on ordinary expenses. To put this into some sort of perspective, a skilled tradesman at the time might earn around £50 a year.
Not all courtesans were the paid mistress of a sole nobleman, however. There were a number of West End courtesans who had a number of clients, but who lived in very luxurious apartments, and charged up to £50 a night for their services.
One famous example of such women was Kitty Fischer, who was painted on numerous occasions by Joshua Reynolds. Prostitutes would sit as life models for artists as they were less concerned about posing in the nude, and Reynolds used a number of them in his paintings. Kitty, however, may have become his lover; at the least they were close friends. Kitty herself seems to have courted notoriety, and became a legend when it was said that following a night with the Duke of York, (the king’s brother), she was so disgusted by the measly sum of £50 that he left for her in payment for her services, that she put the banknote between two slices of bread and butter, and ate it for breakfast.
She could not have chosen a better way to express her opinion of her own worth, and her contempt for anyone, even royalty, who failed to recognise that worth. This act rendered her universally famous, and it was said that she could command a hundred guineas for one night of her company. She certainly seems to have been a fascinating and very independent woman, an expert in self-promotion.
Some of these highly paid prostitutes (in London) were listed in Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies which was started in the 1740s, was updated annually, and became extremely popular, selling over 8,000 copies a year. It listed a number of young ladies, some high-class, some middle-class prostitutes, along with their addresses and their particular talents. Early editions of the List included some of the women who went on to become high-class courtesans such as Kitty Fisher.
It has now become a very useful account of many of the young women who were making something of a success of one of the few occupations open to single women where they could earn a very good wage, and be relatively independent.
Of course even these women, at the top of the tree as it were, had an uncertain life. They were all extremely aware that as they grew older they were likely to be cast aside for a younger, prettier woman, and even while young and beautiful had to do everything to ensure that they did not displease their keeper – if they did he could abandon them, leaving them homeless, and in some cases penniless, as they did not legally own any of the luxurious clothes or jewellery they wore. It is probably one reason why they sought to become celebrities, knowing that this would make them an attractive conquest for longer than if they were unknown.
However, the vast majority of girls who became prostitutes did not enjoy such success as those I’ve outlined here. In my next post I’ll look at the women who lived in the numerous bawdy houses or brothels that every city boasted, which I have addressed to some extent in my book The Whore’s Tale: Sarah.