SEX AND DEATH
RICH OR POOR A WOMAN’S FATE COULD BE THE SAME
WOMAN PLYING HER TRADE
There were two ways for a girl to get on in the 18th century and they both involved sex and the risk of disease followed by the likelihood of an early death.
The choice for most women was either wife or city prostitute. Prostitution was the riskier option and the option most likely to taken by the poor – women who had been abandoned and those who were widowed.
The 18th century saw the birth of commerce and a huge expansion of trade in the great cities of the world. The goods on offer were not only tea and sugar – there was a thriving trade in sex as well.
Sex was the commodity most often traded in 18th-century cities – sex with women, sex with men, and, sex with children.
Sex and the Age of Marriage
Since the 12th century in Europe, the onset of puberty was the acceptable time for marriage. This was about 12 for girls and around 14 for boys.
The first recorded age-of-consent law appeared in 1275 in England in the Statute of Westminster. It made it a misdemeanor to “ravish” a “maiden within age,” with or without her consent. The phrase “within age” was later interpreted by jurist Sir Edward Coke as meaning the age of marriage.
The American colonies followed the English tradition, but the law was more of a guide – Mary Hathaway (Virginia, 1689) was only 9 when she was married to William Williams.
In Europe, the situation was much the same.
Sex and the French Revolution
The advent of the French Revolution hardly changed at a thing for women and girls. The age of consent for sexual intercourse was set at 11 years for girls in 1791. How enlightened was that? In the 18th-century there was little understanding of childhood as a concept. Children were seen as “little adults” who were born sinful and subject to the corruptions of the flesh.
Sex and the Job Market
Women and female children were barred by law and convention from all but the most menial jobs in Europe and in the colonies. There was no chance of a woman making a decent living on her own so many were forced to make an indecent living for themselves.
Some women inherited property from their families when there was no male heir, there are plenty of examples of female innkeepers and shop owners but most of them were widows. The problem for a woman with property was that when she got married it became her husband’s. If the marriage was not a success she could be left with nothing.
With odds stacked against women economically, the trade in sex thrived. Thousands of women needed to make a living and the only thing most men would pay for was sex or sex with housework.
The Harlot’s Progress
William Hogarth’s six-part Harlot’s Progress of 1732 makes the lot of the prostitute visible in a straightforward way. The representation of Moll Hackabout’s journey into prostitution, from the innocent country girl we see arriving in London on the first plate through to her subsequent career as a harlot and her decline towards death in plate six, is generally acknowledged to mark a turning point both in British visual culture and in Hogarth’s career but it changed little for women like Moll.
Charlotte Hayes’ Nuns
Of course, taking control of their commercial assets was somewhat more difficult for the women, the commercial world was designed for men. However, some did. One such was a woman called Charlotte Hayes. Hayes ran a brothel or ‘nunnery’ in the parlance of the day. She grew wealthy on her girls, keeping a carriage and liveried servants for her ladies of the night. She taught her girls the manners and graces of elite London society to get a better price for them. One of these so-called ‘nuns’ was Emily Warren, an ‘exquisite beauty’ who became the muse to the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. She was discovered by Hayes leading her blind beggar of a father through the streets of London. The Georgian memoirist William Hickey described sleeping with her as follows;
‘Never did I behold so perfect a beauty. I passed a night that many would have given thousands to do. I, however, that night, experienced the truth – that she was cold as ice, seemingly totally devoid of feeling. I rose convinced that she had no passion for the male sex.’
Little wonder, perhaps. Emily Warren had, like so many other girls, become a prostitute at the age of 12.
Hayes dressed her girls in French silks and lace and promised they would ‘satisfy all fantasies, caprices, and extravagances of the male visitor, carrying out their every wish’.
Masquerade parties were a popular cover for anonymous sexual encounters. Among the most sought-after of these risque gatherings were those held by one Mrs. Cornley, reputedly a lover of Casanova; they were held in a grand house or ‘fairy palace’ in Soho Square. The parties were honeypots for prostitutes and pimps and saw peers of the realm mix with streetwalkers.
Inspired by the explorer-of-the-day James Cook‘s accounts of Tahitian erotic rituals, Charlotte Hayes organised a tableau in which ’12 beautiful nymphs, unsullied and untainted’. These nymphs were to be publicly deflowered by 12 young men as in ‘the celebrated rites of Venus’. Her disreputable business earned Hayes, a teenage prostitute herself, a fortune of £20,000 – a sum a working man would have to work 500 years to earn.
The Harris’ List
The centre of the Georgian sex trade was Covent Garden. There, men could not pass it without being accosted by women silently offering their arm or making lewd suggestions in their direction.
In the Covent Garden coffee shops and jelly houses, where exotic concoctions were eaten from tall glasses, hundreds of lavishly adorned women sat looking for business.
The infamous Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies was a directory of London prostitutes, circulating from the late 1740s. It detailed each girl’s charms. A typical entry in 1788, described Miss Lister, of 6 Union Street, Oxford Road. ‘She is painted by the masterly hand of nature, shaded by tresses of the darkest brown, with the neighbouring hills below full ripe for manual pressure, firm and elastic, and heave at every touch.’
A German visitor of the time observed prostitutes in the West End with these words. ‘Usually, a crowd of female creatures stand in front of the theatres, amongst whom may be found children of nine or ten years, the best evidence of moral depravity in London. In general, the English nation oversteps all others in immorality, and the abuses which come to light through addiction to debauchery are unbelievable.’
The dawn of the Victorian age and new attitudes to morality meant that prostitution gradually went underground but it did not go away. Streetwalking was made an imprisonable offence in the 1820s. For the whores, harlots, pimps, and courtesans of Georgian London, the party was over but their abuse was not.
The Secret History Of Georgian London, Dan Cruickshank
Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture: Sex, Commerce, and Morality, edited by Ann Lewis, Markman Ellis
Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-century British Literature and Culture, Laura J. Rosenthal
Find Books by Julia Herdman myBook.to/TalesofTooleyStreet
Princess Sophia Dorothea of Celle
This is the history of the shocking case of a Princess who was married against her will, spurned by her husband, divorced, and then imprisoned for 33 years.
Princess Sophia Dorothea of Brunswick- Lüneburg did not have a good start in life; she was born illegitimately; the daughter of her father’s long-term mistress, Eleonore d’Esmier d’Olbreuse, Countess of Williamsburg (1639–1722) on 15 September 1666.
Her father, Prince George William, Duke of Brunswick Lüneburg, eventually did the right thing and married his mistress which had the effect of legitimising his only child.
Sophia Dorothea was ten years old when she became heir to her father’s kingdom, the Principality of Lüneburg in Lower Saxony and this made her a highly attractive marriage prospect.
Like her mother, Princess Sophia-Dorothea was attractive and lively. At the age of sixteen, she has married her cousin, George Louis of Hanover, the future king of Great Britain and Ireland, in 1705. When she was told of the match Princess Sophia Dorothea shouted, “I will not marry the pig snout!”
George I of Britain
Twenty-two-year-old George Louis was not keen on the match either; he already had a mistress and was happy with his life as a soldier.
Although he was a prince he was ugly and boring, even his mother didn’t like him.
For his pains, George Louis received a handsome dowry and was granted his father-in-law’s kingdom upon his death; Princess Sophia-Dorothea was left penniless.
The unhappy couple set up home in Leine Palace in Hanover where Princess Sophia Dorothea was under the supervision of her odious aunt, the Duchess Sophia, and spied on by her husband’s spies when he was away on campaign.
Despite their unhappiness, the pair produced two children; George Augustus, born 1683, who later became King George II of Great Britain and a daughter born 1686 when Princess Sophia Dorothea was twenty.
Sophia Charlotte von Keilmannsegg.
Having produced two children George became increasingly distant from his wife spending more time with his dogs and horses and his nights with his mistress, the married daughter of his father’s mistress, a woman called Sophia Charlotte von Keilmannsegg, who was rumoured to be George Louis’ half-sister.
Aggrieved, lonely, and unhappy Princess Sophia Dorothea found a friend in the Swedish count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, (1665-1694) who was a soldier in the Hanoverian army. Philip was a year older than Princess Sophia Dorothea and the antithesis of her ugly, boorish husband.
Princess Sophia Dorothea was no saint. She was quick-tempered and rarely discrete. Her choice of Von Königsmarck as a lover was not the best. Königsmarck was a dashing handsome gigolo and the former lover of her father-in-law’s mistress, the Countess of Platen and the Countess had a jealous nature.
Königsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea began a love affair of clandestine trysts and physical love facilitated by coded correspondence through a trusted go-between. Their love affair did not stay secret for long. In 1692 the Duchess of Platen presented a collection of their correspondence to Princess Sophia Dorothea’s father-in-law, the Elector of Hanover.
Countess of Platen
Von Königsmarck was banished from the Hanoverian court but soon found a position in the neighbouring court of Saxony where one night when he was deep in his cups he let slip the state of affairs in the royal bedchamber of the house of Hanover. George Louis got wind of what had been said and on the morning of 2 July 1694, after a meeting with Sophia at Leine Palace, Königsmark was seized and taken away.
Princess Sophia-Dorothea never saw her lover again. George Louis divorced her in December and early the following year she was confined her to Schloss Ahlden a stately home on the Lüneburg Heath in Lower Saxony. She stayed there for the rest of her life. Her children were taken away from her and she was forced to live alone. She was probably one of the most unlucky royal women in history.
In August 2016, a human skeleton was found under the Leineschloss (Leine Palace, Hanover) during a renovation project; the remains are believed to be those of Swedish count, Philip Christoph von Königsmarck, (1665-1694).
Philip Christoph von Königsmarck (1665-1694)
History shows that when Princess Sophia Dorothea died in 1726 she had spent 33 years in her prison. Before she died she wrote a letter to her husband, cursing him for his treatment of her. A furious George forbade any mourning of her in Hanover and in London. George I died shortly after.
The Countess of Platen and George I were suspected of Von Königsmarck’s murder by both Princess Sophia-Dorothea and her children. The Countess was exonerated from any involvement in Von Königsmark’s death by the deathbed confessions of two of her henchmen so on whose orders Von Königsmarck met his death remains one of history’s mysteries.
What we do know is that his son George II never forgave his father for his treatment of his mother.
Notorious Royal Marriages: A Juicy Journey Through Nine Centuries of Dynasty By Leslie Carroll
The Georgian Princesses By John Van der Kiste
The history of letter writing is part of women’s history. Writing letters to family and friends was one of the new pastimes enjoyed by 18th-century middle-class women. Although the Post Office had been open since 1660 it was not until the 18th century that the use of letters for private correspondence took off. It was only then that middle-class women began to enjoy what had been until then an aristocratic luxury.
Should letters be personal and private, public or works of art? These were the questions being debated in the parlours of the 18th-century chattering classes.
For the 18th century household, the distinction between what was public and what was private was seldom straightforward. Controlling relatives or husbands were frequently concerned by the potential secrecy between correspondents, especially female ones. This gave rise to a general unease about the propriety of women’s letter writing.
Samuel Richardson’s fictional heroines, Pamela and Clarissa are repeatedly praised for their talents in letter-writing by their hosts. but it was an insult to a host if a lady refused to read aloud the contents of her correspondence. The contents of women’s letters were viewed by many in society as public property.
Letter writing was a place where a woman might show off her literary prowess in the same way she might demonstrate her ability on the pianoforte. But, as Richardson wrote to one of his female correspondents, Sophia Westcomb, in 1746, letter-writing was not only a social talent.
‘The Pen is almost the only Means a very modest and diffident Lady (who in Company will not attempt to glare) has to shew herself, and that she has a Mind. … her Closet her Paradise … there she can distinguish Her Self: By this means she can assert and vindicate her Claim to Sense and Meaning.’ (Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson)
Richardson’s sentiment was echoed and expanded by Virginia Woolf two centuries later when she wrote; ” A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This is the central theme of her book ‘A Room of One’s Own.’ In it, Woolf asserts that unlike their male counterparts, women are routinely denied the time and the space to produce creative works. Instead, they are saddled with household duties and are financially and legally bound to their husbands. By being deprived of rooms of their own, there is little possibility for women to rectify the situation. Woolf’s assertion, even in the mid 20th century was deemed revolutionary.
An example of a woman who used her letter-writing to assert their intelligence and enter the public sphere is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Montagu’s Letters from Turkey, written between 1716 and 1718 and published in 1762, were influential both as models of epistolary style and as anthropological works.
Other women followed where Montagu had led. Mary Masters’ ‘Familiar Letters’ (1755) discussed women’s education and domestic abuse. Hester Chapone published her ‘Letters on the Improvement of the Mind’ in 1773. These letters and Elizabeth Carter’s to Catherine Talbot were published in 1809, were referred to by Elizabeth Gaskell in ‘Cranford.’
After being estranged from her husband, Lady Sarah Pennington wrote ‘An Unfortunate Mothers Advice to Her Absent Daughters’. This was a book in a series of letters instructing women on religion, prayer, dress, needlework, the theatre, marriage, dancing, and other “feminine” pursuits. it was published in 1761.
Pennington wrote that a good marriage is rare. “So great is the hazard, so disproportioned the chances, that I could almost wish the dangerous die was never to be thrown for any of you.”
Lady Sarah also discusses the need for a certain “cheerful compliance” when it comes to men and their disagreeable habits. The book enjoyed much popularity and ran to three print runs, the last was in 1803. ((See Vivien Jones, “Mary Wollstonecraft and the literature of advice and instruction,” in Claudia Johnson, ed., Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (2002), 119-40, at 124).
In one of life’s ironies, it was men not women who would excel when it came to transposing the letter into literature and commercialising it. Perhaps this was because writing for a living was considered morally suspect for women. In an ideal world, women had no reason to seek financial independence through their writing. Nevertheless several of the major female novelists of the period began with the epistolary form.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Fanny Burney abandoned the epistolary form after her first novel Evelina and, most famously, Jane Austen dabbled with the form in her short story ‘Lady Susan’ subsequently finding a more satisfying form in the omniscient authorial narrative.
In its private capacity, the letter allowed a woman confined to the home to communicate outside the home with both men and women. While in the form of published letters it was a valuable platform from which publicly to assert women’s intellectual capabilities. Of course, the eighteenth century did not wholeheartedly embrace the potential of such a development. Both kinds of letters aroused contemporary criticism, but it was the suspicion aroused by private, domestic letters that inspired many of the novels of the period, exploiting as they do the potential scandals and secrets and it was female novelists such as Jane Austen who created the modern novel.
This article is based on an original article by Mona: https://blue-stocking.org.uk/2011/03/01/public-and-private-real-and-fictional-the-rise-of-womens-letter-writing-in-the-eighteenth-century/
The story of the Portland Vase encapsulates so much about the 18th century. It is a story of fascination with the classical world, the acquisition of antiquities and of technological and artistic excellence of British manufacture.
The vase that is known as the Portland Vase is a Roman cameo glass vase, dated to between AD 1 and AD 25. Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador in Naples, purchased it in 1778-1780 from James Byres, a Scottish art dealer, who had acquired it after it was sold by Cornelia Barberini-Colonna, Princess of Palestrina. Hamilton brought it to England and sold it to Margaret Cavendish-Harley, widow of William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland.
The vase is a Roman two-handled glass amphora dating to between the second half of the 1st century BCE and the early 1st century CE. It has a cameo-like effect decoration which perhaps depicts the marriage of Peleus and Thetis from Greek Mythology. Standing 24.5 cm in high and 17.7 cm at its maximum width it was made by blowing the dark cobalt blue coloured glass covered with a layer of opaque white cased glass. Large areas of the white glass were then removed to reveal the underlayer of blue. Areas of white were left and carved in relief to depict the scenes. The style of the decoration has led scholars to date the piece to the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). The fineness of detail of the decorative scenes is comparable to the highest quality Roman cut-gems and so it must be the work of a superbly talented gem-cutter or diatretarius.
The scenes on the vase are divided into two parts by a bearded head (perhaps with horns), one under each handle. The first scene has four figures which include a young man leaving a shrine in the countryside and wearing a cloak. The man holds the arm of a semi-naked woman sitting on the ground preoccupied with stroking an animal resembling a snake. Above the woman is the flying figure of Eros with his customary bow and a torch in his right hand. On the right is a bearded male standing between two trees and depicted in a contemplative mood with his chin resting on his hand.
The second scene on the other side of the vase shows three figures all sitting on rocks with a background of a single tree. On the left is a young male next to a column or pillar, whilst in the centre is a young woman with her arm raised to her head and holding a torch which hangs down to the ground. On the far right is another half-dressed woman who holds a sceptre or staff in her left hand.
The two-handled amphora vase is incomplete as it has lost its pointed base and the mouth of the vessel is curiously uneven in the cut. The base was repaired using a similar coloured disk carved in the same style and depicting Paris. Although it is remarkable that such a delicate object has survived at all from antiquity, the vase is not unique, as a similar type vase has been found at Pompeii which dates to the mid-1st century CE and depicts scenes from a grape harvest. However, these cameo-cut vessels are regarded as something of an experiment in Roman glassware, carried out in a limited period spanning just two generations, so they were almost certainly not commonly produced.
It was sold again in 1786 and passed into the possession of the duchess’s son, William Cavendish-Bentinck, the 3rd Duke of Portland who lent it to Josiah Wedgwood who copied it in his new jasperware.
Wedgwood devoted four years of painstaking trials to achieve the perfection required to replicate the vase. He had problems with cracking and blistering and the sprigged reliefs ‘lifted’ during firing. In 1786 he feared that he would never be able to apply the Jasper relief thinly enough to match the glass original’s subtlety and delicacy. However, his copy of The Portland Vase was placed in a private exhibition in Greek Street, Soho, during April and May 1790. The exhibition was so popular that visitor numbers had to be restricted.
Wedgewood’s success inspired a 19th-century competition to duplicate its cameo-work in the glass, with Benjamin Richardson offering a £1,000 prize to anyone who could achieve that feat. Taking three years, glassmaker Philip Pargeter made a copy and John Northwood engraved it, to win the prize. This copy is in the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.
After a long history of changes in ownership, disaster struck in 1845 when the vase was smashed to pieces in the British Museum. Fortunately, it has since been painstakingly restored so that it can once more take its rightful place amongst the very finest masterpieces of Roman art.
The Wedgwood Museum, in Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent, contains a display describing the trials of replicating the vase, and several examples of the early experiments are shown.
The original Roman vase can be seen in the British Museum.