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 Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857) was the lover of Klemens von Metternich. She was the wife of Prince Khristofor Andreyevich Lieven, Russian ambassador to London from 1812 to 1834.
Considered cold and snobbish by London Society Dorothea was not an instant success when she arrived fresh from the Russian court. Her destiny was however to become the lover of one of greatest men in European history.
Her long elegant neck earned her the nickname, “the swan” by those who loved. She was called“the giraffe” by those who did not. Reputation did not bother her. Dorothea was not after friendship she was after power and she used all her intelligence, charisma, and social skills to get it. Her aim was to influence others to support the Tsar and the Holy Alliance. She was passionate about defeating Napoleon and reestablishment of absolutist monarchy in Europe. Not only did she become the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Metternich’s lover she was also reputed to have had affairs or at least very close friendships with Lord Palmerston, Lord Castlereagh and Lord Grey while she was in London.
Her hard work paid off and soon invitations to Dorothea’s home became the most sought after in capital. She was the first foreigner to be elected a patroness of Almack’s where she is said to have introduced the waltz in 1814. The waltz was a dance considered riotous and indecent. It was first danced when Tsar Alexander came to town in 1814. This was when Dorothea first met Metternich. It seems they took an instant dislike to one another. She thought he was cold and intimidating and far too self- important. He dismissed her as just a pretty woman travelling in the Tsar’s wake and treated her with complete indifference.
Some four years later, the pair met again at the Dutch Ambassador’s party at Aix-La-Chappelle. Sitting next to each other they found they had much in common – they both hated Napoleon. Their notorious liaison began a few days later when Dorothea entered the Prince’s apartment incognito.
Prince of Metternich-Winneburg-Beilstein; (1773 – 1859)
In Metternich, Dorothea had found her equal. The Prince was a man who could satisfy her physically, emotionally and intellectually. She wrote, “Good God! My love, I know how to rejoice in so few things, do you understand what makes me feel true happiness, it is you, only you! My Clement, if you cease to love me what will become of me? … My dear friend promise to love me as much as I love you; our lives are pledged in this promise.”
In Dorothea, Metternich had met the woman of his dreams; she could match his intellect and his passion. He wrote, “My happiness today is you. Your soul is full of common sense your heart is full of warmth … You are as a woman what I am as a man.”
Their heated, clandestine affair soon succumbed to the requirements state. They met occasionally but corresponded frequently. Like many illicit lovers, they were tortured by their separation and the knowledge they could never be together.
Dorothea was well aware of Metternich’s reputation as a libertine seducer. She knew he had a string of women following him and in his bed. She continued the relationship for eight years. Finally, she heard that he had thrown her over for a younger woman. Desolate, she broke off their relationship in 1826. By the end, references to Metternich in her letters were cold and spiteful. Time did not heal her broken heart. She had nothing good to say about him or his third wife when she saw him in Brighton in 1849. she describes him as “slow and tedious” and his wife as “stout and well-mannered.”
She ended her days in Paris as the ‘wife’ of the French politician Guizot. It was said that although she was a widow she refused to marry Guizot because it would mean giving up her title ‘Serene Highness’. This was something the proud and regal woman was never going to do. Like her former lover, she was ancient regime through and through.
Dorothea died peacefully at her home in Paris, aged 71, in January 1857. She is a recurring minor figure in many historical novels, notably those of Georgette Heyer. Heyer portrays her as a haughty, formidable, and unapproachable leader of society. In The Grand Sophy she is described as “clever and amusing”, and there is a passing reference in that book to her role in political intrigues. Metternich died in Vienna two years later aged 86. He was the last guardian of the ancient regime, which had long since passed into history.
Princess Dorothea von Lieven (1785 – 1857)
Dorothea Lieven: A Russian Princess in London and Paris, 1785-1857 By Judith Lissauer Cromwell
The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics After Napoleon By Brian E. Vick
1815: The Roads to Waterloo By Gregor Dallas
Princess Sophia, aged 5 in 1782 by Thomas Gainsborough. The Royal Collection.
This is the sad story of Princess Sophia. An unworldly and shy woman who was seduced by a man 33 years her senior, gave birth to his illegitimate child and was blackmailed by her son to pay his father’s debts.
According to biographer Christopher Hibbert, in her young adulthood Princess Sophia, the 5th daughter of King George III, was a “delightful though moody girl, pretty, delicate and passionate.” She was devoted to her father, though she occasionally found him exasperating. She wrote that “the dear King is all kindness to me, and I cannot say how grateful I feel for it.”
The King had told his daughters he would take them to Hanover and find them suitable husbands despite misgivings concerning marriage; he was well aware of his sisters’ experience. His eldest sister, Augusta had never fully adapted to life in Brunswick after her marriage to Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. She did not like the German court and they did not like her. Her situation was made worse by the fact that her eldest sons were born with disabilities.
George’s sister Caroline had suffered a far worse fate; at the age of 15, she was married to her cousin, Christian VII of Denmark in 1766. A year later her husband abandoned her for his mistress Støvlet-Cathrine publicly declaring that he could not love Caroline because it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife”. Caroline was left neglected and unhappy as her young husband sank into a mental stupor of paranoia, self-mutilation, and hallucinations.
A Royal Affair is a 2012 historical drama film directed by Nikolaj Arcel, starring Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, and Mikkel Følsgaard.
She took comfort with her husband’s doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, and Enlightenment man who ran Denmark with the half-crazed King introducing widespread reforms. The affair between Caroline and Struensee resulted in Caroline giving birth to his child, her divorce, and Struensee’s execution in 1772. Caroline, retaining her title but not her children, eventually left Denmark and passed her remaining days in exile at Celle Castle in Hanover. She died there of scarlet fever on 10 May 1775, at the age of 23.
George was unable to keep his promise due to his own ill health but when Sophia was born the King went to Parliament to negotiate allowances for his daughter and his younger sons. Like her siblings, Sophia was to receive an allowance of £6,000 a year either upon her marriages or the king’s death. This would have made her an attractive marriage prospect but Sophia ruined what prospects she had when she met and fell in love with one of her father’s equerries, Colonel, Thomas Garth, a man thirty-three years her senior.
Garth had a large purple birthmark on his face, causing Sophia’s sister Mary to refer to him as “the purple light of love.” Courtier and diarist Charles Greville, on the other hand, described him as a “hideous old devil,” and one of her ladies-in-waiting wrote, “the princess was so violently in love with him that everyone saw it. She could not contain herself in his presence.”
Princess Sophia, 1792 by Sir William Beechey. The Royal Collection.
Sophia’s downfall came when she found herself pregnant with Garth’s child. Although there has been much debate amongst historians as to whether the child was Garth’s or her uncle’s, the Duke of Cumberland’s, Thomas Garth adopted the child, educated him and brought him into his regiment calling him his nephew.
Sophia never married and remained at court until her mother Queen Charlotte died. After the queen’s death, Sophia lived in Kensington Palace next to her niece Princess Victoria of Kent, the future Queen Victoria. Like her sister-in-law the Duchess of Kent, Sophia fell under the spell of Victoria’s comptroller Sir John Conroy and let him manage her money. The lonely and unworldly Sophia fell under Conroy’s spell and he used her affection to rob her.
Her son, Tommy Garth of the 15th Hussars (1800-1873), learned of his true heritage when his father thought he was on his deathbed in 1828. With the family deep in debt, he tried to blackmail the royal family with evidence of his mother’s true identity. As historian Flora Fraser writes, all parties played unfairly. The royal family offered young Garth £3,000 for his box of evidence; they took the box but did not pay him so he went to the papers. The press dug up the gossip concerning the possibility of the Duke of Cumberland being his true father making the latter part of Sophia’s life very difficult.
Princess Sophia, 1825 by Thomas Lawrence in The Royal Collection.
Charles Greville summed Sophia up with he wrote in his diary in May 1848, shortly after she died: “Princess Sophia died a few days ago, while the Queen [Victoria] was holding the Drawing-room for her Birthday. She [Sophia] was blind, helpless, and suffered martyrdom; a very clever, well-informed woman, but who never lived in the world.”
Fraser, Flora (2004). Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6109-4.
Hibbert, Christopher (2000). George III: A Personal History. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02724-5.
Hibbert, Christopher (2001). Queen Victoria: A Personal History. De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81085-9.
We’re now into the second series of the BBC’s block buster drama Versailles and it’s hot stuff. The court which is so glamours from the outside is imploding with the intrigue and corruption that will see its end a century later in the Revolution where Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité will replace the divine right of kings.
Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (September 17, 1743–March 28, 1794)
Whilst the Revolution created modern France little is spoken of in terms of its effects on women. Shockingly women were barred from political rights even as they were being proclaimed to be universal and inalienable and in 1793 because they were deemed to lack sufficient education to participate in the nation’s political life and by the autumn of that year women were also barred from participating in clubs and societies.
But not all Frenchmen and revolutionaries were against women’s rights. Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (September 17, 1743–March 28, 1794) was one such man. In 1786 at the age forty-two, he married the twenty-two year old Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822), with whom he forged a loving relationship. The pair shared similar political convictions and developed a solid intellectual partnership.
Like her husband, de Grouchy was committed to bringing about major judicial and political reforms in France; and her own experiences of convent schooling had left her with fierce dislike of the Church and a commitment to secular values. They both dreamed and worked towards a liberal, rational and democratic France.
In 1790 as the French Revolution was well under way her husband called for “the admission of women to the rights of citizenship” but he was widely opposed on the grounds that women were innately inferior and destined to only to be wives and mothers.
In 1791, along with Thomas Paine, the Condorcets founded la Société républicaine [the Republican Society], sometimes credited as the first republican society in France; and Mme de Condorcet translated Paine’s writings for the journal of the Society, La Républicain ou défenseur du gouvernement représentatif [The Republican or defender of representative government].
In the autumn of 1792, the Marquis was elected to the National Convention of the newly constituted first French Republic, and became chairman of the Committee on a Constitution. He proposed what became known as, “La Girondine” a constitution that was rejected in favour of the Jacobin Constitution, in June 1793 and his impassioned defence of La Girondine led to an order for his arrest and he was forced to flee from his beloved France.Separated from one another de Condorcet wrote until he was found dead in prison cell under suspicious circumstances while his wife worked on her own text known as Lettres à Cabanis sur la sympathie [Letters to Cabanis on Sympathy], in which she sets forth her own ideas on achieving “a society of happiness” and struggles with the question of what holds society together while her own life and the life of the nation was being rent asunder under in the Terror.
Rendered penniless by her husband’s proscription then death Sophie needed to work to support herself, her child and her sister so she opened a shop and put aside her writing and translation work for years until she eventually published a translation of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in 1798, adding eight letters, Lettres sur la Sympathie, commenting upon this work. This became the standard French translation for the next two centuries. Her eight letters on sympathy were however ignored by historians of economic thought, and were only recently (2008) translated into English.
In the French Revolution gender becomes a condition for the possession of political rights for the first time and it is a sad irony that it was used to bar the women of France from the ballot until 1944. During the revolution which was supposed to free the French people men used their power to take what power women had gained in its early days away from them as well as many of the advancements in civil law passed in the euphoria of the 1790s which were withdrawn by Napoleon, and not again fully secured until the latter half of the twentieth century.
The Marquis de Condorcet was symbolically re- interred in the Panthéon in 1989, in honour of the bicentennial of the French Revolution and Condorcet’s role as a central figure in the Enlightenment. He started his academic life as a mathematician then transferred those skills into social and political affairs developing a model he called “social arithmetic”. He could be called the ‘father of statistics’ because he advocated the use of statistics and probability theory, to the financial reforms, the reform of hospital care, jury decision-making and voting procedures.
Sophie’s contribution to modern political and economic thought is now being properly evaluated and recognised particularly in the United States where her contribution to the discussion on the nature of liberty is now being widely acknowledged. In a world of political and social turmoil she advocates that educators and social reformers should nurture ‘sympathy’ the feeling for others induced by imagining yourself in another’s place and imagining how you would feel. In this way, people would be led to strive to maintain good relations with their fellows and provide the basis both for specific benevolent acts and for the general social order. Sympathy may be an old idea but I think its a good one and many of our politicians and economists would do well to consider it once more.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on:
Amazon New Zealand
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Illustrations: Sophie de Grouchy (1764–1822)
The Status of Women in Classical Economic Thought edited by Robert William Dimand, Chris Nyland
The Blue Stockings Society was founded in the early 1750s by Elizabeth Montagu (seen above), Elizabeth Vesey and others as a women’s literary discussion group, a revolutionary step away from traditional, non-intellectual, women’s activities. They invited both women and men to attend, including botanist, translator and publisher Benjamin Stillingfleet. One story tells that Stillingfleet was not rich enough to have the proper formal dress, which included black silk stockings, so he attended in everyday blue worsted stockings. The term came to refer to the informal quality of the gatherings and the emphasis on conversation over fashion.
Diarist, James Boswell wrote, “It was much the fashion for several ladies to have evening assemblies, where the fair sex might participate in conversation with literary and ingenious men, animated by a desire to please. These societies were denominated Bluestocking Clubs”.
It was a loose organisation of privileged women with an interest in education to gather together to discuss literature while inviting educated men to participate. The women involved in this group generally had more education and fewer children than most English women of the time. These women preferred to challenge the traditional view of what was ‘becoming’ such as proficiency in needlework and knitting preferring to read Greek or Latin, and many of the most immodest texts so they had their critics. Among them was one of their own members Mrs. Barbauld. Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743 – 1825) was a prominent “woman of letters” who published in multiple genres; Barbauld had a successful writing career at a time when female professional writers were rare. To find out more about her read my blog No Exaggerated Praise. Barbauld wrote, “The best way for a woman to acquire knowledge is from conversation with a father, or brother, or friend.”
The original bluestocking circle included Hester Thrale, Hannah More, Hester Chapone, Mary Delany, Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland, Elizabeth Carter, Sir Joshua Reynolds and his sister Frances, Fanny Burney, Samuel Johnson, William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, James Boswell, David and Eva Garrick, Edmund Burke, George Lyttelton, Mrs Ord, Mrs Crewe and Benjamin Stillingfleet the man with the blue stockings.
The group has been described by many historians and authors as having preserved and advanced feminism due to the advocacy of women’s education, social complaints of the status and lifestyle expected of the women in their society as expressed by Elizabeth Montague in 1743. “In a woman’s education little but outward accomplishments is regarded … sure the men are very imprudent to endeavour to make fools of those to whom they so much trust their honour and fortune, but it is in the nature of mankind to hazard their peace to secure power, and they know fools make the best slaves.”
By the early 1800s, this sentiment had changed, and it was much more common to question “why a woman of forty should be more ignorant than a boy of twelve?”
The term ‘Blue Stocking’ today refers to an intellectual woman and the name is used frequently by feminist organisations and businesses, for example:
- Bluestockings (bookstore), a feminist bookshop in New York
- Bluestocking (magazine), a Japanese feminist magazine, Bluestocking (Seitō; 青鞜) was a Japanese feminist magazine founded in 1911 by a group of 5 women including Raichō Hiratsuka, Yasumochi Yoshiko, Mozume Kazuko, Kiuchi Teiko and Nakano Hatsuko, all founding members of the Bluestocking Society (Seitō-sha；青鞜社).Many members were referred to and referred to themselves as “New Women” (shin-fujin；新婦人). This term denoted women who wore fashionable Western dress, socialized with men in public, and chose their own romantic partners. Many in the press used this term pejoratively, but the members of the Seitō-sha rejected these negative connotations and embraced an identity as leaders in the reform of gender relations.
Though originally focusing on women’s literature, the magazine soon shifted focus towards women’s liberation, and the pages of Seitō are filled with essays and editorials on the question of gender equality. In many of these, members of the group air their differing opinions on issues of the day, such as the importance of a woman maintaining her virginity before marriage. Legalized prostitution, abortion, and women’s suffrage were also the subject of animated discussion. Such writings caught the attention of the Ministry of Home Affairs because criticism of the system of private capital (capitalism) was banned under the Public Order and Police Law of 1900. Two other issues would be banned by the Ministry’s censorship bureau and removed from store shelves because their frank expressions of female sexuality were deemed threats to public morality.
Even more than the content of the journal, the private behavior of the core members of the Bluestocking society drew public criticism. Several of them engaged in affairs with married men, rumors of which the press exploited with gusto. But this was not separate from the journal, because members of Bluestocking often wrote essays and semi-autobiographical stories that described their struggles to form equal relationships based on mutual romantic attachment (rather than through arranged marriage) both inside and outside of marriage. Their frank discussions about premarital sex and their advocacy for women’s independence in this regard led to further public condemnation.
An exhausted Hiratsuka turned over the reins to Noe Itō in 1915. Ito produced the journal with little assistance for almost another year. Its last issue was published in February 1916.
- M.P., an 1811 comic opera by Thomas Moore and Charles Edward Horn, subtitled The Blue Stocking
- Bluestockings: the Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, a 2009 book by Jane Robinson
- Blue Stockings (play), a 2013 play by Jessica Swale
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.42 Also available on:
Amazon New Zealand
Amazon South Africa