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Also taking part in the Book Lovers Buffet is this week's guest blogger, Deborah Hale, writing as Elizabeth Charles.
For those of you who remember Deb from her previous visit here, she's a fellow author from my local writers' group, Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada.
It is fitting that I should blog about 18th century courtesans here at A Piece of My Mind, since the arts represent a common thread among these thirteen women.
Most acted or danced professionally at some point in their careers or modelled for portraits by famous artists of the day. Others wrote books about their lives or inspired others to write of them.
Courtesans were the Madonnas, JLos and Angelinas of their time, superstars whose glamorous lives were chronicled in the scandal magazines for the titillation of squire’s wives like Mrs. Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer.
Though they may have secretly envied the courtesans’ wealth, amazing clothes and sexual freedom, they could feel fortunate and virtuous when those women succumbed to debt, drugs, STDs or the toxic affects of lead based cosmetics. See what you think of these thirteen Baroque superstars…
1 - Gertrude Mahon was the half-sister of the Earl of Kerry. She eloped with a gamester who deserted her shortly after she gave birth. When her mother died and her half-brother refused to help her, the beautiful Gertrude went “on the town” to make a living. Her tiny size and love of bright-colored gowns earned her the sobriquet “The Bird of Paradise.” In later years she became an actress in Dublin then faded into obscurity.
2 -Harriet Powell worked in Charlotte Hayes’s famous brothel in King’s Place. That may be where she met the widowed Kenneth McKenzie Lord Seaforth. Harriet became his mistress and later his wife. He commissioned her portrait by Joshua Reynolds, in which she holds a little bird.
3 -Nelly O’Brien also modeled for Joshua Reynolds. After a brief career as an actress, she became the mistress of several prominent men including the Earl of Thanet and Viscount Bolingbroke, to whom she was rumoured to have borne sons.
4 -Nancy Parsons eloped to the West Indies with a Captain Horton. When he died or deserted her, she returned to England and became mistress to the Duke of Grafton. The duke flaunted her openly while he was prime minister, much to the shock of King George III. Nancy later became the mistress of the Dukes of Portland and Dorset and finally married a viscount fifteen years her junior. 18th century gossip Horace Walpole referred to her as 'the Duke of Grafton's Mrs. Horton, the Duke of Dorset's Mrs. Horton, everybody's Mrs. Horton'.
5 -George Anne Bellamy began life as the illegitimate daughter of Lord Tyrawley, British ambassador to Portugal, who had her educated in a French convent. She grew up to become an actress, playing Juliet to David Garrick’s Romeo. After many liaisons and years of extravagant living, she fell into debt and ill-health and wrote a book, An Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy, perhaps to raise some money.
6 -Kitty Fisher was another favourite of Sir Joshua Reynolds and was rumored to have spent £12,000 a year (over a million dollars in today’s money!) Beautiful, witty and well-educated, she became the subject of a nursery rhyme “Lucy Locket lost her pocket, Kitty Fisher found it…” She married the son of a Member of Parliament, and died of the effects of lead-based cosmetics.
7 -Nancy Dawson became so celebrated that she had a well-known melody named after her. It later became the tune for “Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush.” A dancer at Sadler’s Wells, she later danced a lascivious hornpipe (?!) in the Beggar’s Opera, which was acclaimed in a ballad.
8 -Polly Kennedy Jones inherited the house of her friend Nancy Dawson after Nancy died. Polly’s powerful patrons included Sir Charles Bunbury, Lord March, Lord Palmerston and George Selwyn. When her brothers were charged with murder, Polly used her influence to get their death sentences commuted, much to the outrage of the popular press.
9 -Anne Catley was the daughter of a coachman and a washer woman whose beauty and fine voice made her much sought after. Her fee for singing was 40 guineas a night (about $4000 today). She took a succession of lovers by whom she had ten children. She eventually settled in Ealing with a major-general and gave lots of money to charity. She died of consumption at the age of forty-five and had a book written about her.
10 -Grace Dalrymple Eliott began life as the convent-educated daughter of a Scottish lawyer. After her husband divorced her, “Dally the Tall” flitted between London and Paris, mistress to several wealthy, titled men including The Duc d’Orleans and the Prince of Wales. Imprisoned during the French Revolution, she managed to escape the guillotine and wrote a book about her adventures.
11 -Sophia Baddeley came from a family of musicians. At the age of 18 she eloped with an actor and went on the stage herself. Though she was not a very good actress, her looks and fine singing voice made her a celebrity. Estranged from her husband and running up debts, she began to take wealthy patrons including Lord Melbourne and the Duke of Northumberland. Extravagant spending and an addiction to laudanum brought about her downfall. She was the subject of a book written by her friend Eliza Steele.
12 -Emily Warren was recruited and trained by one of London’s most notorious madams after she was discovered begging on the streets. Reynolds painted her as Thais and lauded her “faultless and finely formed” figure. William Hickey wrote of Emily in his Memoires of a Georgian Rake. She was the mistress of his friend Bob Potts when she died suddenly of a fever in India.
13 -Elizabeth Armistead rose from obscurity to become the leading courtesan of her time. Unlike many who rose and fell from favor in a twinkling, Mrs. Armistead reigned for more than a decade. Her patrons included the Earl of Derby, the Duke of Dorset and the Prince of Wales, but her heart belonged to the young politicians of the Whig party. Her later life took an even more fascinating turn when she became the mistress and wife of the most celebrated man of her era. I was so enthralled with Elizabeth Armistead’s life and times that I used them as the basis for my novel Confessions of a Courtesan!
Thank you, Deb - I've been hanging on every word! It's the research obsessed in me.
Deb is offering a copy of her book to one lucky commenter. Good luck and Happy Thursday Thirteen!