Carrying on from the theme of my last blogpost on the darker side of London, my copy of The Secret History of Georgian London arrived this week. As always, Dan Cruickshank’s latest is a riveting read. The full title is The Secret History of Georgian London – how the wages of sin shaped the capital, which gives a better clue to the bit of Georgian London history this book concentrates on (and don’t you just love the cover…Cupid Unfastening the Girdle of Venus by Sir Joshua Reynolds, viewed through an elegant keyhole? ;0) ) Frances Wilson’s review in The Times describes it as ‘a colossal melting pot of a book: ambitious, rigorously researched, vigorously narrated and marvellously illustrated.’ I agree completely.
Georgian London evokes images of elegance and fine art, but it was also a city where prostitution was rife and many thousands of inhabitants were dependant in some way or other on the wages of sin. Cruickshank argues that the wages of sin came to affect almost every aspect of life and culture in the capital. The money generated was ploughed back into the wider economy. It shaped the buildings, impacted on the arts and aroused a variety of attitudes in contempories such as Sir Francis Dashwood and Samuel Johnson.
The ‘Winners & Losers’ chapter concentrates on the individual stories of two women. Sally Salisbury and Lavinia Weston were both from humble origins and both became prostitutes, but afterwards their lives took very different paths.
Renown for her beauty and wit, Sally achieved financial and social success, becoming a noted celebrity with a string of rich and powerful gallants. She also spent time in Marshalsea and Bridewell prisons for minor offences and debt. In 1713, she was sent to Newgate but was released by the judge who was infatuated with her. However, Sally’s hedonistic lifestyle caught up with her. In a drug or drink induced rage, she stabbed her lover, John Finch, second son of the Duchess of Winchelsea. He was gravely ill for a time but eventually recovered and forgave her. Sally was found guilty of stabbing and wounding Finch, but aquitted of attempted murder. She was fined and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. After serving nine months in Newgate, she died of ‘brain fever brought on by debauch’. Sally’s short life and sad end was, unfortunately, the more likely outcome for women involved in prostitution than the extraordinary rags-to-riches tale of Lavinia Fenton.
Lavinia Fenton became an actress in 1726. She was successful, but when she appeared as Polly Peachum in Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, she became the toast of London. On the opening night and on many subsequent nights, Lavinia was ogled from a box by Charles Paulet, 3rd Duke of Bolton. Although already (unhappily) married and older than Lavinia, he was besotted with her and, eventually, Lavinia gave up the theatre and ran away to France with the Duke. It appears to have been a happy and devoted relationship. The couple were together for twenty years and she bore him three illegitimate sons, Charles, Percy and Horatio Armand. The Duke even purchased the theatre box he had watched Lavinia from and had it installed in his local church as the family pew. On the death of the Duke’s wife in 1751, the couple married and Lavinia became a Duchess. The Duke died in 1754; Lavinia survived him by six years. She is buried in Greenwich.
William Hogarth’s painting A Scene from the Beggar’s Opera depicts Lavinia in the role of Polly Peachum, pleading for the life of Captain Macheath the highwayman. Her gaze, though, is focused on her smitten, real-life lover the Duke of Bolton, who can be seen on the far right in the audience.
A highly recommended read, Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History of Georgian London was published by Random House on 1st October.