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fifty shades of titillation

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,

Kitty Fisher found it;

Not a penny was there in it,

Only ribbon round it.

A childhood nursery rhyme, often accompanied by a Kate Greenway, cutesy illustration. I recently discovered that Kitty Fisher was a famous eightenth-century courtesan. Sex work may seem an unlikely subject matter for children's ears but many nursery rhymes started life as ribald, adult ballads: their message understood in their day, but now merely chanting songs with pleasing sounds and meter.

Kitty Fisher was born around the same time as Peg. She too was beautiful, charming and audacious. Casanova tells a story where she ate a bank note worth a thousand guineas on a slice of bread and butter just because she could. Another anecdote tells of her falling off a horse as a publicity stunt. She 'fell' in St James' Park, the in-place to see and be seen, revealing (with shades of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct) a pertness of both attitude and thigh.

The eighteenth century was a good time for the good-time-gal. Previously held religious and medical beliefs about sexuality were being replaced with new ideas from natural science and philosophy. Increased urbanisation provided greater opportunities for interaction and anonymity. In addition, a burgeoning print industry fed an expanding reading public with erotica. Books such as 'Moll Flanders' (Daniel Defoe, 1722) and 'Fanny Hill' (John Cleland, 1748) proved popular. The more bawdy work of illustrator, Thomas Rowlandson, left little to the imagination.

One of the most popular books, with a circulation about 8,000 copies a year, was 'Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies'. This book was an annual directory which described physical appearances and sexual specialities of the 'Impures' of Georgian London.

Historian and author, Hallie Rubenhold, suggests that gentlemen could use the List in one of two ways. For the price of two shillings and six pence (about €15):

the reader received a six-by four-ich volume that, like any useful guidebook, could be slipped into a waistcoat pocket. It could be put to immediate use on the streets of London or taken home secretly and consumed in private.

Dublin had no equivalent of the Harris's List, although Peg may have consulted the directory when she opened her latest house in fashionable Pitt Street in 1784. She writes about ordering:

a fresh importation of delicious Fille-de-Joys, chosen by myself from the purlieus of Convent Garden and Drury Lane.

While the Harris' List was popular, the public's acceptance for passion seems to be confined to the page. In real life, the demi-monde were expected to remain in the shadows. Peg tells us of an incident where she was refused entry to the Theatre Royal in Smock Alley. A visiting impresario, Signor Carnivalli, had declared courtesans and others with dubious sexual reputations were unwelcome at his performances. Peg saw this as a personal challenge.

She managed to gain entry and was proceeding towards the best seats when specially hired bully-boys, picked her up and carried her outside. Out-raged and with the help of some clients she arranged for Signor Carnivalli and the bully-boys to be arrested on the charge of assault and robbery (for detaining the ticket she had paid for) and held for a few hours in Newgate Prison. The following evening Peg, once more, sallied forth to the Theatre Royal where this time she was offered the freedom of the house.

Not only had Peg successfully made her point, she had also received much publicity. The incident was reported in a number of newspapers and Peg emerges from the story as a triumphant - albeit a rather combative - upholder of justice.

A perfectly titillating scandal.

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