Women, as usual in history, had a tough time. The best most could hope for was a half decent marriage and perhaps an early but comfortably off widowhood (widows after all were independent). In the 18th century, as today the gulf between the rich and the poor yawned wide. If you were very rich you might be comfortable but married off against your will with no recourse to separation or divorce. If you were very poor you could suffer a short brutish life on the street.
As part of my research I was back to reading Harris' List. Harris List strikes me as insufferably sad. In case you haven't come across it it's a kind of mid eighteenth century bachelor's guide to what was available on the streets, where to go, how much and what to expect. A kind of pre-Internet Internet, a phone box in the west end with none of the pictures. It does give you glimpses (mediated via Harris who called himself the Great pimp) into history, but when you start thinking about the real people, the flesh and blood women behind the words it's just woeful.
And once you were ruined there was no turning back. A very small group of prostitutes managed to make the leap out of the tied brothel and into the keeping of one man, a smaller number made it to marriage. Fewer still a marriage that had anything to do with love. A notable exception was Elizabeth Armistead.
Elizabeth Armistead was born in 1750 in South London, but little is known about her early life, she might have sold flowers or vegetables, she might have been slightly posher, perhaps a lay preacher's daughter. What is known is that by her teens she was working in one of the most expensive and well appointed brothels in London and was a favourite of Viscount Bolingbroke, the Earl of Egremont amongst others. In 1776 Town and Country Magazine stated that she '“could claim the conquest of two ducal coronets, a marquis, four earls and a viscount.”
|An engraving of a painting by Reynolds, currently in Chertsey museum c 1781
She was moved out of the brothel and kept as a mistress by a string of wealthy men. Elizabeth Armistead was one of the 'Toasts of The Town'. She even caught the eye of the Prince of Wales. (An affair she ended by taking an extensive tour of Europe so as not to offend him).
Elizabeth was smart, she hosted salons where Charles Fox, leader of a Whig faction met and plotted. She and Charles Fox were platonic friends for years before they became lovers in 1785, at a time when he was leading the country in the Fox/North coalition.
Charles spent more and more time in Elizabeth's house in Surrey, increasingly it became his refuge from Westminster. They married in 1795 and the new Mrs Fox lived quietly and although reconciled with Fox's children, stayed out of the limelight of society.
Even though Charles Fox died in 1806 heavily in debt (his gambling had resulted in his twice becoming bankrupt) Elizabeth outlived him, granted a pension by George IV. She died in 1841 a day short of her ninety second birthday.
A (very) rare happy outcome for a girl from nowhere.
If you're interested, Katie Hicks book Courtesan has the whole story.
PS a question. I am corralling British set historical novels for children and teens that feature main character that are POC. Black or Asian really.
So far I have Tanya Landman's new next month Hell and High Water
S.I. Martins Jupiter Williams and Jupiter Amidships
Jamila Gavin's Coram Boy's Toby is more than a sidekick
Julia Goldings Cat Royal Series has Pablo.
Celia Rees's Pirates has Minerva and I reckon the boat can count as an extention of Empire!