Blaming And Shaming: "The Whore Memoir"

These lurid 18th century tell-alls were a valuable weapon for women of ill-repute.

A terrific piece in History Today discusses the phenomenon of the "whore memoir," a popular genre of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Writes Julie Peakman,

Real-life prostitutes such as Sally Salisbury, Fanny Murray and Kitty Fisher became the subject of a genre of memoirs now known as Whore Biographies in books such as The Effigies, Parentage, Education, Life, Merry-Pranks and Conversation of the celebrated Mrs Sally Salisbury (1723), Memoirs of the celebrated Miss Fanny M*****(1759) and The uncommon Adventures of Miss Kitty F*****r (1759). Their full names in the titles were tantalisingly omitted, although everyone would have recognised who they were. Gossip around these women and their lovers filled the taverns. Broadsheets and pamphlets rec orded their activities. Songs and poems were written about them and cartoons depicted them.

Famous courtesans - some of them actresses - were among the most famous celebrities of their day, revered by the common people and notorious amongst the nobles who served as their protectors - and their wives. I'm no historian, but the appeal seems obvious: in addition to the lurid taint of sex and scandal the women carried, theirs were tales of social mobility in an era where most people didn't even dream of it, and accounts of their humble origins and fine carriages must have proved irresistible to contemporary readers. One could even read about a fallen woman's life on a moral pretext: an account of Sally Salisbury stabbing her noble protector with a bread knife might have served, ostensibly, as a cautionary tale, but also served to make the courtesan a popular heroine.

The genre, as Peakman tells it, was born with male writers: hacks trying to make a buck with a series of generic, lurid "biographies." Seeing a chance to set the record straight - or at least on their own terms - many of the women decided to cash in with memoirs, and the "blaming and shaming" that ensued is what really made them must-reads. In addition to establishing themselves as good-hearted and merely prey to human frailty, many of these memoirs served as a means of publicly shaming the notable men who'd seduced or cheated them - and slandering rival courtesans. This was surely a level of power most women could never dream of - even those courtesans who'd managed to achieve a level of autonomy and financial independence.

But in addition to the thinly-disguised bold-faces, respectable readers also received a dose of reality. As the women told it, they were not morally reprehensible, but at the mercy of an unforgiving world and in the power of men: many of them related that their careers started as a result of rapes or abandonment that left them with no options; many of the memoirs featured beatings and abuse. As Peg Plunkett put it in her memoir,

The ill usage of Lawless, had changed me to what I never was before. In short, I was become a compleat Coquet. I entertained every one who fluttered about me, I received every present that was offered, accepted every entertainment that was made for me; gave them all the hopes, yet yielded to none. I was disgusted with the man of my heart, therefore gave my heart to none. I looked upon all men as my lawful prey, and wished to punish the crimes of one on the whole sex.

While it would be hard to argue that this genre did a lot to elevate the social dialogue, it's also true that - in combination with a new wave of free-thinking and the works like Mary Wollstonecraft's, the "whore memoir" coincided with a consideration of women as disenfranchised and ill-used rather than morally or intellectually inferior. If they were jaded, these stories seemed to say, it was the fault of men - surely a charge that many less-obviously beholden members of their sex must have silently echoed. Indeed, it's pretty clear that the "hooker with a heart of gold" trope can be traced directly to these memoirs. It's always dangerous to romanticize courtesans, as much today as then - viewing them as liberated mistresses of their own destinies, influencing powerful men and bucking the codes of the time. At the end of the day, these memoirs say, they were still chattel. But by living a life of open "vice," they also had the ability to exploit it openly - and this genre is a marvel of savvy.

Blaming And Shaming In Whores' Memoirs [History Today]