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Queen of the Courtesans
By Barbara White
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Barbara White
All rights reserved.
'The Bath Goddess'
... 'tis a Valley of Pleasure, yet a sink of Iniquity; Nor is there any Intrigues or Debauch Acted at London, but is Mimick'd there.
In 1744, at the age of 15, Frances Rudman changed her name to Fanny Murray and took herself off to the brothels of London. The capital would make her famous, but it was Bath, the city of her birth, that shaped the course of her future life. Murray emerged from the squalor of Bath's medieval streets to become the very embodiment of fashion, beauty and pleasure. It was the claustrophobic alleyways of the old medieval city, as much as the elegant refinement of its open urban spaces and its new classically inspired squares and terraces, which moulded Murray into a premier courtesan, the most desirable woman of her day.
Bath lies at the southern extremity of the Cotswolds, some 12 miles from Bristol. Distinctively hexagonal in shape and surrounded by the River Avon's 'winding Streams', Bath is dominated by the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul. The city, which had traditionally welcomed the sick who came in hope of a cure from the medicinal properties of its spa waters, had also benefited from royal patronage, dating back to the days of Elizabeth I. In particular, it was Anne, visiting in 1692 as princess, and then as queen in 1702 and 1703, who firmly established Bath not only as a health-giving spa but more importantly as a leisure resort.
From the end of the seventeenth century, Bath's 3,000 residents found themselves increasingly outnumbered by seasonal visitors, who converged on the city and drove the development of Bath as a fashionable playground for the affluent beau monde. By 1749, the architect John Wood the Elder estimated that Bath was attracting 12,000 visitors a year, a number that rose to 40,000 by 1800.
At the end of the seventeenth century, however, the city's residents and visitors were still crammed behind an encircling 20ft-high Roman defensive wall of 'Time-defying Stone'. Contained within a mere 24 acres, Bath's population lived in a rabbit warren of over 600 tightly packed houses. Wood, who began his recreation of Bath as a classical Roman city during the 1720s, recalled the squalor of its medieval streets in lurid and olfactory detail. His aim might well have been to overstate the foulness of the cramped, narrow lanes and darkly oppressive alleyways in order to aggrandise his own architectural achievements, but his description brings Bath old town, where Murray would have lived, vividly to life:
The Streets and publick Ways of the City were become like so many Dunghills, Slaughter-Houses, and Pig-Styes: For Soil of all sorts, and even Carrion, was cast and laid in the Streets, and the Pigs turned out by Day to feed and rout among it; Butchers killed and dressed their Cattle at their own Doors; People washed every kind of thing they had to make clean at the common Conduits in the open Streets; and nothing was more common than small Racks and Mangers at almost every Door for the baiting of Horses.
The pressure on Bath was only released when the city walls were finally breached and new developments began to appear beyond the city's limits. There was Trim Street (1707) to the north, and Marchant's Passage (1709) to the south-east, while beyond the west gate, 'in comely Order, Rows of Buildings stand'. Visitor entertainments were also improved, and a new Pump Room was erected adjacent to the King's Bath in 1706. This was followed in 1708 by Thomas Harrison's Assembly Rooms on the east side of Orange Grove, between Terrace Walk and the river, which provided refreshments and gaming tables. A ballroom was added in 1720. Seven years later, in 1727, Lindsey's Rooms opened for business on Terrace Walk opposite Harrison's, offering rival entertainments. Indeed, such were the transformations at Bath that by 1724 Daniel Defoe could describe the city as 'the Resort of the Sound, rather than the Sick; the Bathing is made more a Sport and Diversion, than a Physical Prescription for Health'.
By 1727, however, two years before Murray was born, Bath still 'comprised no more than fifteen streets, sixteen lanes, four inferior courts, five open areas, four terrace walks, three alleys, four throngs [narrow passageways], and a few private courts'. A further phase of building in Bath would begin in earnest the following year. Most celebrated of these early developments, and which Murray would have seen under construction, were the elegant Queen Square (1728–35/36) and Royal Forum (1740–48). Wood's design for Queen Square was breathtakingly innovative, with handsome individual dwellings on the north side of the square erected behind an imposing palace frontage, decorated with Corinthian columns and pilasters, and unified under a dramatic pediment that extended across the five bays. The same unifying principle was at work in Wood's Royal Forum to the south-east of the city, which he envisaged as 'a grand Place of Assembly' although, in the event, only the dramatic Grand (later North) and South Parades, intersected by Pierrepont and Duke Streets, were completed from the original scheme.
The elegance of Bath's new buildings was reflected in refined codes of conduct which were designed to promote good manners at the spa. The civilised behaviour for which Bath became famous was due largely to Richard 'Beau' Nash, the city's flamboyant master of ceremonies. One of Murray's earliest lovers, their affair is discussed in the following chapter.
Henrietta, Lady Luxborough, during her 1752 visit to Bath, was impressed by the regal authority with which Nash regulated the city:
Would you see our law-giver, Mr Nash, whose white hat commands more respect and non-resistance than the Crowns of some Kings, though now worn on a head that is in the eightieth year of its age? To promote society, good manners, and a coalition of parties and ranks; to suppress scandal and late hours, are his views; and he succeeds rather better than his brother-monarchs generally do.
Born in Swansea in 1674, the son of a glass manufacturer, he had arrived in Bath around 1704 with a reputation as an adventurer-cum-gamester, and indeed, much of his subsequent wealth derived from the gaming tables. Nash, however, very quickly discovered his métier as a social organiser and soon made a name for himself assisting Captain Webster, the incumbent master of ceremonies, in the social organisation of the city. On Webster's death about 1705, following a duelling incident, Nash was Bath Corporation's obvious choice as successor.
During a reign that spanned over fifty years, the 'Monarch of Bath', as Nash was affectionately known, imposed 'a superior form of refined sociability' that transformed Bath into the foremost provincial city of its day, setting the standard for refined urbanity, even as far as London itself.Bizarrely though, Nash's own tastes ran to the flashy and excessive. He lived in a grand mansion in St John's Court that was 'so profuse in Ornament, that none but a Mason, to shew his Art, would have gone to the Expence of those Inrichments'. His dress was equally extravagant – in a letter to Henrietta, Countess of Suffolk, dated 2 November 1734, Lord Chesterfield waspishly remarked on Nash's attire at a ball to celebrate George II's birthday which had been held on 30 October. Nash wore 'his gold laced clothes on the occasion', wrote Chesterfield, 'and looked so fine, that, standing by chance in the middle of the dancers, he was taken by many at a distance for a gilt garland'.
Sporting his signature white hat and long black wig, Nash was a conspicuous figure at all the city's activities and entertainments, personally welcoming the more important visitors, 'the quality', among the 'ministers of state, judges, generals, bishops, projectors, philosophers, wits, poets, players, chemists, fiddlers, and buffoons' who thronged to Bath. He socialised in the coffee houses, gaming rooms and Pump Room, and presided authoritatively over the public balls and other glittering occasions. In the Memoirs (1:5), he was thinly disguised as 'Mr Easy', a name probably derived from his being 'if not a brilliant, at least an easy companion'.
Influxes of seasonal visitors of every social class and distinction coalesced, in theory at least, under his jurisdiction into a single and homogenous group, which was known as 'the Company'. Jery Melford, a fictional visitor to Bath in Tobias Smollett's novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), confirmed the Company as being 'the general mixture of all degrees assembled in our public rooms, without distinction of rank or fortune'. Moreover, it was the Company that colluded in a willing suspension of the correct social hierarchies in order to submit to Nash's 'sovereignty'. There was something pleasingly novel for the quality in being commanded by Bath's very own pseudo-monarch, the son of a tradesman. Thus, Catherine, Duchess of Queensbury gracefully acquiesced to Nash removing her fashionable and expensive white apron at a ball as it was a contravention of his dress code, and Princess Amelia bowed to his immovable insistence that dancing at the Assembly Rooms on Tuesdays and Fridays ceased upon the stroke of eleven.
Bath's refinement and homogeneity was, in part, a myth, and subject to ridicule. Smollett's dislike for Bath found its expression in Humphry Clinker in the complaints of Jery Melford's uncle, the Welsh squire Mr Bramble. He grumbled about the Company at Bath, for example, remarking that:
the mixture of people in the entertainments of this place was destructive of all order and urbanity; that it rendered the plebeians insufferably arrogant and troublesome, and vulgarized the deportment and sentiments of those who moved in the upper spheres of life.
The city was also well known as the resort of parasites that fed off the rich pickings to be found among the quality. Rakes, prostitutes, fortune hunters gamesters, sharpers and thieves made their way to Bath just as readily as royalty, aristocracy and the political elite, who gamed and whored just as keenly. As a result, alongside its reputation for politeness and refinement, Bath was notorious as 'a licentious place, where the pretext of drinking the waters was pleaded to countenance every kind of vice and immorality'.
Bath, as a centre for flirtation and intrigue, even among seemingly respectable members of the Company, 'was suffused in sexuality' and it was said to be as easy to get the pox (syphilis) in Bath as the cure. Murray grew up in this sexually charged atmosphere, eavesdropping on salacious gossip and absorbing the city's loose moral codes. In her adolescence, Murray would have watched as 'Bath trulls' (prostitutes) plied their trade, but she would also have seen superior young women dangling provocatively off the arms of the rich, rakish and titled as they enjoyed the city's diversions and amusements.
Sexual favours could be rewarded with fine carriages, shimmering jewels and expensive satins and silks, as happened to the actress Lavinia Fenton (1708/10–1760), the illegitimate daughter of a naval lieutenant named Beswick. Fenton became the mistress of Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton and married to Anne, Lady Vaughan, shortly after he had seen her play Polly Peachum in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728), at Lincoln's Inn Fields. They, and their three illegitimate children, made annual visits to Bath where, noted the author and bluestocking Mrs Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800), the duke was very open about his liaison with 'Mrs Beswick'. It would not have been lost on Murray that the seeming ease of the lives of such high-class prostitutes and mistresses contrasted strongly with her own lifetime prospects as a flower-seller on the streets of Bath.
But who was Fanny Murray? Little is known of her early life other than that she was born into poverty and probably grew up in the narrow alleyways of the old town, where her home might have been even less inviting than the visitor lodgings as described by Wood for 1727:
The Boards of the Dining Rooms and most other Floors were made of a Brown Colour with Soot and small Beer to hide the Dirt, as well as their own Imperfections; and if the Walls of any of the Rooms were covered with Wainscot, it was with such as was mean and never Painted.
Most biographers have accepted the Memoirs' (1:2) version of events, that she was one of triplets, born to Thomas Rudman, a Bath musician, and that her brother and sister died within three days of their birth. They have also accepted the erroneous claim, to be found in the first volume of the Memoirs (1:3), that she was orphaned by the age of 12, and left alone and unprotected to earn her living on the streets of Bath. The second volume of the Memoirs (2:90–2), however, states that Murray had two surviving sisters, who were eight and ten years her junior, whom Murray supported and educated. They purportedly lived with Murray in an apartment at her house in Marlborough Street in London, and were helped by her into respectable marriages with a tradesman and a dancer. The Memoirs' claim is in part borne out by an obituary notice that was placed in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser on 2 April 1778, announcing Murray's death. There it was stated that she had 'brought up and set forward in the world many brothers and sisters' and that she had cared for 'an aged parent'. In addition, Murray's death-bed letter, written on 29 March, made reference to a sister, known only as Mrs Brown, who had been widowed during England's war with America. The letter also confirmed that Murray was survived by her father and that she had regularly sent money to support him.
Historiographically, there has been some debate as to whether Murray was actually born in Bath. Thomas Hinde, for example, in his history of the city, claimed London, rather than Bath, as the place of her birth. His version of her story sees Murray coming to Bath as a grown woman and living with Nash 'for a number of years' before returning to the capital. It is, however, an interpretation that sits uncomfortably with the chronology of her adolescence, and with the circumstantial evidence to be found in the Bath archives. While it has proved impossible to locate Murray in Bath's parish registers, they record that there had been Rudmans in Bath since at least 1605, when John Rudman married Julian (sic) Russell on 27 October in the parish of St Peter and St Paul. Another branch of the family was living in the parish of St James in 1638, when Richard Rudman married Elizabeth Timdall on 12 June. Rudmans were also to be found in several outlying parishes – there were, for example, Rudmans in the parish of Woolley, 9 miles from Bath, as early as 1566.
By the time Murray was born in 1729, numerous families of Rudmans were firmly established across the city, and at least one member of this extended family was connected to Bath's musical life. An Isaac Rudman was a member of the Corporation's 'City Band of Musick' until he lost his position 'for his insolent bahaviour [sic] in the Town Hall' on 9 October 1755. Isaac's dismissal from the orchestra might have been catastrophic financially, as an Isaac Rudman was registered in the Bath rate book as living in Lady Mead in the parish of Walcot, an impoverished district of Bath, from 1766 until 1771. He paid his 8d quarterly rates until 1771, when he was registered as too poor to pay his dues. He lost his home, or died, the following year.
Other Rudmans were equally impecunious – a John Rudman died a beggar on 14 January 1705, and a Rose Rudman died in the poorhouse on 7 June 1740. At least one other Rudman was distinguished by his uncouth behaviour. In 1714, a William Rudman was reprimanded, along with other parents, by members of the Board of Trustees of Bath's Blue Coat Charity School, for abusing the schoolmistress Mrs Bell 'by coming up into her School and calling her Names'. Rudman's 11-yearold son, also named William, had been admitted to the school in June 1711. It is clear that some of the Rudmans of Bath were a rough and ready lot.
As a musician, Thomas Rudman's livelihood probably depended as much upon the city's long-term reputation for good music as upon gratuities from the Company. Edward Ward commented in A Step to the Bath (1700) on the 'Consort of Delicate Musick, Vocal and Instrumental, perform'd by good Masters', to be found at Bath.
Excerpted from Queen of the Courtesans by Barbara White. Copyright © 2014 Barbara White. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
A Note on the Text,
Glossary of Terms,
1 'The Bath Goddess',
2 Rakes and Royals,
3 London and the 'Sisters of Carnality',
4 Poetic Lists and Whores' Directories,
5 Lovers and Keepers,
6 The Height of Fashion,
7 The Nuns of Medmenham,
8 'A New Born Creature',
9 'Awake my Fanny',
10 'Auld Reekie',
11 The Final Years,