The Real Lives of London's 18th Century Courtesans: Background information when reading The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

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The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar X
The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2018, 496 pages
    Sep 2019, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Meara Conner
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The Real Lives of London's 18th Century Courtesans

This article relates to The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock

Print Review

Kitty Fisher (1741-1767), one of 18th century London's best known courtesansAngelica Neal, one of the central protagonists in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, is a well-known, glamorous and beautiful courtesan (a high-priced prostitute or paid escort) to wealthy members of the London aristocracy. She lives a lavish lifestyle, purchasing the latest fashionable gowns, eating the most expensive treats and residing in one of the chicest neighborhoods in the city. The reality of life for most 18th century London courtesans, however, was not usually so extravagant.

Most English prostitutes of the era were born into poverty and denied virtually any opportunity for education. Their employment options were limited to low-paying jobs like seamstress or laundress, and if no such positions were available or they needed more money, they often resorted to prostitution. In most cases this was a temporary situation until better employment or an offer of marriage came along. A staggering number of women (it is estimated as many as one in five) worked in prostitution at some point in their lives during this time period.

While most entered prostitution with the intention of making some quick money, the lucky few who became courtesans viewed it as a means to power, and potentially as a way to influence the important men of London. Courtesans were usually employed by one of the high-class brothels, and answered to a madam who brought in high-caliber clientele and also ensured that the girls were paid and kept safe. Charlotte Hayes, a madam who ran one of the most luxurious brothels in London, was well-known for throwing events attended by the wealthiest men in the city. Courtesans were not only hired for sexual purposes, but also to provide fashionable companionship, particularly for older wealthy gentlemen who may have been widowed or never married.

One of the most famous courtesans of the day was Kitty Fisher (1741-1767), who began life as a humble hat maker before attracting the attention of politician and Navy Admiral Augustus Keppel, and painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, among others. After winning the favor of these aristocratic men, Fisher was accepted into the world of high society London as a celebrity, famous simply for being famous. She used her good looks and influence to climb the social ladder and marry the son of a Parliament member, but fell ill and died shortly thereafter.

While a typical London prostitute was paid strictly for services rendered, courtesans hoped to cultivate lasting relationships with their clients which would evolve into long-lasting financial security. A courtesan's aim was to secure a permanent position at the side of a man of power and thus earn his constant protection. Though London looked down upon women who earned their living in this way, being a courtesan required an immense amount of mental dexterity and psychological insight, indicating the true potential of these women who were denied entry into more respectable lines of work because of their gender.

Image: Kitty Fisher (1741-1767), one of 18th century London's best known courtesans.

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Meara Conner

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. It originally ran in September 2018 and has been updated for the September 2019 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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