Lewis Lapham: Sex Trade Made Bastard Beauty Into Duchess

Source: Harvard University Press via Bloomberg

"A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century," by Jerry White. Close

"A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century," by Jerry White.

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Source: Harvard University Press via Bloomberg

"A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century," by Jerry White.

Prostitution was a thriving occupation in 18th-century London. Most of those who traded their charms for cash succumbed to disease, violence or incarceration. The rest usually wound up in the workhouse.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

Occasionally, a woman would hit the jackpot: Lavinia Fenton was born illegitimate in 1710, and as she grew into a beauty, her mother offered to sell her virginity for 200 pounds. She wound up a child prostitute.

Since the theater gave women the chance to be seen by noblemen, Lavinia went onstage: She was the first Polly Peachum in John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” Charles Powlett, the Duke of Bolton, fell deeply in love with her.

Estranged from the wife he’d been forced to marry, Powlett made Lavinia his official mistress, with an annuity of 400 pounds a year, and she bore him three sons, who went on to careers in the church and military.

When his wife died, Powlett married Lavinia and made her the new Duchess of Bolton. At her death in 1760, she was a rich, respectable widow.

I spoke with Jerry White, author of “A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century,” on the following topics:

1. Flamboyant Wealth

2. Poor Dying in the Streets

3. Crime and Prostitution

4. Culture & Pleasure Gardens

5. Aristocrats’ Mistresses

To buy this book in North Amercia click here.

Source: Harvard University Press via Bloomberg

Jerry White, author of "A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century." Close

Jerry White, author of "A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century."

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Source: Harvard University Press via Bloomberg

Jerry White, author of "A Great and Monstrous Thing: London in the Eighteenth Century."

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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