The Great Courtesan of Henrietta Street | Olivia Marsh


Everything in London is filling it to bursting and the men never more so; in their multitudes, men are as common as the wet, muddied ballad papers that cling to the pavements. They strewn, like the chair and carriage traffic that clutters its way to the epicentre. O, glorious epicentre, where all the world’s best and worst scramble for coin, for lust, for love, for life, for death, for success, for posterity. Choices for the taking.

But in all that choice, she desires only him. Second-rate version of an heir that he may be. A third son? A fifth? She does not remember. She only remembers that he has loved her, or has professed it in so many words. He has whispered on a morning: “My angel, take yourself off and buy a dress, a gown a la Turque, and later, I will kiss you and kiss you until you are quite dizzy.” Everything beautiful she sets her fingers on was paid for by him. Bottomless fortune, indeed. There ain’t no such things. Not for third sons on a cadet branch. And yet…

And yet, there is a pimp far back in her memory who thrusts up her chin and says “Pretty pet, come along now, I’ll have you set in no time. You’ll beg no more, child” and he had indeed made her Duchess, after a fashion. Aye, her coronet was a man’s mettle, all bitter and white, but the luxury was the same. Only those who sleep soundly in their beds each night declare that a mighty harlot cannot look a fine lady in the eye and say ‘Aren’t we sisters, dear?’ The difference between her urine-soaked alley bed of old, and the silk sheets and fresh linen of new, is startling enough to make her fear ruination to the point of shudders and flutterings; when there is so much danger in London for a woman to fear; that is her nightmare. A flash of cash is enough for her to open up, out of passion, out of fright. What care she for figures, for the strange minutiae of it all? Yet, men make promises they cannot keep all the time, and they close the breach with kisses and sweat-doused nights and sweetness. She knows this, somewhere. It’s just that, this time, her heart has quite staged a coup. It has taken over.

Her heart has been cautious but never closed. But she fears she has given it to him, in particular, too freely, as he now speaks the words she has dreaded, the words she has suspected but never quite let herself consider for more than a moment.

“I am tired of you”

And now he says she is a strumpet. A doxy brought high and mighty by other men’s money, hard earned fortunes tallied up since the Conqueror. He says “You ought to have remembered that you were mine and mine alone. Instead, you go gadding about the city, always open for business!”

Always open for business! She retorts, she says she has been touched by no other since he took his brief leave, that she has pined only for him. If men have admired her in the streets, that is no fault of hers. Surely, surely, he did not expect her to lock herself away until his return? Surely, my love…oh, she speaks sweetly now, close as she is to spilling tears, surely he does not mean for her to be cosseted and owned?

But he does expect it of her. He expects a biddable mistress, a wife of sorts, though not quite. All warm and inviting, with a mouth to fill and kiss deeply, and flesh so soft and rounded that he can cup it in his hands as he thinks ‘Now this is having my cake and eating it.’ A pretty face to covet, rule and brag on, but never ever be bound to. And in this, he is not quite so different from the others. All the men before, even the pimp who healed her smarting wounds with kindness, kindness that came at a ‘Do as I say or I’ll blacken your eye’ kind of price.

Do not leave. Do not go, she hears herself say, I am ruined. Who will pay my debts? Our debts? she emphasises, debts we trotted up together in our love, in our merrymaking, in our plans for marriage, but he no longer hears her, he abuses her, he shouts and yaps like a fussing puppy.

Hussy! Wench! Snake! Dishonest jade! Lured me in like all your other lovers, who even now make their leave to queue at her door. How can I make an honest woman of a trull? A notorious one, black mould on my family name?

Honest women are what lying, cheating profligates talk of incessantly. A bunch of rakehells predisposed to burning, pathological hypocrisy. In every single syllable, there are visions of maidservants debauched, brothels much used, and dust collecting Bibles much ignored. Who are you to sermonise to me? she must have said. Who are you to pull my conduct apart?

But in the philosophy of it all, there is simply a woman (yes, a courtesan, but a woman all the same, lest, Reader, you be prejudiced against them and their trade) scorned, hurt, misled. A woman who trusted, who believed herself finally in the arms of a future, a new equal, a fine sweetheart to spark upon every night and day. She thought herself safe. She thought herself worthy. She thought herself out of all danger, of all instability past. She thought herself loved.

“I love you” she says, finally.

…and the phrase hangs on the precipice, uttered quietly, sounding monstrous loud, but it doesn’t quite account for the flaming sensation of joy she gets when she thinks of him or the feeling that her ribs might split open and pour out her heated blood every time she looks upon his face. Doesn’t quite cut it.

To be sure, her man is handsome, pretty even, in or out of his stark white wig, at this moment powdered as vigorously as anything he does. In a poem, they may not call him an Adonis but he is beautiful enough to her. And yet, at the declaration, the words that seemed to be a cat set amongst pigeons, he pulls a face so hideous, so reminiscent of one’s first scent of vinegar or of horse manure on a summer’s day, that she quite startles herself out of half-fantasy that he will change his mind.

“Love, madam?’ he says, ever so gently, “how could a harlot know the meaning of the word?”

Olivia Marsh is an aspiring historian, currently studying for a Master’s degree in 18th century history. She is specialising in the social history of Britain from circa. 1660-1820, with a particular emphasis on the history of sexuality and of sex work.

She loves to write both prose and poetry in her spare time, inspired by the everyday lives and emotions of past peoples.

She can be found on Twitter at @myladyteazle

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