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The rise and fall of Peg Plunkett, 18th-century courtesan and consummate memoirist

If sex in the past – in the sense of what people did to each other, in or out of bed – is notoriously hard to pin down, the larger history of sexuality and society is most rewarding.

Yes, madam: an 18th-century portrait of Plunkett

Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore
Julie Peakman
Quercus, 256pp, £20

Such was the opulence of a well-known courtesan’s house in 15th-century Rome that when a visiting French ambassador was overcome by the urge to spit, he expectorated into the hand of a servant rather than using the floor. Rome, filled with Catholic clergy bound to a celibacy that didn’t include chastity, provided rich pickings for courtesans, though most of these women died in penury as their looks faded and business dried up. During their best years, a few even had their words go into print – poems on the beauty of their city, metaphysical treatises on the nature of love. These were women pretending to be who they weren’t.

Contrast that with Peg Plunkett, the 18th-century courtesan and brothel-keeper in Dublin who, when she finds her fortunes waning, announces her intention to publish her memoirs. Her aim: to generate a profit through subscriptions and sales and to shame those who have done her ill or owe her money, making them pay up to keep their names out of the finished manuscript.

Sexual history is a rich field these days and we should be grateful that Julie Peakman, who specialises in 18th-century culture and sexuality, decided that Peg’s memoirs – all three volumes of them – needed rigorous filleting for a modern audience. Despite its deliberately alluring title, Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore is not about sex (foot fetishism is about as graphic as it gets). Instead, what is on offer is a biography “to some extent built on Peg’s words”, shaping a life from rambling, often undated recollections, “littered with accounts of rivalries, petty jealousies, retributions, accusations of infidelity and broken promises”.

Born in the countryside outside Dublin around 1736 (no one knows the exact date and Plunkett was happy to keep it vague), she was one of 22 children, only eight of whom survived. When her mother died, the family was taken over by her violent elder brother who ruled with the horsewhip. Peg, in her mid-teens, manages to escape by visiting relatives and on one such trip starts a liaison with a man who promises marriage but delivers only pregnancy.

So begins an inexorable moral slide, from a series of “kept woman” relationships (a few containing real affection), through the birth and death of six children, to running various establishments of her own. Soldiers, landed gentry, judges, politicians and all manner of Dublin society flock to her. In times of plenty, she is wealthy and feted: she claims that she is “esteemed the first woman in Ireland in my line” and it doesn’t seem to be a boast. But, as a result of her generosity and living above her means, her story moves – as such stories so often do – to debt, illness and death.

The book is aimed squarely at a non-academic audience. For the most part, it has an informal, chatty style – “Peg welcomes the soldiers . . . with open arms”; “Peg was back in town and raring to go” – and assumes that its readers know nothing about 18th-century Ireland. At one level, that’s fine: the political context of Dublin under British rule, with the Catholic majority subjugated by privileged Irish and English Protestants, is important to know. But the book goes further than that. With the mention of any new person, place, fashion or mode of transport, it launches into a factual digression. It’s a temptation well known to historical novelists, who feel the need to show how much they know. Peakman clearly knows a great deal but the digressions threaten to overwhelm the character and the world that she is trying to bring alive.

Perhaps there are readers who don’t know what a wet nurse is. But a sentence would do – one doesn’t need to be told the pros and cons and given other contemporary writers’ positions on it. The same is true of the bell-hooped petticoats that Peg favours, which bring a comprehensive fashion history with them. New lovers are often introduced with a thorough genealogy and the descriptions of Dublin’s social life include the price of theatre tickets and the times, places and frequencies of concerts. In the middle of all this, Peg’s life gets overshadowed. Her journey to England ushers in a quick history of package boats, travellers’ recollections and stories of shipwrecks, with their name and dates, at the end of which we read: fortunately for Peg, her crossing was safe and she arrived in one piece. On her return home, we are told the date on which the lighthouse that welcomes her “first shone” and given a list of other historical figures who had disembarked on the quay before her: “Jonathan Swift in 1723 . . . Handel in November 1741 and John Wesley in August 1747, after a 26-hour journey”. It is as if Peakman is trying to make up for Peg’s historical slipperiness by drowning us in details.

This is a shame, for Peg, in her own words, cuts rather a dash. She was clearly successful as much for her personality as for her looks: her vivacity, appetite for fun, courage, wit and almost painful resilience shine through. “Chastity . . . is one of the characteristic virtues of the female sex. But may I be allowed to ask – is it the only one?” she writes at one point, while still being clear-sighted – or contrary – enough to see herself as a “woman of loose turn of mind and changeable disposition”. Such quotes may be the highlights of three volumes of unreliable gossip but there is an authenticity to her voice and her life that would have been more poignant with more Peg and less extraneous detail.

The 18th century is considered by many as a watershed when it comes to sexual history. A few years ago, the Oxford historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala did an elegant job of placing what he claimed was the “first sexual revolution” firmly inside the Enlightenment, charting how religious control gradually ceded power to ideas of personal and civil liberty, taking many forms of consensual sex out of the clutches of the law altogether. Against this backdrop, Peg’s dealings with the law become most revealing. Not only does her popular reputation help her (in a spat with an actress, the jury favours her because the local shop owners know that she brings them business) but she also takes to court men who attack and abuse her and, more often than one might expect, she wins. That shows very different social attitudes to those of even 50 years earlier.

If sex in the past – in the sense of what people did to each other, in or out of bed – is notoriously hard to pin down, the larger history of sexuality and society is most rewarding. One only has to think of the crowds outside Dublin Castle (a building that I know a lot about after reading this book), celebrating a vote for gay marriage in what many regard as still a Catholic country, to see how alive that history still is. Peg Plunkett was a colourful dot on the pointillist canvas of this history. Yet I am not sure that Peakman’s “biography” does her – or her place in the larger story – full justice.

Sarah Dunant’s latest novel, “Blood and Beauty”, is published by Virago

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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