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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

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.