Yes, madam: an 18th-century portrait of Plunkett
Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore
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