Friday, April 6, 2018

The delectable Fanny Murray – a courtesan who became the Toast of the Town

by Mike Rendell

It will come as no surprise that I loved doing the research for my book 'In Bed with the Georgians - Sex, Scandal & Satire' - never more so than when I was putting together biographies of some of the leading courtesans of the 18th Century. They were the stars who lit up the demi-monde, achieving a fame which is impossible to imagine today. Think reality TV stars, think Footballers Wives - think of all the Hollywood leading ladies all merged into one. That was the unassailable popularity and fame enjoyed by the whores at the top of the tree - and one of the first to make it to the top was Fanny Murray. Fanny Murray had an unpromising start in life – she was born in Bath around 1729 to the wife of an itinerant musician called Rudman. Both parents were dead by the time she was twelve and she eked a living as a flower-seller on the streets of Bath near the Abbey and outside the Assembly Rooms.

She was an attractive young girl and unfortunately she caught the eye of a philanderer called Jack Spencer. He was the grandson of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough - and no doubt he saw the seduction of a twelve-year-old orphan as a bit of fun. He had his wicked way with her, and promptly left. His place was taken by a Captain in the army, but he too deserted her, leaving her at the mercy of all the unscrupulous rakes and pimps about town.

Enter a rather strange hero – none other than the ageing roué Beau Nash, the Master of Ceremonies at the Assembly Rooms. No matter that at sixty-six he was over fifty years her senior – he invited her to become his mistress and for a couple of years she was his devoted help-mate. He gave her polish and a taste for the good life – and I suspect that she gave him …… a big smile on his face.

She then moved up to London, securing a place in Harris’s List (a fascinating directory of whores operating in the area around Covent Garden). This described her as ”a new face… Perfectly sound in wind and limb. A fine Brown girl, rising nineteen next season. A good side-box piece, she will show well in the Flesh Market”.

She rocketed to fame and by the end of her teens was widely acknowledged as the ‘Toast of the Town’- so much so that she is widely credited as being the inspiration for Fanny Hill, the central character in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure published in 1749.

Fanny-mania took hold – she was always in the news. Mezzotint prints of her portrait were bought by the thousands and became the first ‘pin-ups’ – literally, because they were pinned up on walls of countless homes.They represented the first time fashion prints had been produced. The courtesans were, after all, the height of fashion, and what Fanny wore one day – a special hat, a gown, a different hair style – would quickly be copied by all the fashionable ladies. Men would cut out her likeness and insert it between the outer and inner layers of their pocket watch so that they too could ‘have a piece’ of a woman who was utterly unattainable to all except the very, very rich.

Fanny became the mistress of John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and he introduced her to other members of the Hellfire Club, which met at Medmenham Abbey. Here Fanny would take part in orgies in her capacity as a ‘nun’, which was the term given to females attending the club.

Aged 27 she had run up immense debts and was in dire straits. Her youthful good looks were fading, her creditors were pushing for payment, and her gallants deserted her in her hour of need. She was carted off to the sponging house (a temporary holding place for debtors) and her inevitable downward spiral into poverty and degradation must have been staring her in the face.

But fortune favours the brave, and she decided to pen a letter to the son of the man who had first debauched her. The young Mr Spencer was exceedingly honourable and generous, settling an annuity of £200 on Fanny. He also did her the great favour of introducing her to a friend of his, an actor called David Ross. The two fell in love, and to the amazement of everyone, got married. Fanny really had turned over a new leaf. She led a blameless married life for twenty years before dying at the age of 49.

Mike Rendell has authored several books, including In Bed with the Georgians, on Amazon, and Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era: The Eighteenth-Century Struggle for Female Success in a Man's World, also on Amazon. Both books are also available from Pen & Sword Books.


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