The Scandalous Memoirists: The Shame of ‘publick fame

My book The Scandalous Memoirists: The Shame of ‘publick fame’ (Manchester University Press, 2000) features some of the first women ever to write openly about their lives. In the eighteenth-century Laetitia Pilkington, Constantia Phillips and Charlotte Charke described their vertiginous reversals of fortune from riches to rags, from mixing with the wealthy and famous to squalid confinement in the debtor’s prison. They defied propriety and convention at a time when it was seen as scandalous for a woman to publish at all – let alone her own real life story – especially when it revealed her flaws, affairs and transgressions. They declared that with their precious reputation in tatters, they had nothing left to lose but to tell the truth.

My book began as a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia. In my reading I’d come across stray mention of these mysterious, slandered women but nobody had done any real research. Encouraged by Lorna Sage (who was writing her own brilliant memoir Bad Blood at the time) I dug out their manuscripts – handwritten and ink-blotched – in the British library. Their resilience in the face of such adversity, their daring to speak out and defend themselves, was breath-taking in its audacity. They self-published – “no publisher would touch them for fear of libel” – and their memoirs sold like hotcakes, each instalment eagerly awaited. But their popularity was double-edged. While devouring them their contemporaries expressed shock and horror, recognizing the reality but deploring them for exposing it. They were gossiped about in private letters, caricatured in Henry Fielding’s novel Amelia, smeared in Alexander Pope’s verse, put on trial in spoof pamphlets and scorned in crude doggerel in the gutter-press. In todays’ social media language they were viciously ‘slut-shamed’ in the press, accused of ‘overriding Lust’ and blamed for their own downfall.

Yet underlying their scandalous revelations was a serious intention to expose women’s inequality and patriarchy’s sexual double standard. Dragged through the divorce courts by their husbands they showed that women were censured for any sexual activity – and punished – while men got away with worse. Men of influence had the power and money to hire clever lawyers; the memoirists had neither. Nor were they only discredited in their lifetimes. Ever since, historians and biographers of ‘great men’ (like Jonathan Swift and Lord Chesterfield with whom they were associated), raided their memoirs for juicy material at the same time as warning they were untrustworthy. Based on the misogynist view that women who spoke about sex were not to be believed, they were sneered at for exposing men who wronged them in order – so it was said – to merely seek revenge.

The memoirists paid a heavy price for finding a voice and speaking out. Yet my research bore out the substantial evidence behind their accusations. Later in the nineteenth century the law reformer Jeremy Bentham took Constantia Phillips’s claims of corruption in the courts seriously. He vindicated her, saying she only lost her case (she was falsely charged with bigamy) because of foul play. He cited her memoir as the spark which fuelled his desire to reform the legal system. More recently, historian Lawrence Stone admired her tenacity in pursuing justice, but agreed with her that it was not enough, she was “eventually defeated at every turn by money, duplicity and legal chicanery.”[1]

Looking further ahead to Victorian times, we see that methods of discrediting or silencing troublesome women continued, although their form altered. Now women were said to suffer from hysteria or insanity rather than libidinous sexuality. On a husband’s, father’s or even brother’s word a woman could be shut away in an asylum and never heard of again. The madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, hidden there by her husband Lord Rochester and maddened further by her captivity, was a social reality. Women’s mental fragility, their supposed proneness to fantasy and irrationality, was a new reason to dismiss them. This shift in patriarchy’s method of keeping women down still operates today, and led me – particularly as a psychotherapist – to the subject of my next book.


[1] Lawrence Stone, Uncertain Unions (OUP, 1992)

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