The Memoirs of Mrs. Leeson, Mary Lyons (ed.) (Lilliput)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

Mrs. Margaret Leeson 1727-1797 was Georgian Dublin’s version of Christine Keeler or Heidi Fleiss. Her long career contained elements of both Keeler and Fleiss but, judging by her memoirs, she was more colourful and interesting than either of them. Mrs. Leeson was born into a reasonably comfortable family in County Westmeath but, following her mother’s death and being no longer willing to tolerate abuse from her brother Christopher, she moved to Dublin. At the height of her career at least four lords attended one of her masquerades. However some years later a less exalted gathering attracted ‘many a fat sleek greasy alderman, sheriff’s peer, common council man, and ruby faced parson’. Leeson (née Margaret Plunket) had an international reputation and, like Keeler or Fleiss, her fame survived her fall: anecdotes about her were contained in a collection of Irish wit published in London in 1812.

While some courtesans and fancy madams such as Leeson had access to high society while their looks lasted, they were a small minority and the brief endurance of most women (and girls) in the vice trade was in very harrowing conditions. Sources for historians of the ‘descendancy’ are scarce and scattered. Many of the surviving records were compiled by actresses (a dubious calling in those days ), philanthropists and reformed rakes while newspapers, pamphlets and literature afford briefer glimpses.

Leeson’s record shows she could, by times, be generous, vain, caring, jealous, mischievous and despairing. Her sense of humour was acclaimed. In her heyday her establishment at Pitt Street (now Balfe Street, off Grafton Street) was visited by the Duke of Rutland (Charles Manners), the Lord Lieutenant; when Leeson next appeared at the theatre some wisecrackers called ‘Peg who lay with you last?’, to which her riposte was ‘Manners, you black-guards’.

Mary Lyons has transcribed Leeson’s three volumes into one. She has added a useful introduction, an extended biographical register and a select bibliography as well as both placename and person indices. While the register and indices are particularly useful as these ladies and their clients were regularly obscured by nicknames and euphemisms e.g. ‘the frail sisters’ (‘of the Cyprian order’, ‘Paphian temple’, etc.), some readers may be surprised at the absence of Craig’s Dublin or Fagan’s The Second City from the bibliography selected. Lyons has illustrated the text with prints of landscapes and personalities of the bon ton. The book cover shows Leeson, glamorously painted by her contemporary Pompeo Batoni, in the guise of Diana the huntress.

In her introduction of the genre, Lyons describes Letitia Pilkington’s memoirs (London and Dublin 1749) in some detail. Further such scene setting could assist modern readers and use might have been made of memoirs by individuals known to Leeson, such as Anne Catley (dismissed by Leeson as a ‘a little streetwalking , London ballad singer’). Catley accommodated various men during a successful 1765 visit to Dublin. Mrs. Abington (Fanny Burton), another London actress, appeared several times on the Dublin stage: during her 1759 visit she set up home with an MP for County Down. A celebrated London singer, Mrs. Elizabeth Billington, arrived in 1783 and spent three years in the city performing at various venues; the account of that visit in her memoirs (London 1792) stated ‘her intercourse with different men was, by report, said to be almost unlimited’. They included the Lord Lieutenant, who contracted venereal disease. Mrs. Sophia Baddelay, another London star sometime mistress to Lord Melbourne visited Dublin several times. Around 1770 she lived for a while at Luttrellstown Castle with Lord Carhampton’s son. Luttrell challenged Lord Coleraine to a duel in the Phoenix Park for possession of her. Her memoirs were published in Dublin in 1787.

Lyons’ revival of Leeson’s work shows the ambivalence which existed towards even the fanciest of madams. When Leeson was barred from the Smock Alley theatre by Carnavalli, the Italian impresario, her gentlemen friends assisted her entry. Mrs. Baddeley had a similar experience in London when she was barred from the opening of the Pantheon theatre; she was admitted after about fifty of her gentlemen friends drew their swords against the constables at the door.

While Leeson’s memoirs have become rare Lyons claims too much in stating that only one copy survives (that in the National Library of Ireland); there is a copy in the Gilbert Collection of Dublin Corporation. There is also a risk in freely interpreting claims made for the early success of the work; she refers to Leeson’s use of mailing lists derived from the current almanac and directory with some assistance from friends in the printing trade. This would overlook the newspaper publicity campaign, extending over six months. A front page notice on the Freeman’s Journal of 17 January 1795 announced the publication of the first two volumes; it was confirmed three days later. That source could have alerted Lyons in her remark that Leeson was still preparing her memoirs during the early months of 1795. The Freeman also affords a contemporary view; on 20/1/1795 it opined that the work was perfectly delicate—’While she candidly depicts her errors, she has made her book rather as a caution to youth to shun them’.

Leeson’s Dublin was a city of 150,000 and had a great number of prostitutes. Shortly before her death the Lock Hospital had moved to Townsend Street to cater for the sufferers of venereal disease of which she herself fell a victim. It would however outlast her by 150 years, closing its doors in the mid 1950s, a victim of penicillin. By then, attitudes to the vice trade and its attendant problems had changed, leading firstly to the renaming of the Lock after an obscure Italian saint (Margaret of Gortona). Like the destruction of the Monto red light district it was assumed that prostitution would thus disappear. With the acceptance of reality we may now look more coolly at degraded aspects of Georgian Dublin. In that light alone, republication of these memoirs is welcome.

Diarmuid Ó Gráda is a planning inspector working in Dublin


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