The Courtesan and the Abolitionist: The Real-Life Love Story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox

 

honorable mrs fox by joshua reynolds

The Honourable Mrs. Fox. Joshua Reynolds, 1784-9. Note that they were officially married in 1795, and the marriage was not made public until 1802.

Of all the great love stories in history that ought to be made into movies, Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox must be near the top of the list.

Elizabeth was born in Greenwich in 1750. By the age of twenty-one, she was working at a high-class brothel in Soho run by the infamous Mrs. Mitchell. Her first known patron was the Viscount of Bolingbroke, known to his friends as “Bully,” and it was through him that she met her future husband, Charles James Fox.

Though only a year older than Elizabeth, Charles had had a very different upbringing. His father was Henry Fox, Baron Holland, and his mother, Caroline, was the daughter of the Duke of Richmond. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he got an early start in politics when his father bought him a seat in Parliament at the age of nineteen. It wasn’t long before he made waves. Critical of George III, Charles opposed the American War of Independence and even showed his support for the colonists by wearing the colors of Washington’s army to Parliament. By the time he met Elizabeth, he had already developed a reputation of his own.

Elizabeth and Charles moved in the same circles and became fast friends. They remained close as their respective careers progressed. Elizabeth became an actress, and her considerable success as a courtesan was noted in Town and Country in 1776, when they reported that she had made conquests of two dukes, a marquis, four earls, and a viscount.

The truth was a bit more impressive. Elizabeth was indeed popular among the nobility, and her patrons over the next few years included the Duke of Dorset, the Earl of Derby, Lord George Cavendish, the Earl of Cholmondeley, and the Prince of Wales, the future George IV. She was known for her good nature and intelligence as much as her beauty–she was tall and statuesque, with a strong physique and large bust. She had a sharp wit and a talent for languages that gentlemen found as fascinating as the rest of her.

Elizabeth knew exactly what she was doing. By the time she was thirty, she had a fortune of her own that included at least one residence, carriages, and several servants. Never one to be taken advantage of, she moved from patron to patron as effortlessly as she lived, and she never fell in love.

Unless, of course, she’d been in love all along. In the early 1780s, Elizabeth and Charles became lovers after a decade of friendship. It’s unknown whether it was out of the blue or if they’d had feelings for each other from the start, but they quickly became inseparable. Charles was a rake known for drinking, gambling, and womanizing–he had even been involved with Elizabeth’s rival, actress Mary Robinson–but he soon realized Elizabeth was the only woman for him. He treated her as an equal, encouraging her interest in politics by writing to her about his position and concerns as well as pledging his undying love on a regular basis.

The feeling was mutual. Elizabeth wouldn’t see anyone other than Charles and quickly fell into debt because of it. Their relationship meant the end of her career and may have posed a threat to his. She tried to call it off, but Charles made it clear he was serious about her. In one of his many letters to her, he wrote:

“You shall not go without me, wherever you go. I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country, everything than live without Liz. I could change my name and live with you in the remotest part of Europe in poverty and obscurity. I could bear that very well, but to be parted I cannot bear.”

In spite of his status, Charles was no longer wealthy. He had gambled away most of his money, and he refused to use his political office for profit. Elizabeth didn’t mind. She sold the properties given to her by her former lovers and bought a house in St. Ann’s Hill, where they lived together happily for years. Still unmarried, Charles was considered quite a catch. When Charles was offered the chance at an advantageous marriage with the daughter of wealthy banker Thomas Coutts in 1795, Elizabeth knew it would be better for Charles. She offered to leave, but Charles refused. He wrote:

“I cannot figure to myself any possible idea of happiness without you, and being sure of this, is it possible that I can think of any trifling advantage of fortune or connection as weighing a feather in the scale against the whole comfort and happiness of my life?”

Not only would Charles not consider it, but he married Elizabeth instead. Marrying her was considered more of a scandal than living openly with her as his mistress, so Charles reluctantly agreed to keep the marriage secret for a time. Elizabeth knew that it would hurt his career, but Charles–a radical politician accustomed to doing and saying exactly what he wanted–was less concerned. He made their marriage public in 1802, and although it caused a bit of scandal, Elizabeth was ultimately accepted by society due to her kindness and charm.

When Charles passed away of liver disease in 1806, his last word was her name. He was fifty-seven, and he and Elizabeth had been together for twenty-five years. After his death, Elizabeth remained close with their friends and devoted the rest of her life to charitable works. Though they never had children of their own, Elizabeth supported a school in the nearby parish of Chertsey. By the time Elizabeth passed away in 1842 at the age of ninety-one, her background as a sex worker had been conveniently forgotten. Her funeral was attended by scores of people from all classes who remembered her for her kindness and good works.

charles-james-fox-gs

Charles James Fox memorial. © 2019 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Charles was buried in Westminster Abbey. His monument is one of the most impressive there, which is no small feat. Completed by sculptor Sir Richard Westmacott in 1822, it shows Charles being mourned by a slave–he was a fervent abolitionist–and another figure representing Peace. He is held in the arms of Liberty, who looks just a little bit like Elizabeth.

Jessica Cale

Further reading

Davis, I.M. The Harlot and the Statesman. The Kendall Press, 1986.

Hickman, Katie. Courtesans. Harper Collins, 2003.

Les Scandaleuses: Histoire d’alcôve. Elizabeth Armistead, Mrs Fox (1750-1842). June 29th, 2013.

Rendell, Mike. In Bed With the Georgians: Sex, Scandal, and Satire in the 18th Century. Pen & Sword, 2016.

Rubenhold, Hallie. The Covent Garden Ladies. Tempus Publishing, 2005.

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Sex and the Asylum: Imprisoning Inconvenient Women

f95ddecebd8d712ca785b34b065d7231Nymphomania, masturbation, sexual derangement: just some of the reasons a nineteenth century—and indeed twentieth century—woman could find herself locked away in a lunatic asylum. In fact, many of the reasons women were incarcerated were related to their sex or sexuality. Around one third of female patients were diagnosed with nymphomania. Some had born illegitimate children, been engaged in prostitution, or been raped or sexually assaulted.

For others, being deemed promiscuous or flirtatious was enough to seal their fate. In both Great Britain and the United States, it was perfectly legal for a husband or father to have their wives or daughters committed to an asylum without any right of appeal. Cures for nymphomania included separation from men, induced vomiting, leeches, straitjackets, and, in some cases clitorectomies.

In 1867, seventeen-year-old Alice Christina Abbot was accused of poisoning her stepfather after he threatened to send her to a reform school. At her trial, Abbot claimed that her stepfather had put her through years of sexual abuse, and that she had told other people, but they had mostly considered her mentally deranged. The court rejected her allegations as singular, and in August of that year she was committed to Taunton Insane Asylum, where she seems to have vanished into the dark realms of history. Whether or not Abbot really was a murderer, or whether she saw poisoning as the only way of freeing herself from her stepfather, we shall never know. The fact remains that she was treated neither as a victim of sexual abuse, nor a sane woman who had committed murder. Instead, she was labelled as insane, and her identity was effectively erased.

Edna Martin was fifteen when her grandfather saw her going to the pictures with a sixty-two-year-old married man. He called the police, and Edna was taken to juvenile court. The judge asked her whether they’d had intercourse, but she had no idea what that meant. Her grandfather said he never wanted to see her again, so she was taken to Parkside Approved School, where she was diagnosed as an imbecile, mentally defective, and feeble-minded, and transferred to Calderstones Asylum. Edna described twenty years of hell moving between various asylums:

They kicked the chamber pots into you . . . they also kicked in your food on a tin plate and you had to eat it off the floor. They used enemas for punishment . . . they thought nothing of giving you a cold-water bath, or they’d get a wet bath towel, put it under a cold tap, twist it, and hit you with it.

In the wider community, asylums were used as tools to control large numbers of women who were considered a threat to the status quo. Prostitution was seen as a social disease, and those fallen women associated with it needed to be shut away for the greater good, until such time as they were fixed. Correcting women who had taken the wrong path was the main idea behind three different kinds of establishments: Magdalene asylums, benevolent societies, and lock hospitals.

Magdalen-asylum

A Magdalene Asylum in Ireland, early 20th century

Madgalene asylums were established by the Catholic Church for sex workers, as well as other women who had deviated from sexual norms, for the sake of penitence and redemption. Life in Magdalene asylums was grueling: the women were given new names, forbidden from talking about their past or talking to their families, and had to work (usually doing laundry) in complete silence.

In London, any sex worker found to have a venereal disease could be forcibly put in a lock hospital for up to a year, while benevolent societies gave the women huge amounts of religious instruction, and then retained them as seamstresses and servants.

Many lesbian women were also labelled as mentally ill, with doctors claiming that life without continued male interaction could cause anemia, irritability, and tiredness. Women who had chosen alternative lifestyles and defied accepted gender norms were considered a threat to the patriarchal society. In asylums—supposedly places of safety— they could face sexual abuse under the care of doctors, who believed that repeated sexual activity with men could cure them.

This put women in an incredibly vulnerable position: those who refused to obey their husbands or fathers, behaved in a manner which was deemed immodest or unwomanly, or refused to submit to their husbands’ demands faced being torn away from their children and families, and were often subjected to the most brutal conditions.

Asylums became a convenient place to put society’s inconvenient women. These stories are more than just reminders that we’re lucky not to have been born two hundred years ago—they are also reminders of how much people in the past were entrenched in ideas of feminine norms, and the lengths they would go to in order to preserve patriarchal dominance.

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Emma Rose Millar was born in Birmingham—a child of the seventies. She is a single mum and lives with her young son. Emma left school at sixteen and later studied for an Open University degree in Humanities with English Literature. She has had a variety of jobs including chocolatier, laboratory technician and editorial assistant for a magazine, but now works part-time as an interpreter.

Emma writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published in 2016 by Crooked Cat Books, and was shortlisted for the Goethe Award for Late Historical Fiction. Her third novel, DELIRIUM, a Victorian ghost story, will be published in 2018, also by Crooked Cat Books. It was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards in 2017.

Follow Emma Rose Millar on Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads. Her new book, Delirium, is out now.