Tuesday, 28 September 2010

One of the greatest love stories of the 18th century?

 ' You are all to me.  You can always make me happy in circumstances apparently unpleasant and miserable ... Indeed, my dearest angel, the whole happiness of my life depends on you.’

So wrote Charles James Fox – aristocrat, Whig politician and one of the most brilliant men of his day – to the courtesan Elizabeth Armistead in 1785.  Their love story is one of the most unusual, fascinating and, perhaps, the greatest of the 18th century.

Elizabeth Armistead was born Elizabeth Cane in July 1750.  Her origins are obscure, and it is not known exactly how Elizabeth came to embark on a career as a courtesan.  According to one source, at sixteen, this ‘tall and genteel’ young woman ‘with a beautiful face and a most captivating eye’ was persuaded by Mr. R., a  friseur (hairdresser), to be his model and in return for his obligation, she yielded to his amorous entreaties.  Another source claimed she was abandoned by her shoemaker-turned-lay preacher father at nineteen and was forced to sell her charms to support herself.  Whatever the truth, there was no turning back for Elizabeth once her virtue and reputation were ruined in the eyes of Society.   In this‘distressed and deserted’ situation, she was taken in by Mrs. Jane Goadby, one of the most notorious procuresses in London.  

Elizabeth Armistead by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Mrs. Goadby’s brothel in St. James’,  London was an exclusive establishment, one of a number in the area which were named ‘King’s Place nunneries'.  Elizabeth was considered striking rather than a great beauty, but she had other qualities that inspired passion in men.  There was a stillness about her, a certain luminosity, that drew attention and entranced her admirers.  Most important of all, she had charm, as well as a genius for friendship and she was a good listener and perhaps it is these qualities which were the real secret of her success.  She soon acquired a succession of rich and aristocratic patrons – a practice known as ‘in keeping’ or ‘high keeping’ - and it’s possible that she took the surname Armistead from a former patron.  The Duke of Ancaster, the Earl of Derby, Viscount Bolingbroke, General Sir Richard Smith (a fabulously wealthy nabob) and the Prince of Wales were among her lovers.  Elizabeth became the toast of the town, a fashion setter and London’s most famous and sought-after courtesan, maintaining that position for a period of ten years, a remarkable feat in a world where a courtesan’s popularity was apt to quickly fade.  She secured the freehold of a house in Bond Street and a second house in Clarges Street, and her movements were reported in the fashionable magazines.  

Then, in 1783, Elizabeth fell in love with Charles James Fox.

Charles James Fox was one of the most brilliant, complex men of his generation.  He was the second son of wealthy politician Henry Holland and Lady Caroline Lennox, daughter of the second Duke and Duchess of Richmond.  As a child he was indulged by his parents, particularly his father, yet Charles was not spoilt by this indulgence and seemed to thrive on it.  He was an intellectual prodigy, reading plays by the age of five and devouring books by the score while at Eton and then Oxford.  A brilliant conversationalist and orator, he was a larger than life figure and after a trip to the continent, he took to wearing the most outrageous macaroni fashions.  He also became addicted to gambling, a pastime that was lead to losses on a staggering scale, even for his wealthy family.  

Charles James Fox by Karl Anton Hickel
His extraordinary physical appearance is well documented.   His thick dark brows (Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire nicknamed him ‘The Eyebrow’), hirsute air and less than fastidious personal hygiene make him sound unappealing yet Charles was a force of nature, inspiring a depth of affection among his friends that transcended even his death. 

Elizabeth and Charles knew one another for several years before they fell in love as they were part of the same (male) Whig circle.   Their affair started without expectation on both sides, but Charles’ early letters to ‘his dearest Liz’ display that she had his confidence and trust.  From the outset, he treated her as his equal and it was not long before the friendship between these two well-known figures was being reported in the press. 

In April 1783, Fox formed a coalition with Lord North, defeating Lord Shelburne.  He was appointed Secretary of State and he took to scribbling increasingly affectionate notes to Elizabeth from the House of Commons or his lodgings in St. James’.

‘I can not have a moment’s happiness or rest until I see you.  I had so set my mind upon seeing you now that I can not wean myself from it, and I know I shall be so nervous and out of spirits if you are not here by the 12th that I shall disgrace myself, and be thought to be oppressed by the accidents of fortune which God knows is far from the case.  On the contrary I think things look well, and if they did not I think I have courage enough to despise them; but I cannot bear the disappointment of your not coming.  Pray come even if you should think it wise to go away again, and come immediately.  You may be here by 7th or 8th.  Indeed I can not doubt your affection for me, but if you do love me, you must come.  Depend upon it there shall be no danger.  If you do not chuse to go to your house you may come to mine.  If I were to write forever it would be to say pray come, pray come.’

When his duties permitted it, Charles spent time with Elizabeth either in London, or at a house in St. Anne’s Hill in Surrrey which Elizabeth had recently begun to rent.  Elizabeth, however, was having doubts.  Now she was with Charles in what was undoubtedly an affair of the heart, she had no patron to pay her bills.  She was in debt and she must have wondered how long Charles’ ardour would last.  In desperation, she wrote to him in the autumn of 1783, breaking off the affair.  Her letter does not survive, but Charles’ heartfelt, pleading reply does:

‘It is impossible to conceive how miserable your letter had made me.  No, my dearest Liz you must not go indeed you must not, the very thought of living without you so totally sinks my spirits that I am sure the reality would be more than I could bear....You shall not go without me wherever you go.  I have examined myself and know that I can better abandon friends, country and 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 can not bear.' 

In the face of such an outpouring of love and distress, Elizabeth capitulated, retiring from her profession to devote herself to Charles.  She sold her two London houses and the annuities bestowed on her by former patrons, but neither she nor Charles could bear to give up the house in St. Anne’s Hill. 

Over the following years, Charles and Elizabeth shared a blissful life together.  She stayed in Surrey and Charles joined her whenever he could escape his parliamentary duties.  He hated to be parted from her and during one long absence, he wrote:

‘It may sound ridiculous, but it is true that I feel every day how much more I love you than even I know.  You are all to me. You can always make me happy in circumstances apparently unpleasant and miserable... Indeed, my dearest angel, the whole happiness of my life depends on you.  Pray, pray do not abuse your power – Adieu.’

The drawing rooms of Charles’ married friends would be forever closed to Elizabeth (as a former courtesan), but she did not repine and made a life for herself and for Charles.  They enjoyed reading the classics together, gardening and planning improvements to the house.  

 In September 1795, Charles finally persuaded Elizabeth to marry him although at Elizabeth’s request, the marriage was to be kept secret.  For the next seven years, it remained so, even from their family and closest friends.  Their love only deepened over time and when Charles James Fox died on 15th September 1806, the name of the woman he loved - ‘my dearest  dearest Liz’ - was on his lips.  ‘Indeed’ wrote Lord Holland ‘if one had not known it before, his last hours would have convinced us that the ruling passion of his heart was affection and tenderness for her.’

Elizabeth passed away on 8th July 1842, aged 91 years.  She outlived her beloved husband by 36 years.  Her warmth of spirit and capacity for friendship remained with her, with many friends, relations, their children and grandchildren coming to visit and stay.  Dearest Liz, it seems, was not only loved by Charles, but by all those around her too.

If you'd like to read more about the enduring love affair between Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox, I'd recommend Katie Hickmans' excellent book, Courtesans.