Saturday, 16 May 2009

Mistress Peachum's Pleasure - Lisa Hilton

Mistress Peachum was Lavinia Fenton, an eighteenth-century actress who was the original Polly Peachum in John Gay's smash-hit play The Beggar's Opera and became the Duchess of Bolton.

Raised in a Charing Cross coffee house, Lavinia nearly fell victim to the ambition of her mother, who plotted the sale of her virginity to an elderly gentleman for £200, but Lavinia was determined to live her life on her own terms. She became an actress, and though she was a newcomer to the stage when she was chosen to star as Polly, her combination of a sweet voice, a pretty face and a knowledge of the seamier side of London life made the role her own.

Both Lavinia and the play were overnight sensations, but she enjoyed only a few months of fame before she caught the eye of the Duke of Bolton, a married, indolent and childless aristocrat. The Duke was determined to make her his mistress, and she agreed to elope with him, exchanging the rackety glamour of life as London's most celebrated actress for twenty years of retirement. Lavinia gave the Duke three sons, but when she was left a widow she chose her own way once more, and scandalously threw away their fortunes on her younger lover.

Lisa Hilton's ebullient portrait of Lavinia Fenton's aspirational life is also a scintillating depiction of the age. With a cast of politicians and pickpockets, highwaymen and whores, it illuminates the relationship between the theatre and the social and political climate of eighteenth-century London.

I was expecting to read mostly about the famed Lavinia but, as the author points out, there is actually very little that is known acknowledged fact about Lavinia herself so what little is known about her was bulked out with the history of the times she lived in. Thus, the book was a disappointment when it came to what I expected but it made up for it in the interesting accounts of the times she lived in and the characters who abounded in London at that time.

It was also interesting to make comparisons between then and now: how attitudes to acting have changed completely, so what was once considered on the same level as prostitution is now something that many aspire to; today's politicians expenses revelations are nothing new and actually it's just following on a long tradition of corruption and sleeze within Parliament; today's binge drinkers are nothing new when compared to the gin-swilling population back then etc etc etc It certainly brings home the cyclical nature of Life, and all it encompasses, and how successive generations seem drawn to repeat the same-old-same-old by following in the footsteps of the ancestors. Makes me wonder: will we ever learn and thus develop our full potential?

Normally I would add the book to my personal collection but Life seems to be giving me lessons to encourage me to "let go" at the moment, so it's been registered with Book Crossing and is up for re-homing instead........ just shout if you'd like it. :0)


Julie said...

A nice title, but not one i think i would read.

Karan said...

That title had my DSis wondering if I was reading a rude book. LOL