Mistress Peachum's PleasureBook - 2005
Mistress Peachum was Lavinia Fenton, an eighteenth-century actress who was the original Polly Peachum in John Gay's play The Begger's Opera and became the Duchess of Bolton.
Raised in a Charing Cross coffee-house owner, Lavinia nearly fell victim to the ambitions of her mother, who plotted the sale of her virginity to an elderly gentleman for two hundred pounds, 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. It also confirms Hilton to be one of our finest writers of narrative history.