The Authentic and Impartial Life of Mrs. Mary Anne Clarke...
London: Printed for the Author, 1809.
London: Printed for the Author, 1809. First edition. Contemporary three quarters morocco over marbled boards with gilt to spine. Top edge brightly gilt. Marbled endpapers. Measuring 205 x 130mm and collating , 92: complete including delicately colored frontis. Gentle rubbing to spine and extremities with joints tender but holding well. Some light scattered foxing and occasional marginal soiling not affecting text; a pleasing copy overall. Scarce in first edition, we have located 15 first edition copies in OCLC, with the database listing numerous second editions from later the same year. It appears only once in the modern auction record, in 1949.
The Authentic Life and Impartial Memoir of Mrs. Mary Anne Clark marks a distinct shift in cultural attitudes toward courtesans. During the 18th century rise of this class of women often called "The Great Impures" or "Toasts of the Town," courtesans were glamorous celebrities "engaged in complex relationships with aristocratic women" insofar as they were often acquaintances or friends; in both popular representations and in their own memoirs, these courtesans "appeared in opposition to the domestic ideal of middle-class femininity and her associated virtues of privacy, modesty, and chastity" (Culley). The individual and collective power of the Great Impures was economic (as they charged a high premium), social (as their presence was highly desirable at theatres and parties), and political (particularly as they engaged with members of the elite classes). This influence became all the more visible through the genre of the "scandalous memoir" -- published autobiographies in which courtesans discussed their entry into the sex trade unabashedly, addressed the role of patriarchy in limiting women's options, and celebrated their communities outside the traditional structure.
But as the 18th century gave way to 19th century conservatism, "the way such women's roles were publicly presented shifted, with courtesans seen less as social leaders than as immoral characters and political liabilities" (McCreery). In particular, as the English warred against Napoleon, there was a call to define Britishness as morally superior in contrast to the loose and licentious French. The present memoir is a key example of this. Involved with the Duke of York from 1803 to 1806, the famed Mary Anne Clarke became a political target in 1809 "when the Duke was charged with corruption for promoting officers from whom Clarke had allegedly taken bribes" (National Portrait Gallery). Both parties were dragged into the press and the courts as the public demanded a kind of exposure of vice in the upper classes; and the Duke ultimately renounced and accused Clarke in order to rescue himself. In this memoir, rather than an unapologetic embrace of a life in the sex trade, readers find a defense and an attempt at reclaiming public faith. "To say nothing of the absurd and contradictory accounts which have circulated concerning Mrs. Clarke...the present work, derived from a more intimate connection and authentic sources unites every particular of importance relative to this celebrated female into one point of view." Clarke's public downfall was a notable but not an isolated incident, as the Great Impures began to fade and a more underground and gritty sex trade became the wider trend. (Item #5720)