Was she a harlot or not? Her detractors thought so, and when she won both acclaim and lust for her portrayal of Polly Peachum in the first production of John Gay's celebrated The Beggar's Opera in 1728, one stated that she had "raised her price from one guinea to a hundred, tho' she cannot be a greater whore than she was before". No one can know, since essentially Lavinia Fenton is one of history's innumerable blanks. Attractive, with a beautiful singing voice, she was a coffee-house keeper's daughter who, at the height of her fame, absconded with the Duke of Bolton. She produced sons, and when the first Duchess died, married her aristocrat and took the title. After his death, she paused only to enjoy an Irish surgeon lover, and died at 52, leaving the adventurer most of her fortune. Apart from one or two more or less unsubstantiated anecdotes and descriptions, no more is known of her.
Writing a book about a human question mark like Lavinia was always going to be a task akin to making ropes out of sand, and Lisa Hilton, fresh from a successful biography of Madame de Montespan (Athénais: the Real Queen of France), chooses two ways around this. Firstly she exploits the admirable 18th-century penchant for digression, and provides sparky accounts of some of the most colourful topics associated with Lavinia's life and the Opera. She gallops with zest through highwaymen, hangings, whores and hacks - though she misses the Georgian fashion for equating those two. She does justice to the theatre and its critics ("play actors are the vilest vermin that hell ever vomited out", said Robert Gould), as well as drink, politics, Bath, and - very detailed, this - castrati and how they were made. These outings are enjoyable syntheses of the work of scholars such as Roy Porter, John Brewer and Paul Langford, and are recommended for their verve.
Hilton's other strategy for giving us Lavinia comes with post-modern panache: if the sand won't stick together, make your ropes with imaginary glue. So, while there is reliance on the customary "perhaps", she also tries for sixes over the boundary between biography and fiction with some ambitious episodes in the second-person present. Lavinia, immured in Yorkshire in the ancestral Bolton pile, is granted pensiveness - "there is something curiously oppressive, she thinks, about such a very great deal of sky" - and then addressed directly: she has always dressed herself, "but now there is a quiet woman to lace you and hand you your handkerchief". We shouldn't feel too sorry for bored ex-Polly, however, since, back in terra biographica, we learn that "there is nothing to suggest that Lavinia was ever actually in Yorkshire." The deficiencies of the second-person present mode have recently prompted James Wood to ask in the LRB if there has ever been a really successful example: not yet, I fear.
In the light of these and some other highly wrought passages, Hilton has offered a hostage to fortune in her early complaint about critics of Augustan literature - in their work, she says: "fact has too often been made subservient to the desire for narrative." Later she all but reverses this: "Perhaps we should beware of the assumption that the wanton heaping of facts makes for knowledge of a kind." The obscuring mists close in, helped by references to the 18th-century love of masks and personae - but this can only be taken so far. Richardson's Pamela was first published in 1740, not 1734, and Johnson and Swift would have been outraged to hear that their works "recognise that truth is an uncertain element", "a mirage-like glimmer".
Hilton, though, shows sharp wit and a healthy irony: she is splendid on an acting manual's recommendation for the exact angle of the left leg needed to indicate "Astonishment and Surprise", and grasps the Duke of Bolton's character as a great aristocratic booby well (the sort who, according to an 18th-century joke, thought that "Classics" was the county next to Essex). Bolton's father, Hilton explains, was "described as generally to be seen with his tongue lolling out of his mouth", "a posture which is rarely indicative of intellectual profundity".
Lavinia Fenton is still generating speculation, not fact, and it has always been her misfortune to be given roles, rather than to be known. Hilton quotes a scurrilous fake letter from a "Horse-Courser" claiming to have acted on a bet that he could not last a five-minute ride with her. The jockey asserts that he did not: he "foundered between two Hills, and lost Breath in one minute, three seconds and two Moments".
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