The Empress of Pleasure by Judith Summers

Carnival capers as Venice comes to Soho
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The Independent Culture

Teresa Cornelys's life was something of a palindrome. She endured hardship, debt and obscurity in youth, rose to resplendent wealth, and then (through her own improvidence) sank into hardship, debt and obscurity again. Colourful lives often follow this pattern: it's the improvidence that does it.

Judith Summers uses similar palindromic tricks in this book. She starts with a walk around Soho and then shifts to 18th-century Venice, where Teresa was born; at the end, the narrative weaves back to modern Soho. In between, we come to agree with the bold assertion that Soho owes much of its character to Teresa, and to her extraordinary idea of bringing the spirit of the Venetian Carnival to London.

Teresa was born into a theatrical family in 1723. She became a travelling opera singer and married young, but her hus- band was insignificant and most of her children were fathered by other men - including her fellow Venetian, Casanova. A clergyman, John Fermor, took her to London in 1759, where she pulled off her great plan. Using his money, she bought Carlisle House in Soho Square and converted it to an ultra-glamorous venue for concerts and balls.

Carlisle House did more than just bring the light and fun of Italy to London; it became a kind of A-list Disneyland. Even the food seemed to belong in a dream: jellies, syllabubs, crayfish. The decor was fabulous: mineral springs, indoor Chinese bridges. She filled the house with real turf, flowers and hedges for "rural masquerades". Her expenses were enormous, but it was all so divinely trendy that she made money.

Teresa was a promotional genius, but a financial nincompoop. Eventually she lost much of her clientele to the new, glitzy Pantheon in Oxford Street, and went into decline. She was repeatedly declared bankrupt and imprisoned for debt; after a few comebcks, she let the place go. It was demolished in 1791.

The Empress of Pleasure is at its best on the house and entertainments; it is also splendid on Soho and Venice. But when a broad-brush urban atmosphere is called for, the author rolls out a length of "18th-century London" wallpaper, with raucous coachmen, servants emptying chamber-pots, and all the usual gin, sin and din.

The book remains a bright and interesting edifice, despite the zombies of cliché somnambulating its hallways. Teresa is a beguiling character, and the long-lost house has such a powerful presence that I will never pass through Soho Square again without thinking of magical scenes: syllabubs, and music, and rooms full of hedgerows.