The great courtesans of the Georgian era had far more than mere beauty to recommend them. To attract and hold the interest – and even love – of the equally great men of the day required wit, charm, sensuality, and the ability to be endlessly alluring. Discretion was a plus, especially with gentlemen engaged in politics. This kind of worldly success was a game, and the most successful players knew how to bend the rules to win.
No one knew that better than Nancy Parsons (c1741-c1813). Born the daughter of a tailor, she left London in the company of a slave-trader named Horton and lived with him in Jamaica. When she returned without him, she was styled Mrs. Horton, though likely not married. By 1763, she had become the mistress of Augustus Henry FitzRoy, third Duke of Grafton and also prime minister. For her sake, the duke alienated his wife and tarnished his political career, and the scandalous relationship earned them a place in the notorious Tetes-a-Tetes column of Town and Country Magazine as "Palinurus & Annabella":
Annabella is now the happiest of her sex, attached to the most amiable man of the age, whose rank and influence raise her, in point of power, beyond many queens of the earth. Caressed by the highest, courted and adulated by all, her merit and shining abilities receive that applause that is justly due to them. She presides constantly at his sumptuous table, and does the honours with an ease and elegance, that the first nobility in the kingdom are compelled to admire.
Yet as fine as all this sounded for a tailor's daughter, by 1769 Mrs. Horton had moved on to become the mistress of John Frederick Sackville, third Duke of Dorset, best known as a gambler and a sportsman. Horace Walpole waggishly described her as "the Duke of Grafton's Mrs. Horton, the Duke of Dorset's Mrs. Horton, everybody's Mrs. Horton."
But the resilient Mrs. Horton wasn't ready to be so easily dismissed. She beguiled the young Charles Maynard, second Viscount Maynard, despite the (likely) ten year difference in their ages. "Lord Maynard has announced to his sister in form his marriage with Miss Nancy Parsons (for I think the title of Mrs. Horton is doubtful)," wrote a titillated Mrs. Boscawen to a friend. "This Circe was well known at the time Lord Maynard was born - is this a charade, or only a phenomenon?"
What it was was a marriage, and Mrs. Horton was now Viscountess Maynard. Perhaps because she was such a familiar face, Lady Maynard was at last accepted into society. As Walpole now noted, she "deserved a peerage as much as many that have got them lately."
A younger husband and peerage still didn't seem to be quite enough, however, and in 1784 Lady Maynard was again the talk of London. This time it was an affair with yet another duke, this one half her age: Francis Russell, the nineteen-year-old fifth Duke of Bedford. Her final mention is her death in France, 1814-15.
From these two portraits considered to be of her (the one on the left by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the one on the right by George Willison), she doesn't appear to have been a remarkable beauty, or had a voluptuous figure. But clearly she had that indefinable something. Perhaps the exotic dress she chose for both portraits hints at the mystery of being the divine Mrs. Horton.
Left: Mrs. Horton, Later Viscountess Maynard, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Right: Nancy Parsons in Turkish Dress (detail), by George Willison, c 1771. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.