Kitty Fisher: The First Female Celebrity by Joanne Major

Kitty Fisher: The First Female Celebrity
by Joanne Major

If Major’s book, Kitty Fisher: The First Female Celebrity was turned into a reality television series
depicting the lascivious 18th century — and if time travel could be achieved — Kitty Fisher would have a hit show called, “Keeping up with Kitty.” It would include an extended cast of rival courtesans and other infamous women on Harris’s famous list of loose and exciting women about London. Video clips of Kitty’s horsing accident in the Mall would have broken the internet, shut TikTok down, gone viral.

The World of Kitty Fisher and women like her, courtesans of Britain’s aristocrats and wealthy merchants, with its alcoholic rivers of champagne and deep, rich wine, gluttonous helpings of animal roasts, buckets of gravies, mountains of puddings, and voluptuous flesh in resplendent velvets and silks far outshines the grotesque excesses of our modern times. The ratings of Housewives of Who-Cares-Where and the Bros of Spoilt-Rich-Baby-Daddies would pale to a grey in comparison to a show about Kitty Fisher and her world.

But alas! No such reality shows exists and time travel is still science fiction. Major’s book, Kitty Fisher: The First Female Celebrity, however, does give us a tantalizing glimpse into what might appear on the screen. In nine short chapters — this history book is succinct at 145 pages (minus notes, index, and bibliography) — Major gives the reader a fleshy, tangible sense of the English sex-fueled 18th Century. The first few chapters give us an overview of Kitty Fisher’s world and her personal history. These chapters also chronicle Fisher’s rise to fame and the path to her profession. Chapter 4 focuses on one of the most enduring events of her career, her horse accident and discusses the effect of publicity on her life and career. Chapter 5 gives the reader a closer view into the business aspects of courtesan-ship. In a way, we can see clear connections between the influencers of today and the women of this world. The modes in which women like Kitty Fisher monetized themselves is the subject of chapters four and fives. Chapters 6 and 7 examine how Kitty and other courtesans or kept women segued into comfortable and profitable existences for the long term. Marriage, servitude, and dismissal were all possible endings to these women’s careers; how did women establish security for themselves? The final two chapters discuss what happened after Kitty Fisher left the stage (and this world) and how she became imbued with a legendary status. Kitty Fisher follows the physical lifetime and historical trajectory of the eponymous subject.

While Kitty Fisher is the central heroine of this prosopography, it includes the tales of many other women with the same vocation and the men who served them, worshipped them, paid for them, kept them, maligned them and took advantage of them. Kitty Fisher allows the reader to envision the full landscape of sex work in this era, from those — like Fisher — who proved the exception, to those who proved the rule and have fallen into anonymity.

Their histories and careers, whether illustrious or tragic, forgettable or infamous, reveal an aspect of historical womanhood that is rarely illuminated. The women of Kitty Fisher are far from piteous. Major reveals to us how human they could be, as emotional, youthful, desirous beings. She also shows us how ruthless and powerful they were. These women were not the mere playthings of men, they were businesswomen, shrewd, and canny, educated and intelligent, cognizant of their own agency and unafraid to use it. Of course, patriarchy and its constraints on women were tight around these women, but they learnt how to use the tools and avenues open to them to their own ends. Two of Kitty Fisher’s rivals rose above the others of their profession to marry into the aristocracy.

The book also shows the reader the less glamorous outcomes. Some women died in penury, in debt, in the most awful circumstances. Many women faded away into nothingness, used and abused, broken. In this the book is well-balanced, giving the reader a wide view of the landscape.

As Kitty Fisher is a historical biography written for a general audience and not an academic one, it provides little perspective on the wider social, political, imperial, and economic matters of the era. It does not delve into historiography. This is a public-facing cultural history and is more narrowly focused on the individuals and the immediate milieu of their world. The effect makes for pleasurable reading; Kitty Fisher is very accessible in terms of language and prose, their (hi)stories unfold without requiring the reader to have much pre-existing historical knowledge. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

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