Peg Plunkett: Memoirs of a Whore

Written by Julie Peakman
Review by Doug Kemp

In the 18th century, “whore memoirs” became a popular literary phenomenon, when high-class courtesans would pen their autobiographies, full of titillating details of their hedonistic and depraved (as much of society considered it) activities. The Irishwoman Peg Plunkett (known professionally as Mrs Leeson) also wrote her memories in the 1790s. She had been a courtesan and brothel-owner to the wealthy and aristocracy of Ireland and there was much trepidation about the salacious details of the affairs with her high-ranking customers that she was going to reveal.

Julie Peakman summarises the three volumes of Peg’s memoirs and places them in the context of 18th-century Irish society with a commentary and analysis full of intriguing and informative detail. It was a time when women had very little opportunity for independent life without financial reliance upon men, and prostitution was one of the few “career” choices open that allowed them a measure of economic self-sufficiency. Society mostly demanded much better behaviour from women than it did of men, but Peg, impulsively generous as she could be, was also gulled by many other women, and in proper cautionary–tale style, she ended her life in poverty and ill health.