The smile…was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living. - Daphne Du Maurier
For a courtesan, attracting a royal patron can be a mixed blessing; on the one hand, such an man can confer privileges far in excess of those available from even the wealthiest clients outside of the ruling class. But on the other hand, there are unique difficulties inherent in such an arrangement, particularly if the lady in question is either indiscreet or abusive of her position; Mary Anne Clarke was both.
Mary Anne Thompson was born in a working-class section of London on April 3rd, 1776, the daughter of a tradesman who died when she was young; her mother soon remarried a man named Farquhar who worked as a proofreader at a printing shop in Fleet Street. Beauty, charm and wit were hers by nature, but it would appear that her stepfather was the one who taught her to read and write; both contributed to winning her a position correcting copy for the shop by her early teens. An 1809 biography (which she may have written herself) claims that the manager, Mr. Day, paid for her education with an eye toward marrying her in the future; apparently, that didn’t work out and young Mary Anne took up with a pawnbroker who is said to have ruined his business in the process of feeding her already-expensive tastes. In 1794 she married Joseph Clarke, the son of a wealthy stonemason, but he was as profligate a spender as his bride and declared bankruptcy only a few years later. The marriage produced two children, George and Ellen; the latter eventually married Louis-Mathurin Busson du Maurier and was the mother of the cartoonist and novelist George du Maurier, from whom Daphne du Maurier was descended (in 1954 the latter published Mary Anne, a fictionalized account of her ancestress’ life.)
After leaving Clarke, Mary Anne decided to support her children by a more professional and consistent style of harlotry and so became a courtesan, advertising herself as so many did at that time: on the stage. Though it is likely that her only interest in acting was as a means to an end, she is said to have been a natural talent (as are so many whores) and was often described as an “actress” for many years afterward. In any case, she developed quite a reputation in the late ‘90s and had achieved such a lavish lifestyle that no one man could reasonably support her…which is why it was inevitable that her attempt at such an arrangement eventually led to disaster. In 1803 Mary Anne became the kept mistress of Prince Frederick, Duke of York, the second son of King George III and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. He set her up in a mansion with numerous servants and an allowance of £100 a month (about $5600/month today), but the total cost of the household was roughly five times that. It wasn’t nearly enough for her extravagant tastes, and she soon figured out a means of supplementing it: for a fee (£2600 for promotion to major, other ranks in proportion), she would add the name of an officer who felt he wasn’t being promoted quickly enough to the list sent to the Duke for approval.
The scheme might’ve gone on indefinitely had she been more discreet, but her greed made her careless and she allowed the word about her promotion service to spread a little too widely. In January of 1809 Colonel Gwyllym Lloyd Wardle, a veteran turned Welsh MP, discovered the whole business and decided to make his whistle-blowing even more scandalous by alleging that the Duke not only knew about his mistress’ actions, but was actually in on the deal.
I’m sure you can imagine the stink; the Duke resigned his post on March 25th, but was reinstated after the ensuing trial proved he knew nothing about Mary Anne’s side business. She managed like the professional she was and avoided prison, though at the cost of her reputation and connections. It is very likely that her escape was at least partly due to her foresight in turning over the Duke’s letters – in which he had been far too critical of relatives and other government officials – to her solicitors for safekeeping. After the trial, they negotiated a very sweet deal for her: she received a settlement of £7000 and a large annuity which would pass to her daughter after her death, plus the costs of her son’s education and military commission, in return for the letters and her promise never to criticize or reveal anything she knew about the royal family.
The story might’ve ended there had Mary Anne been able to keep her mouth shut; she never broke her agreement to remain mum about the Hanovers, but kept publishing pamphlets in which she said things other powerful people didn’t like, and was sued for libel several times. None of these charges stuck until 1813, when she was convicted and sentenced to nine months in prison. Upon her release she travelled in Europe for some time before settling in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, and lived the rest of her long life in comfort before dying on June 21st, 1852, over a decade into the reign of her former patron’s niece, Queen Victoria. Though some whores ensure income for their declining years by careful investment, Mary Anne Clarke managed by a little shrewdness and a lot of dumb luck.