Untold lives blog

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23 October 2012

An eighteenth-century rake’s progress

It’s tempting to think of John Wilkes (1725-97) as a sort of eighteenth-century Boris Johnson.  Boris himself would probably be flattered by the comparison, as he writes in Johnson’s Life of London (2012): ‘I have come to admire Wilkes for his courage and his dynamism and his boundless animal spirits'.

Wilkes was a man of disarming wit and charm, described by a contemporary as ‘an incomparable comedian in all he said and did’, but also a skilful opportunist who used his position as Lord Mayor of London to force his way into national politics.  His instantly recognisable features were a gift to cartoonists, while his personal popularity enabled him to get away with a complicated private life that would have ruined another politician’s career.

John Wilkes

From BL,11335.aa.28 ©The British Library Board Images Online

A volume in the Wilkes Papers, discreetly listed in our catalogue as ‘correspondence, chiefly with ladies’, documents this last aspect of Wilkes’s life.  It includes a series of letters from Jenny Wade, who carried on a brief affair with Wilkes while living as his next-door neighbour in Prince’s Court (modern-day Storey’s Gate), Westminster, in 1779.  The letters tell a tale of snatched meetings, elaborate precautions to ensure secrecy, and furtive messages left at coffee houses to avoid the prying eyes of landladies.  One letter reads, in its entirety: ‘I shall be at Westminster bridge at 8, Shall put my Handkerchief to my face and wear a Bonnet.’

Letter from Jenny Wade
Signs of strain soon begin to appear in the letters, with Miss Wade threatening that she will be forced to leave London to escape her creditors unless Wilkes will pay off her debts and set her up in private lodgings: ‘I really cannot think £50 or £60 can be a sum which you cannot at any time command.’  There are occasional references to another gentleman, a Mr Paul, who has offered to set Miss Wade up in a house in the country.  The one letter from Wilkes preserved among the correspondence gallantly compliments her on her ‘delicacy of sentiment’, and assures her of his ‘truest regard and tenderness’, but the relationship seems to have lasted less than a year before Miss Wade moved to Warwickshire and Wilkes moved on to other conquests.

Horace Bleackley’s life of Wilkes, published in 1907, describes Miss Wade as a ‘frail adventuress’, while Arthur Cash’s more recent biography, published in 2006, calls her a ‘professional courtesan’.  Both writers go to some pains to cast Wilkes’s numerous affairs in a sympathetic light: Cash, for example, suggests that he was genuinely fond of his mistresses, and that ‘he treated their letters as treasures, collecting, organising and labelling them, as though he wanted to preserve their memory’.  Perhaps so, though I have to confess that I find something mildly creepy in the sight of these letters neatly labelled in Wilkes’s own hand; to me they seem less like souvenirs d’amour and more like sexual trophies.  A cynic might suspect that Wilkes’s rakish charm has seduced his biographers just as successfully as it did Miss Wade.

Arnold Hunt
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts



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