Alimony and Acting: The Life of Nosegay Fan
Frances Barton was born around 1737 (although some say as early as 1731) near Vinegar Yard off the Strand, where her father had a shoe stall. Her mother died when she was young and her father did not remarry. Fanny had the good luck to be a very beautiful little girl, and her father and brother (who ran a pub in Stanway Yard later in life) sent her out to sell nosegays. Her cheeky spirit and quick ear soon meant she was singing to the customers and reciting bits and pieces she had heard on the streets of Covent Garden. The actors and actresses thought she was hilarious and used to put her up on a table and get her to sing or act for them and give her a few pence in return. A shrewd girl, she began to learn passages from the famous poets and bring them forth to great amusement, and no doubt a few more pennies.
Fanny then took work with a French milliner in Cockspur Street. She must have had an ability with languages, as she apparently emerged from this employment speaking fluent French. Her stay in Cockspur Street also introduced her to fashion, something that would serve her well for the rest of her life. For a while, she had a friend whose boyfriend was an actor, and spent a lot of time in the theatres.
This period of Fanny’s life is hazy. Some scholars have her down as a child prostitute at this stage. I can see why they would draw this conclusion (especially with the later associations with Reynolds), but in the early 1750s Fanny was aged somewhere between 13 and 20. The age of consent at the time was 12. She seems to have continued in employment from the milliner to service as a kitchen maid in the North household, earning money on the side as a ‘ballad-singer’. Perhaps she also took money for sex. Who knows? I am in no way condoning teenage prostitution but as far as I can see Frances Barton was acting under no authority but her own and the tendency to brand attractive, assertive women as whores isn’t exactly a concept limited to the Georgian period. I would argue for the opposite being true. I would argue that Fanny seems to have abandoned street and theatre working as she entered sexual maturity, for respectable work in a shop and household, in order to avoid becoming a prostitute. There may have been an incident that told her it was time to find more secure work, or maybe she was smart enough to work it out for herself.
By 1755 though, Fanny is on the stage. She is a comic actress, a new kind of entertainer. She dons outlandish outfits, breeches and sometimes fantasy costume. Fanny is a hit. Suddenly earning the heady sum of 30 shillings a week, she invested in education; learning languages, literature and music. Then she married James Abington, trumpeter and music master. Big mistake. They went to Ireland. Dublin only had two theatres at the time, and it appears Mrs Abington was queen of both of them. Mr Abington got jealous, and finally they had to part, but not before Fanny had agreed to give him a pension for the rest of his life, and based upon her success. Oh yes.
Fanny went on to become the mistress of Mr Francis Needham, an MP who furthered her hard-won education and happily showed her off in society. In 1765, they came to England, and Needham died at Bath, with his mistress in attendance. She quickly returned to the stage, where she was even more popular than before.
Once again, there are assertions that Fanny was living as a courtesan. There are no clear attachments extant, but she was soon acting as a trendsetter and arbiter of taste, as a single woman. By 1764, she was posing for Joshua Reynolds. He depicted her as an actress, not a whore, unlike Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien. In 1781, she had a costume allowance from the Covent Garden Theatre for five hundred pounds a year. If Mrs Abington was also selling sex, it was because she wanted to, not because she needed the money.
Fanny took a house in Pall Mall and set about surrounding herself with the thinkers and wits of the day. Horace Walpole, notorious bitch, thought she was great as did Samuel Johnson. She had an ongoing feud/mutual admiration society with David Garrick, who quite rightly regarded her as both a prima donna and businesswoman (he signed his letters to her ‘Yours very truly, when you are not unruly’). A mark of her popularity was the sell-out of her benefits. Benefits were the night when one of the actors got most of the takings at the door, and her nights were always ‘full to the rails’. James Boswell once upbraided Johnson for braving the crush to attend Fanny’s benefit, and Johnson turned on him with, ‘When the public cares one thousandth part for you that it does for her, I shall go to your benefit too.’
Frances Abington continued to live in a fashionable and very popular way long after she had given up the stage. She died in her home in Pall Mall in 1815, an old and very successful lady. Brava!