The Circus

The Circus

Pp 329-335

18TH C

Nevertheless it is worth remembering that the ruling classes in the 18th C enjoyed almost absolute power over the lower classes,being in a position to abuse them, had they chosen to do so, without fear of the law.

Servant girls were often totally unprotected, frequently abused by male members of the family and thrown out without ceremony if they became pregnant. Girls of eleven and twelve were regularly used in brothels, no questions asked. Indeed, some of the gentlemen who patronized these establishments believed that no girl over the age of fourteen was worth paying for.

Margaret Gainsborough's deep concern about seeking a good marriage for each of her daughters is understandable. Across all levels of society at the time marriage for women was the ultimate goal, the most momentous decision of their lives, as important to the lowest ranking chambermaid as to the daughter of the house. Make a poor choice in the matter of a husband and you were stuck with him for life. Choose a potential mean sadistic bore, or a man who turned out following marriage to be an alcoholic or a wife-beater and you faced a miserable life of emotional torture or even physical pain. The reason? There was no way out for any ordinary wife and only in exceptional circustances for that of an aristocrat.

The outlook for the spinster daughters Margaret and her older sister Mary, now showing signs of the illness which was to ruin her life, was less than favourable. As we have seen earlier, Mary was to marry the musician Fischer in 1780 but that union lasted only six months before Mary returned to live with the family and remained there for the rest of her life.

Being a penniless spinster in whatever station in life meant dependence on the charity of family, as in this case, or on the generosity of wealthier friends.

Daughters were often persuaded by their mothers to favour an older suitor over a younger man who might, with age, prove to be not quite the prize envisaged. Many a presentable young fellow took to drink after marriage, often developing an uncontrollable temper. Although a romantic partnership was sought in the 18th C and was to be welcomed, a way of life boasting ownership of a coach and six was infinitely preferable to love in a thatched cottage.

As we have seen earlier there was very little for a spinster to do beyond becoming a nuisance to her relatives. If she were lucky enough to have been left a property one means of becoming independent was to take on the role of lodging-house keeper, assuming the honorary title of "Mrs" to achieve some respectability. It was possible to make a good living out of the trade, as Gainsborough's sister demonstrated.

But as far as the Gainsborough girls were concerned this was neither necessary nor acceptable. Mary by this time was incapable of taking any responsible position and Margaret appears to have inherited her mother's claim to a high-born status: she was not prepared to exhibit her prowess as a pianist in return for money, not even to please Queen Charlotte when she signalled an interest in hearing Margaret perform.

There appears to be no record of either girl actually working for a living at any point in their lives and Gainsborough was at pains to make provision for his daughters both before and after his death. Although Mary was said to be a talented draughtsman, no authenticated examples of her drawing, or of Margaret's, have survived, but just might exist among unattributed copies of their father's drawings in various collections. He certainly intended them to become proficient in drawing and it would seem likely that they might have copied his work.

All told Gainsborough painted six double portraits of his daughters and the last one, as mentioned earlier, was painted here in this house in the period 1770-1774. Interestingly, in the fifth double portrait Gainsborough depicted the girls holding portfolios of drawings.

Mary was sixteen and Margaret fifteen when they came to The Circus and they were aged twenty-four and twenty-three years when they left with their parents to live in London. In the time spent in Bath they were at the peak of their lives, being attractive young girls on arrival who matured into handsome women by the time they left, having enjoyed comfortable life with the opportunity of making many contacts in artistic circles in the famous and fashionable city. Gainsborough had a wide-ranging group of famous friends in the worlds of theatre, music and the arts who were frequent visitors to No. 17 The Circus.