Sophia Baddeley is one of the most famous English courtesans of the 18th century, as well as being renowned in the theater and musical communities of the day.

Vital Stats

Sophia Snow was born in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, England in 1745. Her parents were Valentine Snow and his wife Mary. Sophia was born into a musical family, as her father was once Serjeant-Trumpeter to George II. Also, records indicate that possible Snow siblings of Sophia’s were Jonathan, Robert, and a sister who danced the hornpipe. Valentine wanted his daughter Sophia to become a genteel lady and to play the harpsichord, but she hated her training, and at the age of 18 abandoned its pursuits.

Bad, Bad Baddeley

In 1764, Sophia eloped with Robert Baddeley, a Drury Lane theater player almost twice her age. The marriage was not a happy one, but Robert Baddeley recognized an opportunity before him when a rich Jewish friend of his, “Mr. Mendez” approached him about becoming involved with Sophia. Robert encouraged her to accept, saying that such rich friends were not to be slighted. The Baddeleys filed private articles of separation in 1770, and Sophia became involved with Mr. Mendez. Though they would act on the same stage together, Sophia and Robert would not speak to each other, “except when the utterance was dramatic.” Most scholars record Sophia’s first acting gig as her 1764 role as an understudy for the role of Cordelia in King Lear; when the lead was unable to perform, Sophia Baddeley played the part. However, she’d never actually seen the play, and upon seeing the actor playing Mad Tom she was so afraid she screamed and fell over. The audience felt so bad for her that they immediately were emotionally drawn to her, and thus began the audience’s love affair with the actress Sophia Baddeley. She garnered other roles in The Beggar’s Opera, Cymbeline, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. Notes from her theater managers lead us to believe that while they may have thought she was a terrible actress—save for her beautiful singing—the audiences loved her.

Wonder of the age

As a courtesan, Sophia Baddeley was renowned for her beauty. One of Sophia’s many paramours, the Duke of Ancaster, compared her eyes to that of the basilisk. “Absolutely one of the wonders of the age. No man can gaze on you unwounded…whose eyes kill those whom they fix on.” On June 26, 1771 Samuel Foote opened his satirical comedy The Maid of Bath about the life of Elizabeth Linley’s marriage to Sir William Long at the Haymarket. Playwright himself acting in the play extemporized, “Not even the beauty of the nine Muses, nor even that of the divine Baddeley herself, who there sits, could exceed that of the Maid of Bath.” Upon remarking on Sophia’s magnificence, he pointed to where she sat in a theater seat, and she stood, bowing. Twenty five minutes and three encores later she finally sat back down. At one time George III even commissioned Zoffany to paint Sophia and Robert Baddeley in Garrick and Colman’s play The Clandestine Marriage.

Love For Sale

Most women who were “in circles of purchasable beauty” only were all the rage for a short time before their popularity waned. Sophia Baddeley’s rampant desirability and vogue as a top courtesan lasted from 1771-1774, a shocking four years. Though everyone in society wanted to see and be seen with her, during this time period “polite” society refused to acknowledge that such women existed. Not only was Sophia known for her beauty but for her many rich and famous lovers. The stories go on and on: Charles Holland, the actor who died of smallpox. After Holland’s death, Baddeley lived with Holland’s doctor, Dr. Hayes in a Marlborough St. house for nine months. Then there were Lord Grosvenor and George Garrick. The latter fought a “bloodless duel” over Sophia with Robert Baddeley. (Interestingly enough, Robert’s second was Mr. Mendez, the Jewish friend of Robert’s who had also been Sophia’s lover.) There was William Hangar, The Lord Coleraine, and his younger brother John, whom Sophia called “Gaby.” She dearly loved Gaby, and though he wasn’t very intelligent and was bad with money, she used her own earnings to support them both on Dean Street. Eventually, he told her that he had to give her up, but she begged him not to. She was so distraught that she took an overdose of laudanum, and it took such a toll on her body that six weeks later she was still unable to walk. “For the remainder of her life she was affected with a bilious complaint, that often disordered her…and made many of her days unhappy.” At this point, she still wasn’t a full time courtesan until 1770, when the Lord Molyneaux, a married man, offered her a large sum of money, to be his mistress. Knowing that he had a wife and still recovering from her laudanum overdose and a broken heart, she refused.

She works hard for the money

However, she had debts to pay and eventually became a kept woman. After this affair, she took up with the Lord Melbourne, with whom she had a long relationship. She once became pregnant, but miscarried. She once refused the Duke of Northumberland, saying that his offer wasn’t 'attractive' enough; he returned with a revised offer, which she again turned down. But she was getting older, and her popularity was fading. In 1774 she fell in love with a man named Stephen Sayer, a worthless man. He was messy, treated her like a servant, treated her and her friends badly, and his “trencher friends” had bad manners. He left her heavily pregnant and eloped with a rich woman. Now she was “unnoticed by those who once adored her.” She took to the stage again, and met an actor, a man named Webster, which whom she had two children. He, however, died soon after the childrens’ births, and she took up with Webster’s worthless servant John and had her remaining two children.

Friend or Friendly-er?

Sophia’s memoirs were penned by her lifelong friend and companion, Mrs. Eliza Steele, who was also her duenna. Written in 1787, Memoirs of Mrs Sophia Baddeley hurt many reputations but was, in comparison to the chronicles of other courtesans written concurrently, rather tame in content. Even though Sophia was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, the memoirs contain no physical description of Sophia—most likely because Eliza knew her friend so well that it simply didn’t occur to her to include one; however, because it was written by another, the reader gains a picture of Sophia that seems complete. Mrs. Steele captures the nuances of Baddeley’s personality that real friends would notice: the way Sophia’s face gets red when she’s angry, her tendency to not be able to keep secrets, and propensities for memorizing lines and writing sensible letters. Today, there is much speculation over whether there was any erotic or sexual relationship between Steele and Baddeley. To be sure, those who read the memoir notice tones of Eliza's jealousy “rather than the strict regard for propriety” (p. 68). Eliza was noted to wear men’s clothing and had declared that she fallen in love with Sophia. To protect Sophia, she also carried a pair of pistols.

Playing House

Her memoirs detail a soft side of Sophia with episodes of Eliza and Sophia sitting over hot chocolate, gossipping. She loved animals, and had a cat named Grimalkin, who she nicknamed "Cuddle," as well as a canary that she brought home from Paris in a handkerchief. At one time, she had a cat with a bell around its neck, as well as eight white mice with red eyes. She loved flowers, and spent exorbitant amounts of money daily on hothouse flowers such as carnations and various mosses. As for beverages, she only purchased French and Spanish wines, and few beers. Dinner was always served at three, and if someone wasn't home, it was put away. Sophia loved plays, history, and books. She boasted that she learned vocals from the "best masters." Though she spent large amounts of money on silks, ribbons and the like, she and Eliza always made her own clothes, cutting out the patterns and having the servants sew them.

Pallid remains

Sophia's last acting appearance was on December 1, 1780, in Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes. After her failed relationships and tanked acting career, she had developed a nervous disorder. She turned to a "fatal spiral of ill-health, debt, and laudanum addiction." At the age of 41, she died on July 1, 1783 at York. “When she died she was surrounded by friends, the players of the Edinburgh company, who had loved her sufficiently to subscribe a weekly sum from their own pockets to afford her all the comforts a sick bed required, and a proper person to attend her.”

After her death, poet Anthony Pasquin wrote a poem about her in Alms to Oblivion:

Turn your fancy to Scotia where rigorous snows
Envelope her rocks, and stern Eolus blows;
There view lovely Baddeley stretch’d on her bier,
Whose pallid remains claim the kindred tear;
Emaciate and squalid her body is laid,
Her limbs lacking shelter, her muscles decay’d.
An eminent instance of feminine terror.
A public example to keep us from error.

Hickman, Katie. Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century. William Morrow: New York, 2003.