Sex, sex, sex…that’s all they ever think about

So – we meet again, Dan Cruickshank!

The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital finds both Dan Cruickshank and myself out of our comfort zones, and immersed in a study of the 18th-century sex industry almost as extensive as the industry itself. Cruickshank’s usual interests do come under scrutiny here, as he considers the many and often surprising ways in which the epidemic of prostitution impacted upon the expansion of London in the Georgian era, not only in terms of building practices and innovations, but as an influence upon trends in architecture and art. Cruickshank describes the histories of three very specific buildings associated with the sex industry of the time: the Foundling Hospital, built in an effort to cope (tragically, without much success) with the hundreds of babies abandoned and left to die on London’s streets; the Madgalen, a reformatory for penitent prostitutes; and the Lock Hospitals, established specifically for the treatment of venereal disease, which was rampant.

But this study goes far beyond these boundaries. Cruickshank’s facts and figures conjure up a dark, dangerous and violent world whose scope is almost unimaginable – until some ugly economic realities are factored in. This was a time when honest labour for a woman usually meant a short life on starvation wages. For example, for the princely sum of £5 a year, a housemaid would be expected work twelve to sixteen hours a day and to make herself sexually available to the men of the household. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that many young women chose a life of overt, rather than covert prostitution. The hours and the pay were much better, and (as we shall see in the case of Ann Bond) the dangers of disease and violence not always that much greater.

Cruickshank also highlights another way in which some women tried to escape the painfully rigid boundaries of their existence: cross-dressing and passing as a man. While in some cases this was simply a pragmatic response to their limited opportunities as women, in others it was clearly an expression of an aspect of their personalities that Georgian society was not prepared to deal with – as evidenced by the punitive punishments handed out to women found guilty of perpetrating such a “fraud”. The cases of several woman who joined the army or navy in male guise are considered, as are others involving those who “married” other women. The unhappy life of perhaps the era’s most famous cross-dresser, Charlotte Charke – aka “Charles Brown” – the daughter of playwright and Poet Laureate (and political sycophant) Colley Cibber, is also sketched.

Examining legal records and other publications of the time, Cruickshank paints a picture of a society whose attitudes to its prostitutes were profoundly ambivalent, seeing the women simultaneously as victims and abusers, the scourge of society as well as the “salvation of good women”, who were preserved from, on one hand, having to submit to their husbands as often as they otherwise would, and on the other, protected from the threat of an epidemic of sexual assault, which was considered the inevitable consequence of cutting off easy access by men to sexual release, and which was the spectre invariably raised whenever any serious attempt was made to address the problem of prostitution.

The attitude of the legal system itself was equally confused: the statutes were brutal, but juries and judges often sympathetic – unless it could be proven that a prostitute was guilty of or involved in robbery as well as sexual activity, in which case she was likely to suffer transportation or death. This was a time, of course, before a professional police force or channels of investigation, when court cases, even for capital crimes, rested almost entirely upon verbal testimony and who the jury chose to believe. Curiously, despite outward condemnation of the race as “the lowest, most evil and most debauched of creatures”, unless a prostitute was testifying on her own behalf (and sometimes even then), it was a matter of public pride that her evidence under oath should be accepted. The inevitable intertwining of the judiciary and the sex industry is illustrated by accounts of various famous criminal cases involving prostitutes, including the trial of Colonel Francis Charteris for the rape and abuse of his housemaid, Ann Bond, which highlights both the best and worst aspects of the contemporary legal system.

Particular notice is paid to the bizarre case of Elizabeth Canning, who in 1753 claimed to have been abducted and held against her will with an aim of enforced prostitution. Her accused kidnappers were arrested and tried, and initially convicted; but the inconsistencies in Canning’s evidence and account of her ordeal were disturbing to some, who would not let the matter drop. The result was a case that shook the legal system’s faith in verbal testimony to its foundations, as it became increasingly clear that someone – either the seemingly innocent young girl making the accusation, or the far less innocent but far more convincing defendents – was lying through their teeth under oath.

This was also the era of the professional informant, which was one way that the moral crusaders tried to gather the evidence needed to close down “bawdy-houses”. It was, of course, a system open to brutal abuse, with informants willing to perjure themselves condemning their victims to jail, transportation and even death in exchange for payment – or threatening to do so unless paid off. Sympathetic as the law often was to female prostitutes, it was far otherwise towards their male equivalents, or indeed towards any man accused of “sodomitical intent”: the early part of the century saw a wave of executions of men convicted of homosexual activity, and another favourite game of the informers was to extort money from their victims under threat to lodge an accusation of “a sodomy”.

It was in this climate of jurisdictional failure and uncertainty that gave birth to the first police force, the Bow Street Runners, a secret squad of professional criminal investigators founded by Henry Fielding (who had played a rather ugly role in the Canning case), and later refined and expanded by his successor as Chief Magistrate, his half-brother Sir John Fielding (the “blind beak”).

Although much of Dan Cruickshank’s story deals necessarily with its “lower” levels, that there was not an aspect of society left untouched by the sex industry during the Georgian era is illustrated in a series of case studies involving famous figures of the time: the eccentric Dr James Graham, whose “Temple Of Health” promised his clients “marrow-melting” sexual pleasure stimulated by that mysterious new force, electricity; William Hogarth, using “the harlot” as a symbol both explicit and implicit for society’s ills; Sir Joshua Reynolds and his prostitute-muses – including the future Emma Hamilton; John Wilkes, who finally crashed and burned not because of his attacks upon the king, but because of his pornographic Essay On Woman; and Sir Francis Dashwood, whose Hell-Fire Club is a fitting symbol of the age. Also included are biographies of the very few women who successfully parlayed their sexual careers into fame, security, and even respectability – most notably Lavinia Fenton, who began as a prostitute, made her public name as an actress, and finally became Duchess of Bolton. She, of course, was an extreme exception, her story cast into relief by our knowledge of the countless, countless thousands of anonymous individuals who died in obscurity, misery and poverty.

“To read” addition:

The History Of Henry Dumont, Esq; and Miss Charlotte Evelyn – Charlotte Charke

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8 Responses to “Sex, sex, sex…that’s all they ever think about”

  1. It is interesting to me that the Restoration era and early eighteenth century saw a substantial decline in women’s rights. My understanding at least is that in 1601 there were female jewellers and silversmiths – as full guild members…

  2. Yes, there was a progressive stripping away of women’s rights and freedoms over the 17th century until in the 18th they almost literally had none – a woman was viewed as a child, legally, until she married, and then was subsumed in her husband, again with no separate legal identity. She couldn’t own property, or sign a binding contract, or make a will; and legally wasn’t even responsible for her own actions. If she committed a crime, or got into debt, her husband paid for it. Any children were literally the property of the husband.

    This was of course the era when Blackstone’s commentary famously lumped together “married women, children and lunatics” as having equal legal standing.

    And in fact, the only situation in which a woman at that time could be said to be well off was if she was a widow – inheritance in that way was the one exception to the rule. So there are accounts of women running highly successful businesses of all kinds throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but nearly always when they’ve taken over from their husbands. Being a widow gave a woman legal standing and autonomy.

    The sickly funny thing about that (and I can’t remember where I was reading about this, which is annoying) is that it ended up inducing a “marriage panic” in the male population, with men becoming convinced that women only got married in order to become widows. There are surviving letters and such expressing fears of that nature, and men declaring they’ll never marry because they can’t ever be sure their wives aren’t death-wishing them (or worse). Not, of course, that it occurred to anyone to solve the problem by granting more autonomy.

    Legally, nothing much changed until the first half of the 19th century, when women could inherit and hold property separately from their husbands. But it wasn’t until the Married Woman’s Property Act, which was – 1870? – that a woman’s earnings from any work or business ownership ceased to become the automatic property of her husband.

  3. Liz,

    Thanks for discussing this book. It’s definitely a must-read for me!

    Why women’s rights declined in the early modern era is something I’ve always been curious about myself, but I’ve never seen a historian really address the question except indirectly, even though as far as I can tell it’s universally agreed that something was happening to women’s political and social standing in the era. My own theory is that it has a lot to do with the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, with both Catholic and Protestant leaders reacting to mutually thrown accusations of sexual decadence by telling their respective women, to quote Monsieur Cartman, to “get in the kitchen and make me a pie!”.

  4. Oh, it is absolutely on your turf, Chad. In the same vein, I recommend to you Mary Fissell’s Vernacular Bodies, which I discussed earlier. It’s perhaps more interested in sexual politics than history per se, but I found it a fairly eye-opening account of this repeated impulse, all throughout this period of upheaval, to turn around and impose SOMETHING on women, whatever it might be. It’s as if having the ability to do that was in and of itself reassuring; the one contant through all the change and revolution, a way of maintaining a sense of control.

    I think later on, as England became more industrialised, it ceased to be a religious / social issue and became more a matter of stripping women of mercantile and property rights – although of course, the doing of it was still overtly presented as a religious / social issue.

    By the way, are you familiar with Ian McCormick’s Secret Sexualities?

  5. There seems to be a tie to the Restoration – “the king is the head of the country (and the church), and we’ve seen what goes wrong when that gets ignored; so also the man is the head of his family”. This feels to me more like a pretext than a reason, though…

  6. But it’s more complicated than that. They didn’t just have a Restoration, they had an executed king, a civil war, a Restoration, an exiled king, an invited foreign king, a queen, a Jacobite rebellion, another invited foreign king, another Jacobite rebellion, a madness and a regency – plus a whole lot of simultaneous wars. I honestly think the progressive restrictions placed on women by society was a way of exerting power and feeling in control when the governance of the nation was doing the opposite.

    Looked at like that, you can understand why Victoria became such a powerful symbol. Ironic, too, that it took a woman to finally give the nation stability.

  7. I think sometimes these things just get caught in some kind of runaway positive feedback, where the more they do X, the more they feel the need to take it even further, regardless of whether X makes sense on its own terms. Especially if there’s any stigma attached to anti-X, even at the far extreme end.

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