“There is no Nation in the World, but has in all ages, furnished Authors, who have made it their business to expose, as far as they were capable, the Frailties of the Female Sex. Some have been provoked thereunto, by their unfortunate Addresses, and by the disappointments they have met with in love; others have undertaken that Province, without any other reason, than to show their Wit. But my Business now in Writing, is to warn Men of the danger they may run in the persuit of their Amours; for which purpose, I thought a Narrative of my Life might be of extraordinary use, since it has been a continual Series of Stratagems and Artifices for the ensnaring of Men.”
Published anonymously in 1683, this first-person narration of the life of a London prostitute is a remarkable work of fiction. Only one copy of The London Jilt survives today, preserved in the Harvard University Library; our very good friends at the Broadview Press have done their usual outstanding job not only in resurrecting this rare and important piece of writing, but in placing it in its historical context, as a nexus between the picaresque tale and the rogue’s biography.
(Before we really get started, a word about the authorship of this tale, which is in some quarters attributed to Alexander Oldys. The Broadview editor, Charles H. Hinnant, disputes this, and so do I, although not for the same reasons. Hinnant contends that the mistaken attribution was the result of some bibliographical confusion between this text and Oldys’ 1692 novel, The Female Gallant; or, The Female Cuckold, which had as a variant title The London Jilt; or, The Female Cuckold. For myself, having studied Oldys’ The Fair Extravagant, I can say that there is not a single point of comparison between the two works in terms of their subject matter, style or attitude.)
The most notable thing about The London Jilt is that it is a rare, possible unique, example of 17th-century first-person female narration – and all the more extraordinary for being the genre that it is. Works such as the Richard Head / Francis Kirkman collaboration The English Rogue included interpolated tales told by female narrators, and there had been a handful of third-person tellings of the lives of female criminals; but The London Jilt appears to be the only such work that not only focuses entirely upon a woman, but allows her to tell her own story. Of course, when we say “her” story, the question of the author’s sex remains moot. It is most likely that the anonymous author of this tale was a man, although there is nothing here to say so for certain.
The other significant feature of the presentation of this work is the gulf between what it purports to be in its preface, and what it actually is in its text. In fact, I found myself wondering if the same person had actually written both. The preface declares this novel to be an exposé of prostitutes’ tricks, so that men may be warned and guard themselves. The language in which the author of the preface declares his – definitely his – intentions could hardly be blunter:
“And indeed what greater Folly can there be than to venture one’s All in such rotten Bottoms, and at length become the Horrour and Detestation of all the World, only for a Momentary Pleasure, and which in truth cannot well be termed Pleasure, considering what filthy, nasty, and stinking Carcasses, are the best and finest of our Common Whores? A Whore is but a Close-stool to Man, or a Common-shoar that receives all manner of Filth, shee’s like a Barber’s Chair, no sooner one’s out, but t’other’s in…”
But our tale, when it comes to be told, is a pragmatic account of a life driven by sheer necessity, at a time when women’s options were terrifyingly few, and when violence, disease and starvation were imminent threats which only constant vigilence and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive could hold at bay.
Our narrator (revealed at a single point in the novel to be called Cornelia) writes from the vantage point of the latter years of her life. Like the writer in the preface, but in gentler terms, she offers her life as a cautionary tale, by which those men likely to be tempted by women’s arts may be fairly warned. She does not, nevertheless, condemn the life that she has led out of hand, merely some of the strategems to which she was forced (or chose) to resort. The narration takes the battle for survival, including the battle between men and women, for granted; and if a woman must resort to underhanded manoeuvres, that is only fair in a world where all of the power and most of the money lies with men; and where armed with only her body and her wits – and the occasional chamber-pot – a woman must contend against fists and knives, and a willingness to use them.
There is an unexpected sophistication about some of the writing in The London Jilt, included the divided vision with which Cornelia looks back upon her girlhood, her later understanding of the events of that time sitting side-by-side with childish incomprehension. The daughter of tavern-owners, the critical moment in Cornelia’s life comes when her father is one day drawn into a trap by a passing “rope-dancer” (that is, a tightrope artist), who lures the foolish man into taking rope-dancing lessons, and leaves him suspended some thirteen feet off the ground while he calmly plunders the household. Inevitably, a fall follows, a broken leg the result. In the wake of this, the fortunes of the family go from bad to worse; and when the father dies, Cornelia and her mother must fend for themselves.
The survivors try to continue in the tavern business, but life becomes a constant and desperate struggle. (As the later Cornelia is able to appreciate, she wasn’t then old enough to be an attraction for male customers.) It is at this time that Cornelia’s mother begins taking in “night-guests”; and if the child does not quite understand the nature of these transactions, she can appreciate their outcome:
“And I remember that from time to time there was some man or other lay all Night at our House, and that upon such occasions I was forced to roost with the Maid, whereas at other times I lay in my Mothers Arms, from whence I then concluded, that she must needs be a very Commiserating Woman, since to free people out of pain, she imported to them the half of her bed, but she made them dearly pay for this pitty; and I could easily perceive, that the Chimney smoak’d more, and better by the half, when we had a night-Guest with us than otherwise…”
Time passes, and at length Cornelia not only understands what her mother is doing, but is initiated into the life herself: an event treated not only with no particular fuss, but a certain wry humour:
“About five Months after I had played Squire Limberham this Pranck, my Maiden-head was sold the first time. Be not amazed, O Reader, that I say the first time, for I have lost it several times after the manner of Italy, to which purpose I made use of a certain Water, which rendred me always the same; and though after the first Attack I found no pain at all in the Amorous Combate, but on the contrary an extraordinary Pleasure, nevertheless I sighed and groaned as strongly, as if I was to have given up the Ghost at the very instant, which moved so much Compassion in the poor Hunters after Maiden-heads, that they endeavoured to make me forget this feigned Grief, by the Unguent of several Guinnies…”
Cornelia makes no bones about her enjoyment of sex, which she regards as normal and natural, considering a full and satisfying sex life as the positive side of her way of earning a living. At the same time, she views any woman who chooses prostitution as a career out of “lasciviousness” rather than sheer necessity to be either entirely mad or entirely wicked. The only people she despises more than voluntary prostitutes are the pimps and bawds who enslave and exploit young women, giving in return insufficient means to live on, so that their slaves must remain slaves.
Cornelia herself occupies “the middle ground” of prostitution, occasionally being taken into keeping but usually maintaining a rotating roster of regular customers, but above all never allowing herself to be trapped into working for anyone but herself. Ultimately, Cornelia survives her way of life because, despite numerous setbacks and dangers, she never loses sight of the main chance. Whatever relationship she is describing, how much money she made, how she went about getting it and what she did with it makes up a major portion of the story.
The London Jilt does keep its opening promise to expose the arts and artifices of prostitutes, but only up to a point. Cornelia is devastatingly frank about how she gets money out of her customers (including undergoing a real pregnancy and later, seeing the riches that yielded, staging an elaborately faked one). She makes no bones about promising fidelity and then cheating at every opportunity, arguing that any man who believes what a prostitute says gets what he deserves. Her narrative is full of negative aphorisms about women, and there are various “trade secrets revealed” passages in which she describes in detail the cosmetic arts used to conceal physical defects. Yet for all of this, we don’t necessarily feel that it is the women who use these devices that are the main target of criticism. On the contrary: behind every one of Cornelia’s accounts of “silly women” with their “silly strategems” lies a condemnation, explicit or implicit, of the even sillier men who fall for these obvious tricks:
“Now must I laugh at the foolishness of some men, whose unbounded Petulancy carries them sometimes so far, that they will forget the most horrible Affronts, only that they may not be banish’d from the Favor of a Woman, whose Caresses, they must purchase, while that another may as well as them enjoy her Affections for his Money. Without lying, those men shew that their Bodies have an Empire over their Minds, and that they are only Men, because they have the Figure of them: For is it not the greatest Sillyness; and the highest Madness that can be committed, that to satisfie the desire of a little Bit of Flesh, they proceed to the losing their Estates, their Reputations, and all they have dearest in the World…”
As was the case in the contemporaneous Love Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, there is very little evidence in this account of life during the second half of the 17th century of the existence of anything that we might be inclined to call “love”. That said, our anonymous author’s view of the world differs rather interestingly from Aphra Behn’s. Whereas Behn saw the battle of the sexes as a contest the woman must inevitably lose, “Cornelia” contends that a woman may triumph as long as she remembers what is really important. In stark contrast to Behn’s writing and indeed most other amatory tales of this time, Cornelia holds that it is men who are more likely to be sincere in their feelings – or “fond”, as she puts it – simply because, having all the money, they can afford to be sincere. A woman who allows herself to “grow fond”, and to put her feelings for a man before what she can get out of him, is a woman heading for disaster. Monetary gain is and must be the chief purpose of a sexual encounter, whether a casual one in passing or within the context of a more stable relationship – and the few times that Cornelia allows herself to forget this, she is made to suffer for it.
The London Jilt‘s view of marriage is unswervingly negative. A woman’s great aim in life, Cornelia contends, should be a single existence in a state of financial independence; but failing this, prostitution is infinitely preferable to marriage. The novel contains any number of miserable marriages, and although the power is usually with the man, it may equally be the woman who brings the relationship to ruin. Cornelia’s parents get along until her father’s disastrous day, after which her mother transforms into a full-time termagent. Many years later, a bout of smallpox puts an end to the sexual career of Cornelia’s mother, until to her daughter’s astonishment she falls for the blandishments of “a young bully” who no sooner can call himself husband than he appropriates all of his wife’s fortune, beats her unmercifully when she objects, and seeks his pleasures elsewhere. (Seeing quickly enough that the benefits of her own activities will otherwise end in her step-father’s pockets, Cornelia coolly abandons her mother to her fate – she’s sorry for her, but it’s her own silly fault – and sets up in business for herself.) Likewise, most of Cornelia’s customers are married men, who only married for what they can get out of it, and would rather pay for a prostitute’s favours than sleep with their wives for free.
Despite all this, Cornelia herself is finally tempted into marriage with the owner of a tobacco-shop – and regrets it. There simply is something about the state of marriage, she contends, that brings out the very worst in people. In Cornelia herself, it gives birth to “a Devil of Pride”, which provokes her to ridiculous extravagance, so that within a few years his successful business can barely support her. Her husband, not unreasonably, cuts off her supply, upon which Cornelia begins to defraud the business. Her husband discovering this, his reaction is short, sharp, and to the point:
“…he took notice that his Tobacco lessened and fell short, and that no money arose from it, whereupon he ratled me the first time very sharply, but seeing that was to little purpose, he undertook to employ an other more powerful means, for one Morning when all the People were gone to Church, having called me into a Back-Room, he represented to me my Duty with such very pertinent Reasons, that I was very sensible of them for above a Week afterwards…”
Signficantly, while Cornelia is at all times explicit in her account of sexual matters, when it comes to the violence she suffers at various times, particularly this bout of domestic violence, she is far more guarded in her speech: this is the part of her life that she’s ashamed of. This passage focusses a major theme of the novel, its depiction of the world of late 17th century London as a place of plot and counterplot, wrongdoing and revenge. Cornelia’s professional depredations are committed in full awareness that she might bring violent retribution upon herself: again and again she must pick up her things and flee in order to avoid suffering deserved retribution for her own frauds and manoeuvres.
As with her sexual encounters, Cornelia describes all this quite matter-of-factly: she is sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator. Never, however, does she let a slight or a cheat pass without devising some scheme of revenge – and nor, for that matter, does she expect her own cheats to go unpunished. This is a world of dog-eat-dog, and the individual who lets himself, or herself, be imposed upon without retaliating is a coward and a fool. (When the victim of the sham pregnancy finds out, he deserts Cornelia leaving only an angry letter behind. While she is relieved to get off so easily, she is also contemptuous of her former keeper for his spinelessness.)
What we notice, however, is the difference in the nature of revenge taken by men and by women. The former generally resort to straightforward violence, a beating or worse; while women have to rely on their wits. Cornelia herself is very given to elaborate plots and “prancks”, which end in the humiliation of the victim, and generally leaves him lighter in the pocket. Occasionally, driven to more direct means of retaliation, she resorts to that always handy weapon, the chamber-pot. There are at least three chamber-pot-as-weapon scenes in The London Jilt, one of which is—without any desire to go into detail—one of the most repulsive things I have ever read in my life. In fact, considering the substance of that scene in its entirety, the deployment of the chamber-pot may be the least repulsive thing about it.
A curious features of this narrative as a whole, and another way in which The London Jilt differs from much of the other picaresque literature of the time, is the subplot of the rope-dancer, who reappears at various points in Cornelia’s life and becomes an ongoing and ever more dangerous adversary. The two push and push back, their mutual revenge-taking escalating with each encounter – but finally, it is the male capacity for physical violence which triumphs, ending not only Cornelia’s career as a prostitute but almost her life, after a strike at her throat with a knife that misses and gashes open her forehead instead.
In the wake of this, Cornelia takes pause. She has had a good run; she has scrimped and saved, so that she might not starve in her old age; and she has the two glories of her life, the annuities she has managed to secure (one a gift, one wisely self-purchased when times were good) amounting to almost one hundred pounds a year, on which to live. The fact is, she’s getting a bit long in the tooth for this way of life, even aside from the necessity to hide the ugly scar on her face. Customers are harder to come by, and not so generous with their guineas. It’s time for a fresh start.
And so, with the same pragmatism that has marked the rest of her life, Cornelia the prostitute becomes Cornelia the lace-dealer. Her little business is a success, and she is able to sit back and take stock of her life, finally deciding to put pen to paper. There are various points in the narrative where Cornelia stops to marvel at her own audacity in becoming an author – and more than one comparison of the business of bookselling to that other business she knows so much about…
Apart from placing The London Jilt in the dual contexts of the picaresque narrative and the rogue’s biography, Charles Hinnant’s supporting documentation in the Broadview edition makes a strong case for this novel as a previously unacknowledged inspiration for Moll Flanders and Roxana: various points of similarity are found between those two famous novels and their more obscure forerunner; although perhaps the chief point of interest is not their similarities, but their differences, particularly their moral differences.
Whether it is a reflection of the shift in social mores in the five decades between their time of publication, or the difference in attitude and beliefs between Daniel Defoe and the anonymous author of The London Jilt, the most striking thing about the earlier text is Cornelia’s refusal to repent – or rather, the fact that she doesn’t consider that she has anything in particular to repent. She has done what she had to in order to survive, and sees no need to apologise for that.
And in fact, Cornelia is rather cynical about the late-life repenters of the world:
“…but I content my self with the testimony that my Conscience gives me, and it is the same thing to me whether I am thought discreet, vertuous or debaucht; because that I have Experience enough in the World to know that it often blames Wise and Sober Persons, and often praises and extols such as are lewd and vicious. Nevertheless I am not of the rank of those who after having led a vicious Life during their Youth, and then becoming Converts, pretend to bygottism, and walk holding their right-Hand upon their Heart as the truly Devout do…”