RAKES AND HARLOTS
Even attitudes towards prostitutes were radically reshaped in the decades after 1700. The traditional view of them had always been strongly unsympathetic. After all, the biblical archetype of the lustful whore, who destroyed unsuspecting men, epitomized the conventional view of women as the more lascivious, dangerous sex. Like Mary Magdalen, prostitutes could repent, but otherwise their behaviour was conceived of mainly as an extreme form of female promiscuity. Despite the long-standing argument that it was a necessary evil, for else men would commit ‘adulteries, deflowering of virgins, unnatural lust, and the like’, the idea that whores themselves might be the victims of male seduction, or of economic desperation, was almost invisible in serious writing before 1700. Only on the stage were prostitutes sometimes portrayed as more than wilful, greedy sinners. Even here, though, male culpability for their fate remained a very minor theme. Although prostitution was an obvious symbol for the amorality and corruption of the world, ultimately whores, like all men and women, were held to be personally responsible for their moral choices, their own sins and their own redemption. In sixteenth – and early seventeenth-century drama, women trick, seduce, and deceive men sexually as much as the reverse. The battle of the sexes, it implies, is pretty evenly balanced, and the ethical fate of individuals lies largely in their own hands and that of fate.1
Even at the very end of the seventeenth century, most commentators remained wedded to these presumptions. In The Night-Walker (1696-7), the period’s most extensive discussion of prostitution, the leading journalist and bookseller John Dunton wove together supposedly true undercover stories and interviews in order to prove that most whores simply gave in to their corrupt nature. Many were first tempted to fornication ‘to gratify a little itch after stolen pleasure’, and, once aroused, the female libido – ‘the powerful inclinations of nature’ – was hard to curb. If their husbands proved inadequate, it forced women to seduce apprentices, pay strangers, or go on the town. Indeed, there was ‘such a bewitchery in the sin’ that many prostitutes continued in their trade ‘merely to satisfy the lusts of the flesh’. Though other factors might contribute, the primary responsibility for her fate usually lay with the woman herself. In similar fashion, the paper attacked male libertinism as the personal, wilful failure of certain men to uphold correct standards of behaviour.2
Yet barely a dozen years later, amidst growing opposition to the societies for reformation, mainstream public opinion had moved decisively towards the opposite conception of prostitution and male rapacity. By the 1710s, it was becoming fashionable to analyse immorality primarily in terms of social pressures and structural constraints, which affected different groups in society in different ways. As the Spectator (1711-14), the most influential and widely read publication of the age, repeatedly articulated it, ‘poor and public whores’ were not independent, culpable sinners by choice, but largely innocent victims – of financial necessity, exploitation by bawds, and seduction by men of superior status. ‘The compassionate case of very many’, it concluded, was that they were ensnared ‘without any the least suspicion, previous temptation, or admonition’. Likewise, ‘wenching, and particularly the insnaring part. . . the practice of deluding women’ was increasingly portrayed as an established social norm, one of the central vices of the age. Bawds and libertines together were now held chiefly responsible for prostitution, their culpability contrasting starkly with that of the innocent, pitiable women whose lives they destroyed. ‘Servitus crescit nova,’ warned Richard Steele, quoting Horace – ‘a new band of slaves is increasing’.3
The same attitude was also steadily more dominant in popular writing. It was evident, explained a Grub Street journalist in 1723, that prostitutes were ‘ruined wretches who deserve rather our commiseration than contempt’. In fact, no ‘woman’s passion can be so strong as to act anything criminal in love affairs, did not the violent lust of men, and their fatal arts, blow up and kindle that fire in innocent unguarded maidens which frequently ends in their utter undoing’. The basic truth, concurred another, was that ‘man’s solicitation tempts them to lewdness, necessity succeeds sin, and want puts an end to shame’. This was exactly the narrative depicted in William Hogarth’s famous pictorial series, A Harlot’s Progress (1730-32), whose opening shows the very moment of entrapment already envisaged by the Spectator two decades earlier: ‘an inn in the city’, the arrival of ‘a wagon out of the country’, ‘the most artful procuress in the town, examining a most beautiful country-girl, who had come up in the same wagon’ with, in the background, the rake for whom she is being ensnared. Thereafter inevitably followed her dishonour, descent, and destruction, ‘from pampered vice in the habitations of the wealthy, to distressed indigent wickedness expelled the harbours of the brothel’, to her ignominious death (see illustration 21, pp. 284-9 below).4
By 1730, discussions of prostitution and culpability therefore tended to strike a markedly different note than had been the case up to the end of the seventeenth century. It remained a commonplace that whores were dangerous agents of corruption, who preyed on unwary young men. Yet now this presumption was increasingly balanced by the perception that they themselves were, in origin, the innocent victims of seduction by bawds and rakes, and that they continued in their way of life mainly out of economic need and social ostracism. Thus it was male rapacity, not female lust, that lay at the root of the problem.
This new idea was boosted by Mandeville’s writings on prostitution, which took for granted that male sexual passion was an unrestrain – able natural force, and the debauching of women its inevitable consequence. Its growing popularity was also reflected in George Lil – lo’s The London Merchant, one of the earliest English tragedies about the moral dilemmas of ordinary people. This was an instant hit when it opened in 1731, and went on to become one of the most enduringly successful works of the later eighteenth-century English and American stage. Its plot was taken from an old and well-known tale – that of George Barnwell, a London apprentice led to theft, murder, and the gallows by his prostitute lover. In every earlier setting of the story, the temptress Sarah Millwood had been pictured as an intrinsically evil, duplicitous whore. But in Lillo’s account, for the first time, she is given a back-story which accounts for her character. It turns out that it was not her own inclinations but the selfish, hypocritical, predatory ways of men that had first undone her: ‘what pains will they not take, what arts not use, to seduce us from our innocence, and make us contemptible and wicked, even in their own opinions?’ She herself had once been naive and blameless, possessed of wit and beauty: yet men had ‘robbed me of them, ere I knew their worth; then left me too late, to count their value by their loss. Another and another spoiler came, and all my gain was poverty and reproach.’ ‘We are but slaves to men,’ she exclaimed bitterly; it was their own exploitation by the ‘barbarous sex’ that taught women like herself to be wicked and avaricious. Once ruined, they had no option but to maintain themselves by preying in turn on ‘the young and innocent part of the sex, who having never injured women, apprehend no injury from them’.5
By mid-century the notion of the prostitute as victim had become firmly entrenched, even in judicial circles. Faced with a pretty, seemingly demure street-walker on the morning after her arrest, the justice’s clerk Joshua Brogden looked past all the evidence of her drunken soliciting, and focused on the real criminal: her original seducer. ‘What doth that wretch deserve, that was the destroyer of an innocent lovely young creature?’ Prostitution, complained Henry Fielding, was ‘the misery and ruin of great numbers of young, thoughtless, helpless, poor girls, who are as often betrayed, and even forced into guilt, as they are bribed and allured into it’. It was abundantly clear, agreed a preacher in 1759, that most fallen women had been led astray ‘by every unjustifiable method, which cruel and brutish lust suggests to the crafty seducer’. Even amongst the most ‘superlatively depraved’ whores, a later expert claimed, he had been unable to find ‘a single instance where the perfidy of a man was not the source of the mischief’.6
Innumerable later eighteenth-century fictions likewise featured the seduction, prostitution, and unhappy end of young innocent virgins. John Hawkesworth’s massively popular Adventurer (1753-4) told of a rake who first debauches an innocent maidservant, and then, twenty years later, is about to have sex with a young whore when, horrifically, she is revealed to be his own abandoned, illegitimate daughter, entrapped by poverty, mistreatment, and an evil bawd. Dr Johnson’s ‘Misella’ was ruined and abandoned by her own guardian. In William Dodd’s The Sisters (1754), it is the terrible fate that threatens both Lucy and Caroline Sanson; in the end their father, too, expires of grief. In Nature and Art (1796), by the radical reformer Elizabeth Inchbald, a poor cottager’s daughter is successively seduced, forced into prostitution, and literally sentenced to death by the same evil man, who rises from youthful libertine to callous judge. By 1800 the basic plot was so familiar, even to a provincial audience, that the whole narrative arc could be traversed in a few paragraphs. In the cheap popular pamphlet Innocence Betrayed (reprinted as far afield as Hull, Banbury, and Penrith) barely five pages sufficed to describe in full the tragic life of Sarah Martin, a beautiful farmer’s daughter, seduced ‘by one of those depraved wretches, whose favourite pursuit is to ruin female innocence’, abandoned in London, ‘compelled by necessity, to gain a miserable support by prostitution’, and finally driven to take her own life.7
The same ideas were endlessly recycled in poems, pictures, and legal writing (see plate 2). Here is Thomas Holcroft’s ‘The Dying Prostitute’ (1785), alternately addressing the compassionate reader and the treacherous, bestial libertine who had first destroyed her:
Weep o’er the mis’ries of a wretched maid,
Who sacrificed to man her health and fame;
Whose love, and truth, and trust were all repaid By want and woe, disease and endless shame.
Curse not the poor lost wretch, who ev’ry ill
That proud unfeeling man can heap sustains; Sure she enough is cursed o’er whom his will
Enflamed by brutal passion, boundless reigns.
That I was virtuous once, and beauteous too,
And free from envious tongues my spotless fame: These but torment, these but my tears renew,
These aggravate my present guilt and shame.
Ah! Say, insidious Damon! Monster! where?
What glory hast thou gained by my defeat?
Art thou more happy for that I’m less fair?
Or bloom thy laurels o’er my winding-sheet?8
Out of this new mindset was to emerge that most enduring of modern fictional archetypes, the tart with a heart. That prostitutes were beautiful, innocent ‘fallen angels’ was already in the 1740s the theme of John Cle – land’s erotic and serious writing alike. After 1800 it was developed by Thomas de Quincey, Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, and countless other writers and artists. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the whore with the heart of gold remained a staple of novels, plays, opera, film, and television.9
This was certainly never the only perspective. In satirical prints, the popular press, and moral tracts, two older attitudes also persisted well beyond 1800. One was a fascination with street-walkers and courtesans as self-confident entrepreneurs, able to outwit their simple cullies (see illustration 6). The other was a fear of them as loathsome and predatory threats to the health and order of society: we shall see in Chapters 4 and 5 how far even philanthropists were unable to shake off revulsion towards the objects of their charity. The self-perception of plebeian women whose lovers had abandoned them, or who had
6. In this 1778 caricature by James Gillray, a plump young countryman
becomes the sexual prey of a group of confident London prostitutes: ‘Touch
me not! I’m still a Maid’, he shrieks in terror.
sex for money, also tended to be less melodramatic than the middle – class rhetoric of male rapacity, female innocence, and prostitution. When, for example, in 1729, Winifred Lloyd, a middle-aged bawd, introduced two young, willing maidservants, Mary Macdonald and Hanna Smith, to the attractions of having a good time with her client, Mr Janssen, the women were persuaded that the whole process, far from degrading them, represented a passage into independence and adulthood. After Mary slept with the kindly squire for the first time, for the huge sum of five guineas, Mrs Lloyd ‘commended [her], telling her she was now made a woman of’. With Hanna, who was only fourteen, she commiserated on the pain of sexual intercourse – ‘O’, she told her, ‘when he first lay with me I cried out murder, but if you was forty years old it would not hurt you’ – and likewise ‘encouraged her saying he would make a woman of her for ever’. As the East End prostitute Anne Carter put it in 1730, what she did for a living was not the desperate resort of a ruined woman, but simply the exchange of money in return for ‘the satisfaction of her body. . . according to contract’.10
Yet the languages of pity and of male treachery gradually infiltrated even such alternative points of view. So entrenched did they become that prostitutes and other unchaste women were increasingly known, and referred to themselves in public, simply as ‘misfortunate’ or ‘unfortunate’ persons.11 The stereotype of the seduced harlot was therefore one of the most remarkable and influential cultural innovations of the eighteenth century. It overturned age-old, deeply rooted presumptions about whores; it rose to prominence with extraordinary speed; and it dominated the perception of prostitution from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this new way of regarding prostitutes – not as wilful, independent sexual agents, but as the victims of seduction, entrapment, and impoverishment – was to remain the overriding view of sexual trade.