I am very excited to have the prodigiously talented Faye L. Booth, authoress of Cover The Mirrors and Trades of the Flesh here for a guest blog spot. This is a tremendous honour for me as I haven’t had this blog for very long so I hope I don’t mess this up!
Faye is another fan of darker, seamier side of Victorian life and her books are full of spiritualism, dark encounters, body snatchers and, of course, prostitutes so naturally what else could I ask her to write about but our favourite ladies of the night…
“Oh, I’m a seduced milliner – anything you like.”
That was the rather cynical and dismissive response Victorian prostitute ‘Lushing Loo’ gave the sociologist Henry Mayhew when he asked her how she had ended up in her profession, and who can blame her? Whether out of genuine social concern, voyeurism or a penchant for poverty tourism, a number of Learned Men of the period, from Mayhew to Charles Booth (no relation to me, at least as far as I’m aware), did seem to enjoy cornering prostitutes in pubs and quizzing them about their lifestyles, which I imagine caused no end of irritation to those who were busy trying to catch a little trade and/or drink themselves silly. Lushing Loo, Mayhew tells us, went on to treat him to a soused rendition of one of her favourite songs – oh, to have been a fly on the wall!
There may have been something faintly patronising about the studies conducted by Mayhew, Booth and their ilk, but I shouldn’t really complain, because those studies can now provide us with a real insight into the humanity of the girls and women who, in their time, were branded with the rather doom-laden label of ‘The Great Social Evil’. As might be expected in an age in which the overwhelming majority of sex workers entered the industry due to abuse, coercion and/or grinding poverty, the prostitutes immortalised in sociologists’ interviews displayed a notably black sense of humour, frequently making dry remarks about their clientele, venereal disease, their own alcohol and drug problems, or the limited life expectancy of women in the trade. In the time-honoured British tradition, they laughed, one expects, to keep themselves from crying.
But it is not my intention to pigeonhole these women, as so many of their contemporaries did, as poor little hapless victims. (The contrasting and equally popular image was that of the shameless hussy who had become a prostitute for the thrill of it.) That kind of black-and-white thinking is as inaccurate and disrespectful now as it was then, and besides, some of the women were onto something when they pointed out that they earned far more in their line of work than they would have been able to otherwise. Whatever anyone then or now may think of that situation makes no difference, at a distance of 120 years plus, to the reality of these women’s lives. The majority of prostitutes came from very poor working class backgrounds (although there were, as there are now, the high-class escorts: “toffers” or “prima donnas”), and it’s reasonable to expect that their relatives who hadn’t become prostitutes were as poor – probably more so – than the prostitutes themselves. Manual labour at the time was often highly dangerous (these being the days before Health and Safety), with many workers – men, women and children – being maimed in accidents in the workplace or incapacitated by industrial diseases, and there was no scheme in place to care for those whose health and livelihoods had been sacrificed in such ways. Some of the prostitutes interviewed by Mayhew and Booth claimed to have been domestic servants who had been seduced or raped by the man of the house, and while this may indeed have been a bleak-minded attempt to deliver the explanation they believed the men wanted to hear, we can’t just assume that it wasn’t the truth either. And with relatively little widespread understanding of the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, “the clap” and “the pox” weren’t just a prostitute’s problem.
In light of all this, I can see how many Victorian prostitutes appear, as I sit, over a century later, looking at their words captured in books that many of them would not have been able to read, while those who could would have proudly announced their ability to do so (a literate prostitute could command a higher price, as could one with shapely calves or expressive eyes), to have been determined to make the best of their situation; perhaps even to see their years in the trade as a step on the ladder to something else. For most of them, of course, such hopes would never be realised, but there were some success stories – I wonder now how many Victorian “ladybirds” were aware of the tale of Cheshire-born Amy Lyon, who in the previous century had worked as a prostitute and exotic dancer before achieving fame and notoriety as Lady Emma, wife of Sir William Hamilton and mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson.
As a final homage to the business acumen some Victorian prostitutes were capable of displaying, I must give an honourable mention to Miss Moriella, who (we learn from her entry in a handbook for ‘men about town’ seeking paid company) charged one pound for her services; but, it seems, if that fee were to be doubled, “[it would] give her such a flow of spirits as to induce her to make uncommon exertions, which have produced incredible effects”.
She wasn’t daft, that Moriella. What’s the bet that the two pound clients got the same performance as everyone else?
Preston, 1888: as the century draws to a close, the prostitute murders in London have made young Lydia Ketch’s ‘trade’ a political issue. Lydia, the tough but optimistic daughter of a former workhouse inmate, has spent a year working in the ‘introduction house’ of Kathleen Tanner, a job that has given her an income few others could match. When Lydia meets Henry Shadwell, a young surgeon with a passionate interest in biology, the two develop an instant – and non-professional – bond. And Henry soon enlists Lydia’s help in his underground sidelines; first as a model for pornographic photography; then as an assistant in procuring corpses for medical experimentation. With the dangers of her own line of work becoming clearer by the day, and her newfound delight in her own sexuality burgeoning, Lydia becomes disillusioned with her life as a prostitute. And it soon become clear that her trade – and Henry’s – are even more dangerous than either had imagined.’
Faye’s new book Trades of the Flesh is released today in the UK and you will all be no doubt thrilled to learn that in honour of this special occasion I have a copy with a signed frontispiece to give away as the prize in a competition. If you want to win then all you need to do is confess your very worst sin in the comments and we will pick a winner at the end of next week. Good luck and feel free to spread the word!