In my research, I came across an interesting book (circa 1850) that lists London’s prostitutes, identifying them by name, location, and their special charms. It’s possible to forget that we’re reading about women with a heart and mind of their own, because the way in which they’re described is so objectified.
So-and-So prostitute has…
“…beautiful legs and feet as the most delicate sensualist would wish to see…”
“…a good complexion, and a fine bloom on her cheeks, but never makes use of any art…”
“…breasts [that] are rather small, but as plump and hard as an untouched virgin’s..”
When describing how these women feel about their profession, the explanation goes along the lines of: “her life is not worth her care without the thorough gratification of every pleasure.” Prostitution, in other words, allows women unlimited access to their one and only desire: pleasure. Men are therefore assured that there’s no need to feel guilty in seeking out their sexual service.
But in introducing these prostitutes, the author leaves out one important factor: the reality. Many prostitutes had to deal with sexually transmitted diseases, fickle-hearted patrons/abandonment, abortion, abuse, depression… etc., Life was not always entertaining, glamorous, and pleasurable.
It’s therefore unsettling to read about women as being no more than objects with good teeth, pretty legs, and plump breasts. There’s so much more to ‘fallen women’ than their bodies, but we’re not told their stories, because they’re not given a voice. They don’t deserve a voice (or so the Victorian misogynists believed). They were wicked creatures, lesser humans, unnatural, insane…
On a similar note:
In the current manuscript (TRC) I’m working on, my heroine, Amanda Hollingworth, is one of the women listed in the ‘book of prostitutes’. But I give her a voice, so she has a story to tell, and, at present, I’m a little past the half-way point of her life’s story.
I want to write faster (because I really want to share this story), but life has gotten busier after graduating from university. My days can be summarized by this Facebook status of mine:
My Current Writing Music:
6 thoughts on “Victorian Era Courtesans: The Man of Pleasure’s Illustrated Pocket-Book (1850)”
Hey there! I’ve nominated your blog for the Liebster award! 🙂 Here’s the info: http://cristinaguarino.livejournal.com/10570.html
Thanks! I’ll take part in this as soon as I have time to answer the questions. Thanks again 😀
I’ve always wondered about the role of courtesans in Victorian/pre-Victorian society… especially how our Womens Writers professor described them as traversing the public and private spheres. That’s what makes their lives so fascinating and even romantic, but at the same time, I’m sure there was lots of unwritten abuse 😦 Where’d you find this book? 🙂
If you want to know a more detailed account of pre-Victorian courtesans you should read the autobiography of this very famous 19th century courtesan named Harriet Wilson. She writes about the glamour of a life as a courtesan, but also about its downsides – jeez, her life was a rollarcoaster of jealousy & neglect & revenge lol.
Anyway! I found this book titled “The man of pleasure’s illustrated pocket-book for 1850” through our university catalogue! Since you have membership (which I no longer do T_T) you can easily download it. It’s an electronic resource.
“19th century courtesan named Harriet Wilson” – HARRIETTE Wilson
Thanks for the correction!