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A confession: I have had this book on my To Be Reviewed Pile for far longer than I ought to have done. For months and months in fact(as you can tell by the rather battered front cover which I scanned, above) The paperback version is soon to be released in the UK…Goodness..How tardy. I do apologise. As we have been gadding about too much recently I decided to give you a book review on serious topic today, and leave the country houses till later in the week. A change is after all, as good as a rest…
In fact, this book was transferred from my To Be Read pile some months ago, for as soon as it arrived I devoured it. I am a complete fan of Dan Cruickshank’s works. His book on the buildings of a Georgian town and how they functioned, Life in the Georgian City, co-written with Neil Burton, is one of my favourite books on this era.
His latest book, The Secret History of Georgian London is a fascinating and very detailed history of the sex industry in the long 18th century in Georgian London. It is thoroughly readable and enjoyable- if enjoyable is entirely correct word for what I think is a tragic subject. And being an architectural historian he takes a lively interest in the buildings that housed the Georgian sex industry and the areas of London where they were mostly congregated. I’m not completely sure that he really proves his premise that the city was shaped by the development of the sex industry, but some of his conclusions will startle; for example, the number of people involved in it will undoubtedly shock many of you. He give us a very detailed account of that world, one that it is all too easy to forget existed side by side with the glamour we often first associate with the Georgian era-the beautiful houses and dresses etc
But what does all this have to do with Jane Austen, I hear you ask. She was actually very aware of the dangers to poor, unprotected women of the predatory nature of the London sex industry. As is evidenced from her novels and letters. In Pride and Prejudice, the spiteful old ladies of Meryton were also well aware to the fate reserved for those who publicly strayed from the strict moral path and were most disappointed when Lydia, happily living in sin with Wickham in London, was retuned, safely married, to the Longbourn fold.
The good news quickly spread through the house, and with proportionate speed through the neighbourhood. It was borne in the latter with decent philosophy. To be sure, it would have been more for the advantage of conversation had Miss Lydia Bennet come upon the town; or, as the happiest alternative, been secluded from the world, in some distant farm house. But there was much to be talked of in marrying her; and the good-natured wishes of her well-doing which had proceeded before from all the spiteful old ladies in Meryton, lost but little of their spirit in this change of circumstances, because with such an husband her misery was considered certain.
The phrase “to come upon the town”, was of course referring to a woman involvement in prostitution, a fate to which many fallen women, without the support of the Bennet family and the perseverance and long purse of Darcy, were subject.
The melodramatic story of Eliza Brandon the sad, adulterous wife of Colonel Brandon’s less honourable brother in Sense and Sensibility, is one echoed in many tales of fallen women in this book.
Jane Austen was well aware of the reputation of London and its dangers: in her letter written to her sister Cassandra from London dated 23rd August 1796, she refers to London as
This Scene of Dissipation and Vice
And in her letter 18th September 1796, again written to Cassandra, this time from Rowling in Kent, Jane Austen makes this throw away remark, referring to her aborted plan to visit the Pearsons, the family of Henry Austen’s then fiancée, alone:
I had once determined to go with Frank tomorrow and take my chance etc; but they dissuaded me from so rash a step-as I really think on consideration it would have been : for if the Pearsons were not at home I should inevitably fall sacrifice to the arts of some fat Woman who would make me drunk with small beer…
She is here clearly referring to one of Hogarth’s prints of the seedier and dangerous die of London Life, as depicted in his series of prints The Harlots Progress
The first of these shown above depicts the arrival in London of an innocent country girl, here being befriended by, in Jane Austen’s own words, a fat Woman. This was none other than one of the most famous, or should I say, notorious procuresses of the Gregorian era, Elizabeth “Mother” Needham and this must be the source for Jane Austen’s interesting remark.
So, having established the London sex trade of the Georgian era as a legitimate topic of Austenian conversation, let’s now turn to the book in question.
There have been many ,many books on the Georgian sex industry published in the last few year, notably those written by Hallie Rubenhold,viz, The Covent Garden Ladies
and Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies: Sex in the City in Georgian Britain.
a fact ruefully acknowledged by Dan Cruikshank in his preface to his book.
His book adds, however, a different perspective, for being an architectural historian he has been able to research and describe the buildings and settings used by the sex trade. His chapter on Bagnios and how they operated is an eye opener. It is also very comprehensive, discussing moral and political attitudes towards prostitution as well as documenting the trade, its vicious ways, and the people engaged in it.
Though he is clearly primarily interested in the buildings , he never loses sight of the human stories trapped by the walls of these same edifices. He has a compassionate and vivid story telling manner and recounts the tale of many crimes, such as the stories of the murder of Anne Bellwith sense and compassion. He includes interesting chapters on mens’ then attitude towards women(very enlightening, indeed) and on the Evangelical campaign against prostitution. We are also shown the results of the trade on buildings and institutions: the human stories behind the founding of such institutions as the Foundling Hospital to take in the unwanted by-product of the trade-illegitimate babies, of the Lock Hospital for the treatment of venereal disease, and of the Magdalen Hospital built to house penitent ex-prostitutes.
The grand courtesans are not forgotten: we are given interesting descriptions of the lives and loves of Mrs Abington
and Kitty Fisher,
both associated with Sir Joshua Reynolds,who painted their portraits, above.
It is a marvelously detailed book, such as I have come to expect from Dan Cruickshank, and one that I can heartily recommend, as providing a vivid background to what we can often forget was a difficult life for the poor and the unfortunates: and was also the fate of those females-some elite women, note- who transgressed the strict moral code that prevailed in Jane Austen’s era and who had no supportive family or a Colonel Brandon or a Mr Darcy to rescue them, as well Jane Austen knew.