When planning a visit to London in 1796, Jane Austen expressed concern that none of her relations would be there to meet her. I should inevitably fall a Sacrifice to the arts of some fat Woman who would make me drunk with small beer1, she joked to Cassandra. Her sister would have picked up the reference to one of Hogarths paintings (see below) in his series The Harlots Progress, which depicts a fat woman from a brothel corrupting the innocent wench who has just arrived from the country. Jane Austen, protected by a loving family and, although never wealthy, with enough money to keep her in relative comfort, could safely joke about prostitution. Many other women in Georgian England were not so fortunate. Prostitution, as an employer of female labour, was second only to domestic service. Harlots were an extremely numerous and visible sector of Jane Austens society.
Patrick Colquhoun, in his Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, estimated in 1797 that there were 50,000 prostitutes in London (approximately 10% of the total female population). The numbers didnt lessen during Jane Austens lifetime. It is a truth, dishonourable to the nation, that the dreadful sin of prostitution is more prevalent among us than in countries immersed in superstition and idolatry, it was claimed in 18132. Covent Garden, where Jane stayed with her brother Henry in his Henrietta Street home, abounded with prostitutes. She could hardly have avoided seeing these women of the town almost every time she went outdoors. On an earlier visit to London, Jane Austen had written to Cassandra: I am once again in this Scene of Dissipation and Vice, and I begin already to find my Morals corrupted3. She meant it as a joke, but perhaps she was nearer to the truth than she realised. In the eyes of many Georgians, London was a city of vice.
There were, of course, many different grades of prostitutes. The available talent ran from the Splendid Madam at 50 guineas a night down to the civil nymph with white thread stockings who tramps along the Strand and will resign her engaging person to your honour for a pint of wine and a shilling4. On the bottom rung of the ladder was the streetwalker. On Westminster Bridge one evening, Boswell decided to pay a whore and the transaction took place then and there. He took the precaution of asking every prostitute he paid if she was free from venereal disease. She would inevitably assure him that she was, but Boswell was to suffer from at least 20 bouts of the problem (which was treated with mercury pills and plaster, camphor liniments and even some minor surgery), and probably died as a result of it. Boswell and Dr Johnson, walking arm in arm along the Strand, were once accosted by a woman of the town. No, no, my girl, it wont do5, Johnson told her. Boswell, who picked up prostitutes all over Europe, would probably have felt that it could do very well indeed, had he been without his friend and mentor. Monsieur Pierre Jean Grosley, who visited London ten years before Jane Austen was born, was astonished at the huge number of prostitutes in the city and by their behaviour: about nightfall (the women of the town) range themselves in a file in the footpaths of all the great streets in companies of five or six, most of them dressed very genteely. The low tavern serves them as a retreat to receive their gallants in; there is always a room set aside for this purpose. Whole rows of them accost passengers in broad daylight6.
|Sweet country girl, Moll Hackabout, rose in her bosom, little purse and scissors at her side, arrives from York and is accosted by the bawd, Mother Needham. Col. Charteris waits in the doorway, hand suspiciously deep in his pocket. The clergyman is too busy reading to notice her plight. Life goes on as a woman hangs out her washing, but ominous signs abound a dead goose and a pile of panniers about to fall. From The Harlots Progress, William Hogarth||
Then there were the employees of the brothels. Casanova came to London in 1763 to run his very experienced eye over the sexual scene and was impressed by what he saw. I visited the bagnios where a rich man can sup, bathe and sleep with a fashionable courtesan, of which there are many in London. It makes a magnificent debauch and only costs six guineas ... We went to see the well known procuress Mrs Wells and saw the celebrated courtesan Kitty Fisher ... she had on diamonds worth 5.000 francs ... she had eaten a banknote for 1,000 guineas on a slice of bread and butter that very day ... (so she said)7.
There were a huge number of brothels on the north side of the Strand and around Covent Garden. There was even a barge moored in the Thames, which ran a restaurant on the first floor and a brothel on the second. There were homosexual brothels. There was a black bawdy house. There were even brothels, of a sort, inside Houses of Correction, where the women prisoners were given the choice of starving to death or prostituting themselves to the prison staff. Male visitors could have a female prisoner, willing or unwilling, for the whole night if they tipped the keeper a shilling. Such places were hunting grounds also for Madams: the place may be considered a great brothel kept under the protection of the law... [It is] common for the keeper of a bagnio to come to this place, call for a bottle or two of wine [and] look over the girls ... pay their fees and take them home8. The world of brothel keeping is not so far removed from Jane Austens character Mrs Younge in Pride and Prejudice. She helps Wickham when he tries to elope with an under-age girl, she makes a living by renting out rooms and she would have been only too happy to have Wickham and Lydia stay with her had she space available.
At the top end of the ladder of women who traded sex for money was the kept mistress. Thanks to the example set by the Royal princes, the role of the mistress during the years of the Regency acquired a cachet that was almost respectable. Certainly, the official mistress became an established figure with her own position in society and was regarded as an asset to a man of fashion.
There was even a set procedure to follow in setting up a new mistress. The mans friends negotiated with the womans friends to broker a deal, and the payment, jewels, house, carriages and pin-money were all sorted out before any love-making began. It was said that £2000 per year and £800 down was the price of an opera dancer (which works out in todays money at about £100,000 per year!). When the sixth Duke of Devonshire set up an actress and courtesan Maria Foote in a house in Dorset Square, he also had to provide her with another house at Brighton, £1,600 per year, furs, carriages, jewels and even an aviary, because she was fond of birds. Jane Austen knew about men who kept mistresses. She gives a mistress to one of her London characters, Admiral Crawford. Perhaps she also knew that her cousin Elizas French husband had a mistress in Paris.
The most successful mistress of all during Jane Austens life-time was Harriette Wilson, a courtesan par excellence who was pretty, witty and avaricious enough to rival Mr and Mrs John Dashwood. It was rumoured that she changed her lovers as easily as she changed her shoes and demanded a fifty pound note before she would even agree to an introduction. One of the 15 children of a Swiss clock-maker, Harriette became the mistress of the Earl of Craven when she was only 15, and the roll-call of her subsequent lovers reads like a page from Debretts Peerage. She enjoyed keeping several lovers competing for her favours, financially and physically, at the same time. She was friendly with Lord Byron and enjoyed chatting in her opera box with most of London society. Harriette Wilson was an overstated version of Lydia Bennet both enjoy practical jokes, laugh and chatter a lot, adore a good party and have a passion for men in uniforms.
It was an affair with the Marquis of Worcester, heir to the Duke of Beaufort, which ended Harriettes London career. The Marquis wanted to marry her and wrote some indiscreet letters. This gave Harriette enough evidence for a breach of promise suit when the Marquis withdrew his attentions, under pressure from his father. The whole fiasco ended when the Duke offered to pay her £500 per year for the rest of her life, if she retired to Paris. Her lawyer, another ex-lover, advised her to accept the offer and Harriette did so. The Duke, however, reneged and stopped the promised payments. Harriette retaliated by writing her memoirs and arranging their publication. Before publishing, however, she wrote to all the ex-lovers described in the memoir, suggesting that a generous sum could ensure their absence from the book. Many, who since knowing Harriette had become respectable pillars of society, paid up happily, but others, such as the Duke of Wellington, refused to be blackmailed. Publish and be Damned, he told her! As a result, an unflattering portrait of him looking like a rat-catcher appears in her book. The memoir is very funny, with anecdotes about men such as Lord Craven who bored her, wore a moth-eaten nightcap and droned on about his cocoa trees in the West Indies when he should have been making love to her!
The Memoirs were an immediate best-seller when they came out in 1825. There were thirty editions in the first year alone. This was, of course, after Jane Austens death, but the events and people described in the book were of her life-time and it is clear from her letters that she knew of the gossip about many of them. Harriette Wilson was paid for sex and knew the price of her chosen career. She was successful, but most London prostitutes never managed to rise so high, or live so long to tell the tale.
The male residents of London, and visitors to the great city, clearly had a vast choice of sexual prospects if they were prepared to pay. Indeed, some sort of help was needed in negotiating ones way amongst all the choices this help was available. Men such as John Thorpe, John Willoughby or Henry Crawford probably knew all about a most useful London publication, Harriss List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasures Kalendar, which contained an exact description of the most celebrated Ladies of Pleasure who frequent Covent garden and other parts of this Metropolis. The book could be purchased at any London booksellers for 2 shillings and sixpence.
Jane Austen was well aware of how easily women with no incomes, or women trying to escape unhappy marriages could take the first step to prostitution. Colonel Brandons Eliza, married against her wishes to his elder brother, is seduced away from her husband and then left penniless and pregnant by her seducer. Like Moll Hackabout in Hogarths series of pictures, she sinks rapidly into a life of prostitution and moves from man to man, until she ends in a debtors house, dying of either VD or TB. Her daughter, another Eliza, is at risk of a similar fate when she is abandoned by Willoughby. Fanny Hill, whose notorious adventures were published in 1749 to great public interest, enjoyed her career as a prostitute, but this was fiction and few real women turned to prostitution from choice, or regarded it as a profitable and prosperous career. It was poverty and desperation that drove women onto the streets in search of clients. Tobias Smollett, a medical man who could observe such women with a realistic and trained eye, described prostitutes in Roderick Random: I have often seen while I strolled about the streets at midnight, a number of naked wretches reduced to rags and filth, huddled together like swine in the corner of a dark alley; some of whom, but eighteen months before, I had known the favourites of the town, rolling in affluence, and glittering in all the pomp of equipage and dress. And indeed the gradation is easily conceived: the most fashionable woman of the town is as liable to contagion as one in a much humbler sphere9.
Bath was almost as licentious. There, Walcot Street, Avon Street and the Holloway district were notorious for prostitution. Many young girls came from the country to Bath, in search of excitement and employment. Once they discovered that jobs were not always so easy to come by, they were easy prey to the fat women who ran brothels. Only those resident in the city for five years were eligible for Poor Law relief from the parish, and so these girls were forced into prostitution to survive. They plied their trade in the places of public amusement the theatre, outside the Assembly Rooms, and in the vicinity of local inns. Once a customer had been found, he could be taken to any number of local houses where, for the cost of about one shilling, he could buy her services.
In her novel Persuasion Jane Austen chose the White Hart Inn as the setting for Captain Wentworths romantic proposal by letter to Anne Elliot. The White Hart was a well-known Bath inn and the stables at the rear were a particularly popular stamping ground for local prostitutes. One especially notorious harlot who plied her trade there when Jane Austen was resident in Bath was Maria Price, who came to a bad end in 1823, when she was caught stealing. Mary Musgrove enjoys looking out the window when she stays at the White Hart, and on one occasion spies Mrs Clay and William Elliot having an assignation. As Mrs Clay is about to elope with this man, and he is trying to buy her services so that she wont marry Sir Walter Elliot, this seems a symbolically fitting place for them to be meeting. Contemporary Bath readers would have picked up the subtle hint! It is also intriguing to note that Mrs Clay uses Gowlands Lotion to clear away her freckles. This lotion contained mercury, the usual prescription for syphilis. Was Mrs Clay a sufferer? Freckles too were regarded at that time as a sign of a sexual disease. Jane Austen wants her readers to look doubtfully on Mrs Clays past history before she even runs off with William Walter Elliot and is established as his mistress in London.
The large number of prostitutes in Bath was a matter for concern amongst local authorities. In the time of Beau Nash, these women were forced to wear white aprons in public, so that respectable citizens could easily identify them. John Skinner, rector of Camberton near Bath, was author of Journal of a Somerset Rector 1772-1839 and he commented on the huge number of Bath prostitutes: I was not a little astonished, as I walked through Bath, to observe the streets so crowded with prostitutes, some of them apparently not above 14 or 15 years of age10. Such was the local concern that in 1805, when Jane Austen was a resident in Bath, the Female Penitentiary and Lock Hospital was founded. Situated in Walcot Street, the purpose of this institution was to rescue fallen women and restore them to useful employment. In 1802 the Society for the Suppression of Vice was formed. One of its objects was the Protection of Female Innocence, by the Punishment of Procurers and Seducers. It sounds like a society expressly designed to deal with men like John Willoughby.
Jack just came on shore, with his pockets well lind, Was met by fair Kitty who hailed him thus kind ... turn in love, turn in. Radio Times Picture Library. Reproduced in Brander, The Georgian Gentleman, 1973 p 135.
|Brighton, too, was a popular place for prostitutes. By 1796 the sixth
edition of The New Brighton Guide could advertise the seaside town as a place
where the sinews of morality are so happily relaxed, that a bawd and a baroness may
snore in the same tenement11. Jane Austen expressed her dread of having
to go to Brighton when she wrote to Cassandra in 1799 perhaps she once again
imagined a fat woman getting her drunk on small beer. Prostitutes numbered 300 there,
exclusive of those at the army camp, at the time Jane Austen imagined Lydia Bennet going
there. Lydia is likely to have gazed with fascination at these women of the
town, members of the Cyprian Corps, impures of the ton,
whores, strumpets, light o loves,
wantons, demi-reps, demi-mondaines, jades,
hussies, tarts, sluts, scarlet women,
jezebels, lemans, paramours, doxies,
floozies, molls, fallen women, trollopes,
cocottes, bawds and harlots. Maria Bertram went to
Brighton on her honeymoon, escorted by her sister Julia. As both were to elope later in Mansfield
Park, the place clearly corrupted their morals. It wasnt too good for Lydia
Legally, it has always been hard to deal with the worlds oldest profession. The men of the law were expected to be troubled rather than fascinated by the large numbers of women employed as prostitutes. Prostitution, as such, was not a criminal offence. It was a crime, however, to solicit or live off immoral earnings, but these crimes were hard to deal with. Magistrates could arrest the women and fine them, an ineffective method at best. Once the fine was paid, economic hardship sent the women straight back onto the streets. Running a brothel was an offence at common law, recognised by statute in 1752. One Madam, Mary Bunce, was fined £20 and given six months in prison for running her establishment near the Haymarket. She was actually a successful businesswoman, owning 22 such establishments. It sounds like an early example of franchising! Usually, however, so long as neighbours did not complain of noise, and no slavery was involved, the authorities tended to leave brothels and their owners alone.
There were other punishment options available. The Hogarth series of paintings The Harlots Progress, which Jane Austen referred to in her letter to her sister, depicted the public flogging of prostitutes at Bridewell. Such floggings were popular mob entertainment in Hogarths day, but many moralists felt that they were designd rather to feast the eyes of the spectators, or stir up the appetites of lascivious persons, than to correct vice or reform manners (Edward Ward). By Jane Austens day the pillory was the more usual method of punishment. In Bath, Canterbury, Winchester or Southampton, she would certainly have seen unfortunate women spending painful hours on public display. If the righteous public felt so inclined, they could pelt the women with rotten fruit and even excrement, safe in the knowledge that the authorities would do nothing to interfere. A pilloried prostitute was a fair target for such sport, in the opinion of the law.
Jane Austen never uses the word prostitute in her letters or her novels, but she does depict women who sink to this fate in Eliza Brandon and her daughter. Others, such as Lydia Bennet, Mrs Clay and Maria Rushworth come dangerously near the world of prostitution as a result of their behaviour. In London, Bath and any other Georgian city, Jane Austen could not help but see prostitutes waiting for customers in the vicinity of theatres, inns and the other public buildings she visited. In the newspapers she read, the problem of how to deal with these women was discussed, and the etchings and paintings of her day reinforced how easily a single woman of small fortune could sink to such a fate.
1) Jane Austens Letters, Collected & Edited by
Deirdre le Faye, OUP, Oxford, 1995, Letter 7, p.12, 18 Sept. 1796
22 June 2003