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									INTRODUCTION: ‘THE GREAT SOCIAL EVIL’ –
REPRESENTING THE VICTORIAN PROSTITUTE



   We have lost sight of the old-fashioned language in connexion [sic] with this matter
   … The term ‘Social Evil’, by a queer translation of the abstract into a concrete, has
   become a personality … The fact is that we have familiarized ourselves too much with
   the subject … We seem to have arrived at this point – that the most interesting class of
   womanhood is woman at her lowest degradation.1

   The career of these women is a brief one; their downward path a marked and inevi-
   table one; and they know this well. They are almost never rescued; escape themselves




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   they cannot.2

If the prostitute had become, as the Saturday Review termed it, ‘the most inter-
esting class of womanhood’ in Britain in the Victorian period, what did she look
like? How, and by what means, did her contemporaries depict her? Such basic
questions raise further issues: What was (and perhaps still is) the significance of
representations of prostitution and what role did they play in the production
of myths and cultural narratives, the regulation of behaviour and the shaping
of social attitudes? Historians (and others) interested in Victorian social and
cultural history, and in perceptions of prostitution particularly, cannot avoid
such questions and they continue to invite further analysis even after decades of
innovative scholarship.
     Studying contemporary representations provides a way of reading prostitu-
tion: the analysis and study of images and texts as discursive forms sheds light on
the process of constructing social meaning. Lynda Nead has argued that study-
ing representations involves recognizing the improbability of discovering a true
reflection or an objective picture of what is ‘shown’ on the surface of a text, but
such study raises the issue of how particular kinds of images are circulated, con-
sumed and produced at any given moment.3 How historians define prostitution
and how contemporaries defined it raises one such important issue. Elizabeth
Clement has remarked that ‘prostitution may seem easy to define but, in reality,
it is suspended in a complex web of economic, cultural, and moral systems’.4 This
recognition of cultural construction is especially true of the Victorian period.

                                            –1–
2                                The Prostitute’s Body


Scholars have argued that mid- to late-Victorian definitions and characteriza-
tions of the prostitute remain indebted to a corpus of works published in the
early 1840s. The myth of the prostitute’s downward progress – a narrative involv-
ing disease, destitution and early death – was, so it is claimed, crystallized in the
Victorian consciousness from this period on. It was then reproduced without
examination in the work of historians. Modern academic interest in the art and
literature of the ‘fallen woman’ has reinforced this interpretation. In reading
representational homogeneity in the nineteenth-century texts on prostitution,
modern scholars have consequently limited their interpretations of contempo-
rary attitudes to prostitution and underestimated the variety and complexity
of these attitudes. This book reads a selection of post-1850 sources to assess
historical claims for the resilience and codification of the myth, and to subject
Victorian ideology to much-needed scrutiny. Victorians were more complex in
their representation of prostitution than historians have given them credit for,
and this study illustrates this complexity both by revisiting canonical texts and
utilizing lesser known sources. This analysis reveals how actively some Victorians
worked to challenge the myths that historians continue to attribute to them.
    The works of the 1840s are considered by historians as central to establishing



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a conventional prostitute narrative that continued to influence subsequent rep-
resentations of prostitution into the 1850s and beyond.5 The plethora of 1840s
works provided the discursive context for the ‘great social evil’ of the 1850s.6
These early investigations came largely from evangelical authors – including
ministers, reform advocates, and physicians – and constituted a considerable
body of literature that would influence, in diverse ways, later productions on
the subject. Authors such as William Tait were responding to a wider contem-
porary anxiety over the rising visibility of prostitution, and approached their
studies in structurally similar ways. Tait was a surgeon at the Edinburgh Lock
Hospital, and his work was the largest and most influential of the early texts on
prostitution. Tait remarked that the subject of prostitution had ‘seldom been
urged upon the attention of the public’ and that it was time (his work was pub-
lished in 1840) to awake society from its ‘melancholy insensibility’ and look to
ridding the world of this ‘evil’.7 Tait, together with subsequent authors – Ralph
Wardlaw, William Bevan, William Logan and James Talbot – outlined estimates
of prostitute numbers, the nature and extent of prostitution, the organization
of brothels, the causes behind women’s ‘fall’ or recourse to prostitution, and
offered prospective modes of prevention. While an author’s priorities might dif-
fer – Michael Ryan (surgeon), for example, had a medical interest in venereal
disease and Bevan (church minister) had an evangelical desire to eradicate sin –
most of these authors shared an intertextual interest in, and commitment to, one
another. The result of this relationship was the production of certain images and
                                     Introduction                                    3


narratives of the prostitute, and the reproduction of a stereotype which would
allegedly prove resilient in later decades.
    These early authors varied in their ability (or desire) to define their subject
matter. Talbot avoided delineating a working definition of prostitution. Bevan
merely described prostitution (rather than prostitutes) as ‘a system of unmiti-
gated pollution and woe’.8 However, Tait and Wardlaw made a point of defining
the ‘prostitute’ and, interestingly, distinguished between the act of prostitution
and the ‘character’ or ‘individual’ that performed it. Regardless of the possible
causes for a woman’s recourse to acts of prostitution, Tait argued that ‘the pros-
titute is generally a person who openly delivers herself up to a life of impurity
and licentiousness, who is indiscriminate in the selection of her lovers, and who
depends for her livelihood upon the proceeds arising from a life of prostitu-
tion’.9 Wardlaw claimed that while he considered fornication, ‘whoredom’ and
prostitution as entailing a woman’s surrendering of her virtue, it was ‘the volun-
tary repetition of the act’ that made a woman a prostitute.10 Moreover, Wardlaw
added, the term ‘prostitute’ was a ‘designation of character’.11 Despite the appar-
ent clarity and distinction in terms of the act of prostitution and the identity
of the prostitute in these statements, most of these texts referred to a variety of



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women of different ages and occupations, who became prostitutes from a variety
of causes, and who challenged this apparent ease of definition.
    Most of the authors of these early texts on prostitution attempted to clas-
sify prostitutes, most often by their type of residence, but their admission of the
extent of clandestine prostitution often undermined such classifications. Ryan
claimed that there were three divisions of prostitutes: women who worked from
private residences or ‘bad houses’; streetwalkers who used ‘places of accommoda-
tion’; and soldiers and sailors’ women.12 But Ryan also included needleworkers,
women who supplemented their regular wages, ‘kept mistresses’, servants, mar-
ried women and widows in his second ‘streetwalking’ category. Tait referred to
these latter examples as ‘sly prostitutes’, and different from ‘kept mistresses’ and
the ‘inmates of brothels’.13 Talbot’s classification of prostitutes also depended on
types of residence – regular brothels, dress houses and accommodation houses
– but noted that public houses, saloons and ships could also be used for prostitu-
tion.14 Like Ryan and Tait before him, Talbot also remarked on the many other
women who could be added to the class of prostitute: servants, milliners and
even some middle and upper-class ladies.15 Attempts at estimating the numbers
in this prostitute class varied but most authors referred to the same statistical esti-
mates and the number of 80,000 (for London) as the highest approximation.16
    Another common feature in the works of Tait, Talbot and their fellow
observers was their discussion of the various causes attributed to prostitution.
Some authors picked out certain causes for special attention, but the list of
possible factors was long. Wardlaw, for example, noted that the causes authors
4                                The Prostitute’s Body


assigned as ‘conducing to the melancholy aggregate of wickedness and misery,
are numerous’, but chose to select ‘the strength of the sexual propensity, and the
comparative weakness of the moral principle which ought to hold it in restraint’
as one primary cause.17 Unfortunately, Wardlaw avoided elaborating on this
‘sexual propensity’ because he claimed it was an unsavoury subject, but he did
note that perhaps it was this cause that ‘cloak[s] itself under the allegation of
others, which can be pleaded in extenuation with less of shame’.18 The long list of
possible causes was outlined the most comprehensively in Tait’s Magdalenism,
and most subsequent authors chose to reproduce the twenty-one causes listed by
Tait or refer to them in part.19 Talbot said he would ‘simply quote the opinions
of Mr. Tait and Mr. Logan’ on the causes of prostitution, and added that ‘Parent-
Duchatelet of Paris, Dr. Ryan of London, and Dr. Wardlaw of Glasgow, assign
similar causes for this evil’.20 These causes ranged from seduction, intemperance
and poverty, to the influence of obscene publications and theatre-going, and
constituted another common strand among this collection of texts.21 However
despite an array of different causes of prostitution, these authors identified cer-
tain common components in the prostitute’s character.
    One such defining trait was venereal disease and its personification in the



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prostitute. The ‘general health’ of the prostitute was ‘usually very bad’, Ryan
remarked, and her ‘peculiar excesses’ and ‘intemperate habits induce disease,
and consequently ill health’.22 As early as 1839, Ryan employed the dramatic lan-
guage which would become a staple in descriptions of prostitution, describing
the deaths of prostitutes due to disease as ‘a holocaust of human victims … yearly
sacrificed at the shrine of sensuality’.23 Bevan argued that ‘the prevalence of dis-
ease among this class of females is impossible to overrate’ and that prostitution
fixed ‘the death spot’ on all those it touched.24 Talbot concluded similarly that ‘a
great number of diseases are engendered by a life of prostitution, and the concur-
rent opinion of those who have directed their attention to the subject is, that the
average of [sic] life is very short amongst prostitutes’.25 This ‘concurrent opinion’
had become a defining feature in itself in the early literature on prostitution,
with the numerous intertextual references working to construct and reproduce
particular stereotypical images.26 The ‘truth’ on which these authors embellished
was not, of course, based on reality, but a set of textual representations. It was,
nonetheless, powerful imagery.
    What can be garnered from nearly all of these early works is the construction
and presentation of a familiar ‘cultural narrative’ around the characteriza-
tion and fate of the common Victorian prostitute. Although the authors often
expressed sympathy for a woman’s fall into prostitution and acknowledged the
variety of possible causes behind this fall, they presented the reader with a com-
posite picture. While they acknowledged that working-class poverty and poor
occupational options played a part in women’s recourse to prostitution, and that
                                          Introduction                                            5


many women resorted to prostitution only temporarily or opportunistically,
these authors preferred to construct and stress more dramatic images.27
    The physical stereotype of the Victorian prostitute, produced and repro-
duced in both literature and art, was the street-walker dressed in gaudy finery,
sepulchral make-up, often drunk, sometimes diseased, always pitiful, and expect-
ing imminent death. Her appearance was less severe at the start of her career than
at the end, but it was the brevity of this career that was the point: the prostitute’s
time in the trade was short, intemperate, degraded and diseased. Her life would
terminate early, most likely by suicide. Tait described such decline in vivid detail:
   Their bodies are so constituted, that every infringement of the natural or organic laws
   soon begins to manifest itself in them; and the greater their disrespect for these laws, the
   more obvious and striking do the effects become. The plump rosy cheek soon assumes a
   pale and sickly aspect. The eyes, once so bright and sparkling, look dim and languid, and
   seem as if sunk in their sockets. Their skin every where [sic] exhibits a sallow, withered
   appearance, but rapidly disappears, leaving behind it a death-like paleness.28

The end result, of course, was ‘premature old age and early death’.29 As Tait
claimed, ‘three or four years is supposed to be the general term of a prostitute’s




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life’.30 The imagery of the walking cadaver recurred in other texts too, and the
general consensus regarding the life and career of the prostitute was, as Wardlaw
remarked, ‘down-down-rapidly down; down from stage to stage, till it terminates
in some scene of squalid wretchedness’.31 Talbot echoed this narrative in 1844,
declaring that ‘their course is invariably downwards; all their practices have a
tendency to degradation, disease, and death’.32 Although these writers acknowl-
edged that men played a part in women’s fall, once women had fallen ‘from the
pedestal of virtuous innocence’ they seemed to enter a new system of representa-
tion.33 As Bevan remarked, ‘the die is cast … the line overstepped … Horror at the
prospect of the future mingles with despairing shame at the past. They plunge
into the abyss. The shades of dishonour close over them, to be exchanged only
for the thicker shades of a dreaded, and yet courted death.’34 It is no surprise that
historians have been seduced by the potency of this representation. One possible
reason for the historiographical adherence to the power of these particular rep-
resentations is that the prostitute became a cultural symbol in wider Victorian
culture, and was often referred to as contributing to broader social problems.
     Prostitution was not only a topic of investigation in its own right but
intersected with other anxieties. As Jeffrey Weeks claimed, the prostitute was
symbolically important to the Victorians, and terms such as ‘social evil’ and ‘social
diseases’ suggest a widespread fear of the social implications of prostitution.35
The most obvious of these fears was the concern over increasing levels of vene-
real disease in the armed forces and the heralding of systems of state-sanctioned
regulation. Other contemporaries were more concerned with middle-class mar-
6                                The Prostitute’s Body


riage trends. It was feared that the obsession by mothers for the upward social
mobility of their daughters was causing middle-class men to postpone marriage
and the high costs involved, and to consort with prostitutes.36 This latter issue
became intimately associated with anxiety regarding women’s obsession with
fashion and their copying of higher-class prostitutes, who were seen as fashion
trend-setters. This raised something of a quandary for middle-class observers: so-
called ‘respectable’ women were aping the fashions of ‘immoral’ courtesans and
becoming indistinguishable from them in public. The lines between the visible
and illicit prostitute and the invisible respectable woman were being breached.37
At the other end of the social scale, public displays of drunkenness and disorder
by lower-class prostitutes, especially around the Haymarket, garnered constant
attention in the daily press.38
     The very fascination with the subject of prostitution caused its own anxiety.
In October 1860 the Saturday Review accused prostitution of being a topic ‘too
popular by half ’.39 The literature of the 1840s had evidently contributed, if not
actually generated, interest and anxiety regarding prostitution into the 1850s
and beyond. The problem, as the Review saw it, was that this popularity resulted
in sentimentalism and a loss of severity in the representation of its threat to soci-



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ety. The use of euphemism, or, ‘refined coarseness’ and ‘sentimental sympathies’,
meant a focus on the reform of ‘fallen sisters’ had replaced a true apprecia-
tion of the ‘social wrong’ of ‘unchastity’ and the ‘social evils’ that prostitution
constituted.40 The Saturday Review complained that much of the literature –
especially that promoting prostitution reform – bemoaned labelling women as
victims and ignoring the seducers (an element of the conventional narrative).
The Saturday Review declared, rather, that ‘so she must be’ [the victim], for ‘there
is just as much seduction on the one side as on the other’ and that sad but true,
the social consequences for women ‘are, and ought to be, unequal’.41 This arti-
cle, in particular, engaged with components of the conventional representation
of prostitution, reinforcing some elements (the shame and ostracism), but also
challenging others (the passivity of their ‘fall’).
     By 1850, therefore, Victorians routinely depicted prostitution as the ‘great
social evil’. Prostitutes were a form of female sexual transgression that endangered
the respectable women in her vicinity; that threatened the health and strength of
the nation’s armed services; that influenced young, impressionable women simi-
larly interested in keeping up with modern fashions; and threatened to become
too popular and unsavoury a topic for public discussion. Works such as Tait’s
and Talbot’s had outlined these threats and the women at its centre, and more
popular publications engaged with the subject from a number of perspectives.
But these authors’ contemporaries were not unreflective in their absorption of
this material. The Saturday Review commented that the elements and narratives
produced in these early and influential works had ‘become a personality’, but
                                    Introduction                                  7


even more definable was the narrative and fate of the prostitute herself. As W.
R. Greg, editor of the Westminster Review remarked in the opening quotation
from 1850, the prostitute’s career was portrayed as brief and degraded, her life
terminated prematurely, if not by the ravages of venereal disease then by suicide.
    This myth of downward trajectory became a stock element in the represen-
tation of prostitution for Victorian contemporaries, and modern scholars have
continued to argue for the resilience of this narrative as the accepted or official
ideology on prostitution.42 Whether they have focused on reform efforts, debate
over regulation, or the rhetoric of fallenness in art and literature, scholars have
continued to give currency to this mode of representing prostitution.43 That it
was a powerful stereotype cannot be denied. In fact, Greg’s comment in 1850
was not an expression of personal opinion or ideology, but an observation on
the entrenchment of this myth in his cultural milieu, which is precisely why his
Westminster Review article is significant. Rather than merely replicating standard
imagery, Greg was taking stock of the development of the issue. He claimed that
it was not a natural inevitability but rather the myth itself, and society’s con-
tinued perpetuation of it, that refused to give prostitutes a second chance and
ensured their ultimate ‘fall’. Greg argued that ‘the influences of the surrounding



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world’ were ‘resistless’, and that regardless of any steps a prostitute may make to
try to redeem herself these forces would ‘close around her to hunt her back into
perdition’.44 Although Greg did not offer an alternative representation of the
prostitute narrative, he offers historians evidence that this myth was not static or
inflexible, and that some contemporaries approached it critically. It is no small
matter that Greg should remark that there is ‘much misrepresentation from those
who recklessly echo any popular cry’.45
    However, such dissonant voices or alternative renderings are largely absent
in historical accounts of Victorian prostitution. Scholars may have problema-
tized the social reality of the prostitute in the face of this ideology – variously
representing her as passive victim, social threat or autonomous agent – but they
have left the ‘official’ ideology largely untouched. Historians have interpreted
this mythology and the prostitution texts of the 1840s as influential enough on
the thinking of later decades as to hinder further ideological development or
change. This line of thinking imbues the conventional, mythological stereotype
of the prostitute with a stability and homogeneity that, even in the eyes of con-
temporaries, it did not possess. The Westminster Review article was not alone
in showing the flexibility of authors’ perspectives on prostitution, and provides
an early example of the potential for identifying counter discourses in the Vic-
torian period. My focus on post-1850 texts counters the alleged codification
and historical resilience of the stereotypes generated in the texts of the 1840s.
Victorians actively engaged with the mythological narrative, sometimes repro-
ducing, but also altering or challenging it. The resulting picture was a colourful
8                               The Prostitute’s Body


and varied one. Scrutinizing some of the most influential texts on prostitution
and employing less well known or alternative sources reveals this ideological flex-
ibility and complexity. There is counter discourse in Victorian representations of
prostitution that challenges the interpretative constraints of its historiography.
     Prostitution held great symbolic importance for the Victorians. This broader
interest in the issue of prostitution and the use of its tropes to represent other
attitudes – female sexual transgression, for example – has contributed to a great
academic, and not exclusively historical, interest in Victorian prostitution.46
Prostitution has been considered variously as an example of subterranean sexu-
ality in a Victorian world of sexual repression, one component of a variety of
sexualities which challenged this ‘repressive hypothesis’, a subject of inquiry in
itself (as it was for many Victorians), a theme in the decoding of Victorian art,
and also a theme in the study of the literature of the ‘fallen woman’. A brief and
selective overview of important works of scholarship on prostitution highlights
both the multi-disciplinary interest in the subject, and the original contribution
of what follows.
     The academic study of prostitution in Victorian Britain has undergone signifi-
cant methodological developments over the last thirty years. As Timothy Gilfoyle



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has claimed, social history and the study of representation have become the two
broad paradigms with which scholars have addressed prostitution.47 Under the
first paradigm, which has dominated international scholarship on prostitution,
research used the methods of social and women’s history to focus on the social
structure and organization of commercial sex. Under the second paradigm, his-
torians and literary scholars have engaged with the more symbolic meanings of
prostitution. There are, therefore, both chronological and thematic dimensions
to the treatment of prostitution as an academic subject. Academic interest has
progressed from treating prostitution marginally as part of the Victorian period’s
seedy or hypocritical underbelly, through works which have dealt with prosti-
tution within the wider frameworks of Victorian social reform, ‘medico-moral
politics’, and sexuality, to studies which have focused solely on prostitution as
their subject.48 While Steven Marcus claimed in the 1960s that ‘the English habit
of dealing with prostitution had been … to ignore its existence’, scholars such as
Frank Mort and Judith Walkowitz in the 1980s provided in-depth analyses of
the social and ideological interactions between physicians, politicians, feminists
and prostitutes in the mid-Victorian period.49 As well as these works of social
history, art historians, literary scholars and feminist theorists have more recently
studied representations of prostitution and the role they played in the produc-
tion of cultural narratives and in shaping attitudes to male and female sexuality.50
Representations of British prostitution are often mined for their production of
the ‘fallen woman’ narrative, and authors studying prostitution in nineteenth-
century France – such as Alain Corbin and Charles Bernheimer – have identified
                                   Introduction                                  9


disease and male fantasy as the most striking dimensions of French representa-
tions.51 Prostitution has also proven to be a window on Victorian sexual and
gender relations, anxieties about metropolitan urban development, medical
theories of sexual difference, and to the construction of ideologies.52 Just as the
Victorians engaged with prostitution from a broad array of perspectives, so too
have scholars used the subject to explore wider themes.
    Despite the value of the current inter-disciplinary scholarship on prostitu-
tion, Judith Walkowitz’s Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980) remains the
central work for historians of Victorian prostitution, most notably for the scope
and challenges it posed to the representation of the prostitute. Walkowitz used
the Contagious Diseases Acts (CD Acts) of the 1860s as the framework for her
study and by focusing on the relationships between ideology, public policy and
social change, aimed to reconstruct the social profile of the Victorian prostitute.
Although Walkowitz claimed that the contemporary definition of the common
prostitute was vague, she argued that it was possible to construct a profile of
the prostitute’s age, social background, residential patterns, clientele and aver-
age stay on the streets. Walkowitz’s representation of the prostitute was more
dynamic than previous historiographical constructions. Contrary to what his-



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torians argued was the prevailing Victorian image of prostitutes as drunken,
destitute, diseased and destined for a short and miserable life, Walkowitz argued
for a greater degree of self determination and agency in working-class women’s
recourse to prostitution, and the use of this ‘trade’ as a temporary but necessary
survival strategy given the fragile economic reality of working-class life. In her
work on prostitution in nineteenth-century Glasgow (1990), Linda Mahood
credited Walkowitz with challenging the prior academic portrayal of prostitutes
as silent victims. Rather than dealing with prostitution within such paradigms
as the double standard model or the oppression model as earlier works had
done, Walkowitz’s work showed prostitutes to be important historical actors.53
Although Walkowitz would focus more critically on ideology in a later study,
this was not a feature of her earlier groundbreaking work.54
    Where Walkowitz intended her study to counter the predominant imagery
of the prostitute and the inevitability of her downward trajectory with the social
reality, mine looks to this imagery, to representation, for the processes of its
construction and the multiple meanings it projected. The current book builds
on previous studies in the social history of prostitution and also on important
inroads made in the field of cultural history where studies into cultural narra-
tives and representation have revealed the symbolic potential of the prostitute.
    Lynda Nead’s work on the representation of sexual myths in the Victorian
period is one such influential contribution to the scholarship on Victorian
prostitution. Nead focused primarily on the adulteress and the prostitute as the
antitheses of respectable femininity. Her central concern was the relationship
10                               The Prostitute’s Body


between visual culture (high art in particular) and wider discourses on the adul-
teress and prostitute, and the way these figures were used to shape definitions of
normality and deviancy. Nead asserted that when prostitution was at the cen-
tre of a debate on public morality, art was fully implicated in the production
and circulation of images and meanings.55 Despite initially claiming that the
prostitute was ‘the broadest and most complex term within the categorization
of female behaviour during the nineteenth century’ and that ‘definitions of the
prostitute and attitudes towards prostitution were multiple, fragmented and fre-
quently contradictory’, Nead’s overall conclusions largely implied the continued
dominance of the mythology.56 Nead argued that the representation of the pros-
titute in paintings intended for public exhibition ‘was highly conventionalised;
for the prostitute to be “visible” within high art, she had to be seen to be suffer-
ing “the wages of sin”’.57 One powerful example of this was women shown on the
parapets of bridges: ‘this single image is sufficient to reactivate a powerful and
firmly established mythology of the life and death of the fallen woman; it domi-
nated bourgeois representations of female deviancy’.58 Nead argued that the fate
of the fallen woman was a ‘coded myth’ and although her analysis revealed the
role ‘high’ art played in the perpetuation of certain stereotypes and conventional



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morality, this also worked to reinforce (perhaps unintentionally) the notion of
homogeneity for the ideology of prostitution.59 Nead concluded that ‘it is diffi-
cult to over-emphasize the potency of the mythology within cultural discourse;
it permeated all forms of cultural representation from high art to the more pop-
ular forms of culture’.60 Nead’s interest in theories of disease and miasma, and
her construction of the prostitute as either social threat or social victim, worked
to reinforce the interpretative potency of the myth of the prostitute’s downward
trajectory, and to further marginalise the possibility of a Victorian counter dis-
course on prostitution.
    Another influential but much later study by Amanda Anderson (1993) has
analysed the rhetoric of fallenness in poetry and literature between 1840 and
1860, and contextualized this rhetoric against the discourse of Victorian social
science. Anderson claimed that the mid-Victorian period simultaneously wit-
nessed ‘the elaboration of scientific approaches to morality, society and character,
the proliferation of discourses on prostitution, and a burgeoning literary interest
in narratives of the fall’.61 I agree with Anderson that given this cultural context,
the complexities of the Victorian concept of fallenness (represented predomi-
nantly by the figures of the fallen woman and the prostitute), require recognition
and analysis. But Anderson also insisted upon the cultural centrality of fallenness.
She acknowledged her debt to Walkowitz for reappraising the agency and victim-
hood of the Victorian prostitute and engaging in important feminist debates,
but argued, that the system of representation around the ‘fallen woman’ was
powerful and worked to ‘shape cultural forms of self-understanding’.62 Although
                                    Introduction                                 11


Anderson’s analysis provided valuable insight into the literary construction of
particular Victorian sexual attitudes, in concentrating on the centrality of fallen-
ness in shaping ‘cultural forms’, it ignored any counter discourse.
    Corbin and Bernheimer argued for a similar potency of representation in
the various literatures of nineteenth-century France. Bernheimer (1989) argued
that there was a strong fantasmatic dimension to the social, political, medical,
artistic and literary constructions of the French prostitute.63 He encountered
powerful expressions of disgust for female sexuality in the texts he analyzed,
manifested for the most part by images of infectious disease, biological rot,
animality, carnality, regression and castration. All of these tropes, Bernheimer
argued, represented men’s fears of women’s sexual function.64 After identifying
the repetition of these tropes across his range of sources, Bernheimer concluded
that ‘that the elements of many of these analyses could be integrated into a kind
of dialectical masterplot’.65 Although Bernheimer’s and Anderson’s literary anal-
yses are highly sophisticated and reveal the intricacies of cultural and ideological
construction, they continue to endorse the potency and immutability of the
mythological stereotype of the prostitute in the Victorian consciousness, both
in Britain and France. The notion of a ‘masterplot’ of disease and contamination,



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and the insistence on the cultural centrality of ‘fallenness’, are precisely where I
suggest scholarship needs to change direction.
    Finally, Shannon Bell’s (1994) interdisciplinary approach to studying the
construction of the prostitute body has provided some relevant critical insights
into the larger mechanics of representation.66 Bell does not limit her focus to
Victorian prostitution, but rather traces the cultural construction of the pros-
titute body from the ancient Greek stories of Aspasia and Diotima through to
the prostitute performance art of the post-modern era. The nineteenth century
represents a low point in Bell’s narrative, epitomizing the newfound fascination
with social science, the identification of deviant sexualities, and the marginaliza-
tion of these sexualities by the state and its agencies. The fact that Bell chose to
begin her narrative in the ancient period, rather than the nineteenth century,
for example, was admittedly an intentional ‘textual-political act’, and one which
proves problematic for the historian.67 Bell’s goal was to ‘displace the more tradi-
tional linkage of the contemporary prostitute to the profane, diseased, excluded
female body of the nineteenth century, foregrounding instead its lineage to the
ancient sexual, sacred, healing female body’.68 Amanda Anderson has commented
on certain trends in the feminist cultural history of the Victorian period which
have constructed portraits of what she terms ‘aggrandized agency’ – imbuing
historical subjects with exaggerated agency, reflexivity, and calculation – and
which actually reveal a lack of critical detachment on the part of the academic.69
What Bell runs the risk of in her analysis is not ‘aggrandizing’ the Victorian
prostitute, but overstating the agency of the ancient hetaerae and postmodern
12                               The Prostitute’s Body


prostitute performance artists. This aggrandizement of prostitute subject voices
then works to adversely affect Bell’s representation of Victorian prostitutes – fig-
ures which can only look powerless and profane by comparison. Bell illustrated
the ambiguities and internal contradictions present in all her texts, and espe-
cially in the nineteenth-century texts she selected for analysis; however, she
concluded that the nineteenth-century prostitute body was represented clearly
by ‘medico-moral-legal discourses’ as ‘the profane body’.70 This interpretation
had a clear function in Bell’s larger enterprise, working to highlight the agency
of the post-modern prostitute, but its effect minimizes the ideological complex-
ity of Victorian attitudes toward prostitution. Rather than seeking to place my
texts within a pre-determined meta-narrative, I want to read them for the ways
they problematize or complicate such larger unitary coherence.
    Authors such as Anderson and Nead have offered new ways of studying the
meaning of prostitution in the Victorian context, while Bell has offered a differ-
ent perspective. These authors have all subjected the narratives of prostitution
to close analytical scrutiny and deconstruction and have contributed impor-
tant analyses of the prostitute’s symbolic relationship to her social, political and
urban environment, and also to the cultural productions generated by those



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environments. Anderson and Nead, in particular, have highlighted the validity
and utility of using ‘cultural narratives’ as an entry point into historical study.71
But in centralizing the elaboration of the conventional prostitute narrative,
scholars continue to constrain their interpretations.
    My approach is influenced by post-modernism’s emphasis on the multiplic-
ity of representation and the instability of texts. This, it should be stressed, is a
study of representations of prostitution in written accounts. It does not deal with
visual representations. It is not a general history of Victorian prostitution. Nor
does it attempt to construct or evaluate a history of prostitutes’ agency. While
recognizing that the texts dealt with here take different forms and were intended
for different audiences, this is also not a study of audience response. It is a study
which raises questions about the implications of the dissonant possibilities in
an otherwise shared schema of representations, an issue that previous academic
accounts of prostitution have not acknowledged.
    This book contributes to the new multidisciplinary approach to studying
prostitution and yet also seeks to address the representation of Victorian atti-
tudes that recent studies have produced. It attempts this by the critical analysis
of one ‘cultural narrative’ in particular: the ‘myth’ of the prostitute’s downward
progress. This myth has remained a powerful narrative in the hands of schol-
ars. Walkowitz illuminated the interplay between prostitutes and the forces that
produced this mythology, but did not directly confront the stereotype in terms
of its discursive coherence. Anderson and Nead reinforced the potency and cur-
rency of the mythology, even as they attempted to problematize certain aspects
                                    Introduction                                  13


of it. Bell epitomized the belief in the Victorian period as a historical moment
which codified definitions of deviancy and marginalized deviant groups using
the symbolism of ‘otherness’. It is clear that the different agendas of these authors
have affected the resulting representation of the prostitute. Although literary
analysts like Anderson and Bernheimer used traditional historical sources (med-
ical journals, works by social commentators, newspapers) as a framework for
their specific textual analyses, their focus on the image of the ‘fallen woman’ and
the trope of disease resulted in interpretations lacking in nuance and breadth.
Even when the simplicity of the whore/angel, public/private dichotomy was
challenged by Nead, the premise of the prostitute’s downward trajectory and the
choice of source material with fallen women at the centre, including paintings of
near-dead or drowned prostitutes, resulted in the iteration of the myth. Where
the world of prostitution and the notion of sexual immorality have been shown
by scholars to be multifaceted and variously experienced, contemporaries’ beliefs
on these notions have not undergone the same scrutiny.
     This study subjects five important nineteenth-century sources to close
textual analysis in an effort to more fully understand the construction and repre-
sentation of Victorian ideologies (I am using ‘ideology’ in the most basic sense to



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denote a shared body of images, ideas, attitudes and stereotypes). The case stud-
ies are: William Acton’s Prostitution Considered (1870); The Report of the Royal
Commission into the Contagious Diseases Acts (1871); Josephine Butler’s early
repeal campaign literature; Wilkie Collins’s novel The New Magdalen (1873);
and the pornographic ‘memoir’ My Secret Life (c. 1890). As Jann Matlock has
argued, the prostitute was a textual product ‘elaborated into case studies, codi-
fied into narratives, emplotted into fantasies’.72 These five case studies represent
examples of the broad discursive interest in the theme of prostitution in the Vic-
torian period and cover medicine, politics, feminism, fiction and pornography.
My intention is not to claim that these five sources are exhaustive or the most
representative of Victorian attitudes to prostitution. What is of most interest is
the breadth of ways in which they show contemporaries reassessing and challeng-
ing the myth. The value of these case studies is in their range and diversity, and
the evidence of reflexivity which my analyses reveal can reasonably be assumed
to be a wider aspect of Victorian discourse on prostitution. I have chosen to
revisit particular canonical texts and have read difference where others have read
coherence. I have also selected lesser known sources to illuminate their particular
representations of prostitution, and their participation in the larger representa-
tional schema. These texts offer representations of prostitution that are far more
complex and heterogeneous than conceded by current historiography.
     I am particularly interested in the ways in which Victorians attempted to
articulate definitions of prostitution. The case studies show a variety of views
and reveal that it was never as simple as distinguishing between full-time, part-
14                               The Prostitute’s Body


time, barter or tradition. Any loveless or extramarital sexual activity could be
deemed illicit, immoral, ‘fallen’ or as prostitution. The word ‘prostitution’ was
used variously in the nineteenth-century context. Most often it denoted a polit-
ico-medical category in official discourse rather than being used by women to
describe themselves. Indeed women rarely used the term ‘prostitute’ to identify
themselves – raising the possibility that they either did not define their activities
as prostitution or that their activity did not define them. I am similarly inter-
ested, therefore, in how the Victorian authors of these case studies characterized
and constructed the prostitute and employed tropes such as disease, agency and
victimhood in these constructions. I am working on the premise that all texts
are amenable to multiple readings and that some of these readings will challenge
‘majority’ interpretations.
    Chapter 1 examines the work of William Acton, a surgeon and venereolo-
gist, and the author of one of the Victorian period’s largest and most influential
texts on prostitution.73 Acton reiterated elements from the canon of extant lit-
erature (estimates of prostitute numbers, brothel organization, and the variety of
accepted causes of prostitution), but also departed from the canon in his advo-
cacy of state-sponsored medical intervention. Although most historians agree on



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Acton’s influence on the campaign to promote the CD Acts, they do not regard
Prostitution Considered as an ideologically complex text. Although Acton clearly
challenged elements of the existing stereotype of the prostitute, his particular
representation has been deemed a thinly veiled vehicle to garner support for the
official regulation of prostitution, rather than any significant departure from
tradition. Chapter 1 argues that Acton offered particular challenges to the con-
ventional stereotype of prostitution (including his own moments of ambivalence
and contradiction), and did much to contest the myth of downward trajectory.
That Acton worked with the traditional literature, while simultaneously challeng-
ing aspects of it, demonstrates an authorial flexibility that historians have largely
overlooked. Similarly, I challenge the notion that the medical profession was mon-
olithic in its adherence to the stereotype of the prostitute. Although it appeared
(and scholarship concludes) that the medical establishment was constructing a
morbid stereotype of the prostitute, and that part of this process was about forg-
ing and authenticating a medical professional identity by exploiting ‘otherness’,
on closer examination opinions varied and voices of opposition made themselves
heard.74 That this variety of opinion can be discerned within a single text further
highlights the utility of subjecting other texts on prostitution to similar analysis.
    Chapter 2 scrutinizes the ‘Report of the Royal Commission upon the
Administration and Operation of the Contagious Diseases Acts’, published in
1871, and focuses on the representation of prostitution within parliamentary
discourse. This official nineteenth-century parliamentary text has become a
stock resource for historians of Victorian prostitution. But a close analysis of the
                                   Introduction                                 15


report problematizes received opinion. The construction of the report reveals
something of a paradox. In synthesizing several hundred pages of variegated
witness testimonies into a final report thirty pages in length, the commission
produced a document which appeared to represent a cohesive treatment of the
issue and which reproduced particular stereotypes of the prostitute. Yet any
codification of the mythological stereotype was challenged by the multi-vocal
nature of the larger collection of testimonies. The witness testimonies provided
to the commission were characterized by variety, opposition, dissonance, contra-
diction and heterogeneity, and yet this incoherence was consciously dovetailed
into a narrower interpretative framework for the purposes of final evaluation
and summary. The final report chose to emphasize certain dynamics and obscure
others. For the historian interested in contemporary attitudes and the litera-
ture which embodied them, this process is illustrative more of the potency of a
particular system of representation than its currency. This text has traditionally
been interpreted as the codification of a mythology which represented prosti-
tutes – largely through the matrix of venereal disease – as both social threats and
victims. However the dissonances and disagreements that are revealed in the wit-
ness testimonies – both between and within different professions – demonstrate



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the instability of this ‘code’ and a variety of attitudes toward prostitution.
    Chapter 3 focuses on a selection of shorter texts which constitute a phase in
the ‘feminist’ campaign to repeal the CD Acts. Written predominantly, but not
exclusively, by Josephine Butler, the charismatic leader of the Ladies National
Association (LNA), these texts delineate the attitudes of this association toward
prostitution and prostitutes. The LNA’s founders believed that women had a
particular connection to the larger issues of the sexual double standard and con-
stitutional inequity of the CD Acts. Butler and the LNA printed and published
numerous addresses, articles and pamphlets in this period, but the chapter focuses
on the early years of the repeal movement and the association (1869–72), when
their ideology was being delineated and made public. Most scholarly work on
Butler and the LNA has dwelt on critical assessment of its feminist qualities, its
role in women’s movements, and its contribution to the larger repeal campaign.
This study instead scrutinizes Butler’s particular characterization of prostitution
and her contribution to the discourse surrounding the prostitute. This body of
work raises themes similar to the first two chapters: the language and definition
of prostitution, the relationship of representation to authorial agenda, and also
the implementation of certain ‘traditional’ tropes. Butler and her colleagues also
employed specifically ‘feminist’ themes. Closer analysis again reveals internal
contradictions, inconsistencies and a degree of ambivalence towards its subject
matter, but also represents another important dimension amid the wider discur-
sive interest in prostitution.
16                              The Prostitute’s Body


     Chapter 4 moves into the realm of fiction and explores Wilkie Collins’s The
New Magdalen. Nineteenth-century fiction is obviously served by its own dis-
ciplines of critical inquiry, but it also provides rich resources for the historian.
One reason for this is the strong nineteenth-century literary interest in exploring
and reflecting the processes of rapid industrialization and expansion that Britain
was experiencing during this period. The ‘condition of England’, as this subject
of inquiry became known, provided a number of literary treatments, includ-
ing the famous voices of Charles Dickens (1812–70) and Elizabeth Gaskell
(1810–65).75 A number of works dealt with the subject of the ‘fallen woman’,
and thus involved the themes of seduction, desertion, illegitimacy and prosti-
tution. Although novels rarely dealt directly with prostitution, the spectre of
the prostitute loomed large in many works if only through allusions to fallen
women.76 Rarer were those novels that took prostitution or a prostitute as their
central focus. One novelist, Wilkie Collins, did just that when he places Mercy
Merrick in the central role of his sensation novel The New Magdalen, published
in 1873. The selection of this text as a case study of nineteenth-century fictional
discourse on prostitution is significant for several reasons. First, the rarity of
the subject matter – its ‘indelicacy’ – was widely declared, so it is not surprising



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that it proved unusual for authors, ‘sensational’ or otherwise, to choose this sub-
ject. Second, to have a prostitute as the central character and thus – in fictional
terms – speaking for herself and representing prostitute subjectivity, is so rare
it is surprising that it has not invited closer academic study. Third, the charac-
terization of Mercy is fundamentally different to any previous developments of
prostitute character. However, most important is the representation of the final
phases of the prostitute narrative in this novel. Collins engaged directly with the
potency of the traditional mythology of the prostitute and re-wrote it. The New
Magdalen functions as an important alternative text in the larger history of the
fictional representation of prostitution.
     Chapter 5 deals with the most ‘illicit’ of my chosen discourses: pornogra-
phy. Academic interest in pornography has increased in recent years, but this
genre has not traditionally been taken seriously as historical source material by
social or cultural historians not focusing on pornography itself. The case study
for Chapter 5 is My Secret Life, an erotic memoir of anonymous authorship – its
gentleman narrator is known only as ‘Walter’ – published c. 1890. The variety of
instances in this text in which sexual services were traded for money, and Walter’s
attitude to the commodification of female sexuality generally, proves this source
to be invaluable for historians of prostitution and sexuality alike. My Secret Life,
like the other case studies, highlights the complexity of contemporary defini-
tions of ‘prostitution’ as well as providing valuable information on its typology,
organization, initiation, geography and economics. Walter’s particular, subjec-
                                    Introduction                                 17


tive perspective – anonymous though it remains – is a valuable contemporary
Victorian perception that has much to offer the cultural historian.
    In focusing on the representation of ideology, this study challenges the way
academics have inadvertently continued to perpetuate certain assumptions
about Victorian attitudes to prostitution. Although historians have mined pri-
mary sources for their repetition of certain motifs (disease and contagion) and
their production of familiar narratives (the prostitute’s inevitable downward
progress), it is necessary to re-read the primary sources on prostitution and ‘go
beyond’ the accepted canon. The representational schema from which representa-
tions of prostitution were constructed in the Victorian period was multi-faceted
and many layered – a complex mosaic rather than a pre-determined narrative.
Contemporary authors actively grappled with this repertoire to construct their
representations, and rather than passively reproducing homogenized images
They created new tropes and narratives that reformulated and often directly
challenged those ‘myths’ historians would later impose upon them. Gilfoyle
has remarked on the difficulties in reconstructing accurate accounts of prostitu-
tion ‘due to the added layers of myth and fabrication’.77 He noted further that
because the ‘whore’ was also a metaphor, commercial sex ‘was transformed into




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a vehicle by which elites and middle classes articulated their social boundaries,
problems, fears, agendas, and visions’. As a result, ‘most sources are so embedded
in discourses of pleasure, reform, and regulation that any effort to reconstruct
the lived experiences of these women is nearly impossible’.78 This book traverses
these discourses of ‘pleasure, reform, and regulation,’ in an attempt to reconstruct
the complexity and sophistication of Victorian representations of prostitution.

								
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