Sunday, 3 November 2013

Victorian Prostitution

Prostitution during the Victorian Era

One of the most interesting aspects of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton is the role of Esther. Esther is a character who spends the majority of the novel ‘behind the scenes’ yet her role is essential in the novel. She guides the main plot and is highly influential over Mary. Her importance in the novel and the fact that Gaskell gave Esther a voice would have been an outrage to her readers, especially in a society that is famously known for being so prude. The fact that Esther is given a voice in the novel, it suggests a number of things. One being just how rife Prostitution was in the Victorian era; in fact it was so common that prostitution could be divided by a class system. It also suggests that many social reformers, writers and moralists became very concerned with the “fallen women” in society.

Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor Volume IV provides the ultimate guide to exploring prostitution and “fallen women” in this era. Mayhew differentiates workers into four categories; those who will work, those who cannot work, those who will not work and those who need not work (prostitutes falling into the “those who will not work” category). Judith R. Walkowitz also differentiates prostitutes in terms of class and focuses on the “Common Prostitute” (14). I was very surprised to discover in Prostitution and Victorian Society that “during the nineteenth century, solicitation was not illegal” (14) and that the authorities did not have much control over the spread of prostitution over Europe (which interestingly, Mayhew blames on the “French Revolution” (211). 

Mayhew includes many in depth tables, graphs, maps and photographs in his research. 
For example, the map on the right entitled "The Criminality of Females" shows that the areas in black are areas where female crime is above average. We can assume that female crime refers to prostitution. Areas such as London and Lancaster are included.




The map on the left entitled "Persons committed for keeping disorderly houses" shows counties in black where persons committed for keeping disorderly houses, brothels, is above average. It is interesting to find that it was an offence to 'keep' a brothel, but the actual solicitation was not technically illegal. Again, major cities such as London and Lancaster are shown in black, areas where prostitution was considerably higher.



During Mayhew's research, he conducted interviews with prostitutes. The most striking interview is with a prostitute from the lower class of prostitution (working in a brothel house). 
This strikes resemblance with Esther's situation in Mary Barton where by she was seduced, both being positioned as a "victim", and consequently had a child out of wedlock and eventually the child died due to starvation. Both women refer to their "fall" as a consequence of being deserted by the father of their child and therefore having to provide for their children themselves, but other work, such as machine work, did not pay enough and therefore ended up "on the street" (152) as Esther refers to it. Walkowitz also makes this connection, "Poverty seems to have been a principal cause for women's move into prostitution." (19) As her account is described as "stereotyped", it suggests that this was the Victorian attitude towards prostitution, that a woman was seduced deliberately which caused her "fall". The woman's sarcastic tone when stating that she "rose in the world", i.e. becoming a prostitute, it suggests the backwardness of Victorian society in that the woman's new financial position would have allowed her to rise from poverty and into a higher class, yet, at the same time, because of her lifestyle, she is completely shunned from society.
In many of the interviews with the prostitutes, there are lots of references to alcohol. This was clearly an escape mechanism for these women as they couldn't face the reality of what they had become. Alcoholism pushes them even further down the social ladder as they try to drown their sorrows. 
An interview with "Swindling Sal" (223) defies the stereotypes of prostitution in the Victorian Era. 
"I got tired of workin' and slavin' to make a livin', and getting a - bad one at that; what o' five pun' a year and yer grub, i'd sooner starve, I would. After a bit I went to Coventry, cut  Brummagem, as we calls it in those parts, and took up with the soldiers as was quartered there. I soon got tired of them. Soldiers is good - soldiers is - to walk with and that, but they don't pay; cos why, they aint got no money; so I says to myself, I'll go to Lunnon, and I did, I soon found my level there." (224)
'Sal's' attitude is completely different to the woman quoted in the image above. There is a sense of complete independence and that prostitution enabled her to be financially stable, she even mocks working in a factory and states that she'd "sooner starve" then earn a low salary. It is also suggested that she is able to choose her clients, soldiers "don't pay" well and therefore she avoids them. Her confident attitude is a direct contract to the stereotypes of Victorian prostitution, she did not "fall" from society but rose from her former life, she is also not a victim like Esther. Sal's name, "Swindling Sal", makes reference to Sal's ability to deceive people in order to take their money, it may not portray her as being honest but it is certainly a different portrayal from the victim.

The photo (left)  is taken from Mayhew's novel, captioned "The Haymarket - Midnight". This cartoon shows the literal "market' of prostitution that would take place late at night, the early hours of morning. This cartoon shows the 'women of the night' selling themselves to the men. The men's clothing suggests that they are middle class i.e. top hats, cigars are all signs of wealth in this period. The women are also well dressed which suggests that their clothing was a key selling point to possible clients.


Works Cited
Walkowitz, J. Prostitution and Victorian Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor Volume IV. London: Dover Publications Inc, 1968.
Gaskell, E. Mary Barton. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2012.

1 comment:

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