Prostitution was far from uncommon in the world of the Victorian, however the definition was much wider and more vague than it is today. In her book Myths of Sexuality, Lynda Nead says that the term prostitute “could define any woman who transgressed the bourgeois code of morality.” The term “fallen woman” was often used to describe prostitutes, however this signifies a “fall from grace” – adultery or betrayal – and suggests that the woman was of a high class. Prostitution was a phenomenon among all classes, women who were well-educated and from good families could easily fall into the trade, not only the common street-workers.
Women and the standard of women's behaviour was seen as the foundation of a stable and moral society, so even if they weren't selling themselves for sex they were still getting judged for any sort of amoral behaviour, which is why so many of them were labelled as prostitutes.
Rossetti, prostitution and sexuality
Among Victorian society, prostitution was feared and thought of as something which broke up families and as it was so widely spread among the classes it was a fear shared by all. Judging by the way many men have written about prostitutes in Victorian literature, it seems that their consciences are conflicted. Rossetti's poem 'Jenny' depicts a man speaking to a prostitute after she has fallen asleep on his lap. His language is often tender, he repeatedly calls her “my Jenny” and although he mocks her, he is also aware of how much she reminds him of his cousin, Nell. The narrator is thrown into “doubt and horror” (179) at the thought that Nell is also “fond of fun, / And fond of dress” (185-6). This brings awareness to the fact again that there were prostitutes though-out the classes. It wasn't just poor women who were desperate to put food on the table for their families that fell into prostitution, but higher class women also dabbled in it occasionally for the sake of extra money for clothes or other equally unimportant fancies.
Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.
The rose and poppy are her flowers; for where
Is he not found, O Lilith, whom shed scent
And soft-shed kisses and soft sleep shall snare?
Lo! as that youth's eyes burned at thine, so went
Thy spell through him, and left his straight neck bent
And round his heart one strangling golden hair.
'Lady Lilith', a painting by Rossetti from 1866, is an extremely sexualised representation of the woman who was supposed to be Adam's first wife before Eve in the creation story of Genesis. Although not technically a prostitute, Lady Lilith is seen as a fallen woman after fleeing Eden, and it is said, in the sonnet which is engraved on the frame of the photo, she now “draws men [in] … / Till heart and body and life are in its hold.” This complies with the idea that transgressing the bourgeois code of morality labels someone a prostitute and not just literally accepting money for sex. The way Lilith's clothes hang loosely around her as she brushes her main of fiery hair mirrors the way he describes the prostitute in his poem 'Jenny' – at lines 47-8 the narrator says “For all your wealth of loosened hair, / Your silk ungirdled and unlac'd”. The way her clothing is draped around her and long loose hair in general are both obvious symbols of sexuality and would have been striking to a Victorian audience. The way she gazes into the mirror at herself with a care-free passion reflects her care-free way of life and decisions she made against Adam, God and humanity.
The working-class prostitute
Not all prostitutes were nicely dressed, as kindly treated as Jenny, or so powerfully independent as Lady Lilith. In Henry Mayer's London's Underworld (1862) he describes many different prostitutes he sees and meets. He talks heavily of the sheer amount of prostitutes in the Heymarket and around Regent Street, his description varies from “old, bloated women who have grown grey in prostitution” to “the daughters of labouring people” – young girls of thirteen and older, who would pick-pocket and be found around dingy coffee shops and brothels. These girls would often be bought for their virginity.
Prostitution was seemingly regulated by the 1850s, but this only meant that awareness of prostitution was heightened. People started writing literature and painting pictures of prostitutes, but it didn't mean that the issue was at all dealt with. We must rely on the authenticity of Mayer's retelling of his encounters and interrogations of prostitutes when reading his work, but London's Underworld gives a fascinating insight into the cruel life of a low class prostitute. He speaks to a woman he describes as “dressed in old and worn-out clothes … ugly and mature … perhaps on the shady side of forty.” He gives us a glance into the lies which now effortlessly flow from the woman's mouth after many years of practise and desperation. She first tells Mayer that she has a husband and seven children, but shortly after refers to herself as a widow. When Mayer picks up on this, she says:
“The first I told you's the true. But Lor', I's up to many dodges I gets what you may call confounded; sometimes I's a widder, and wants me 'art rejoiced with a coppar, and then I's a hindustrious needlewoman thrown out of work and going to be druv into the streets if I don't get summat to do.”
So why was prostitution such a big problem in the nineteenth century? It seems that unemployment and poverty had spiralled out of control, making women take matters into their own hands as a strategy for survival. But that doesn't explain why upper/middle-class women were also seduced into the trap of prostitution. Did the Victorians have a higher desire for sexual intercourse? William Acton said that “supply … is regulated by demand … the desire for sexual intercourse is strongly felt by the male.” Statistical figures for London ranged from 8,000 to 80,000 prostitutes which shows the problem of the vague definition. There were many problems which contributed to the problem of Victorian prostitution which seemingly are under much better control in 21st century England.
Mayer, H. London's Underground. Spring Brooks. London. (reprinted 1966, original 1863)
Rossetti, D. Poems. A New Edition: 'Jenny'. Ellis & White. (1881)
Nead, L. Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain. Basil Blackwell Ltd. Oxford. 1988