Congratulations to Marilyn, winner of A Baron for Becky!
In the 18th century, according to Dan Cruickshank’s The Secret History of Georgian London, one in five women in London earned income from the sale of sex. He called London:
'a vast, hostile, soulless, wicked all-devouring but also fatally attractive place that makes and breaks, that tempts, inflames, satisfies, yet corrupts and ultimately kills'.
A ban on keeping a brothel was passed into law as early as 1751, but prostitution was not made an imprisoning offence until the 1820s. (Not that the new law stopped the trade, of course, but it did largely drive it off the streets, at least in the more genteel parts of town.)
With no regulation, there are no reliable statistics. Estimates made at the time defined unmarried women living with their partners as prostitutes, so 50,000 is probably well over the top. But we have guides to the whores and brothels of London, newssheet accounts and cartoons of the fashionable courtesans at the peak of the trade, their own narratives, and other contemporary records to assure us that the sex trade continued to be a thriving part of the economy in the first decades of the 19th century.
Sex workers—defined as those who made some or part of their living by selling sex—ranged from those offering a quick bang up against a wall in a slum alley to those accepting gifts from hopeful admirers while mixing on the fringes of Society. And everything in between.
Most prostitutes seem to have been working class girls who, having surrendered their virtue to a man of their own class, sought some profit from their lapse. One woman said:
‘she had got tired of service, wanted to see life and be independent; & so she had become a prostitute…She…enjoyed it very much, thought it might raise her & perhaps be profitable’
Which it was, giving her enough savings to purchase a coffee house and set up in business. For others, prostitution was seasonal, or a temporary reaction to a financial crisis. Many worked for a year or two, then took their savings home, and married or set up in business. Prostitution might also be a way to supplement income from another job; seamstresses and milliners, in particular, were so poorly paid that many of them sold their bodies as well.
Those who worked in wealthier areas, such as the West End, were more likely to find wealthy clients, and those with bit parts in the theatre, who then—as now—might be turned off in a moment if the performance did not please the audience, were well positioned to find a wealthy admirer to keep them in the style to which they would like to become accustomed.
A clever, pretty, talented girl could hope to attract a generous protector, perhaps even an admirer so besotted he would marry her. It happened, though rarely. More commonly, a man would set his mistress up in a house or apartment, and visit her when he was at leisure until he tired of her or she of him.
Many sex workers, if not most, were in less fortunate circumstances. Those running the brothels constantly sought fresh girls to please the appetites of their customers. A girl who accepted a job, or even a bed for the night, might find herself put to work whether she wished or not, her virginity auctioned to the highest bidder, and her share of the income withheld to pay for her food, board, clothing, and whatever else the brothel-keeper could imagine.
(I say ‘her’, but of course the same applies to male sex workers, though—homosexuality being illegal—we have little information about their lives, and that little from court records.)
The risks were great. Contraception was very hit and miss, if used at all. Pregnancy must have been a constant worry. ‘Pulling out’ was the most common method for avoiding unwanted children, and was as effective then as it is now (which is to say, not very). Protective ‘Machines’—condoms made from oiled cloth or the intestines of various animals—were available, though men were more likely to use them to avoid disease than to prevent pregnancy. And they were probably better at the second, since water could go right through them and they tended to tear.
Various methods were used to abort unwanted pregnancies, many of them just as likely to kill the mother. A baby could be born alive but then killed, or put out to a baby farmer so that the mother could return to work. A mistress of a single protector might be in a slightly stronger position if the child’s father was willing to keep the mother on. Some men—and not just royal princes—had quite large families by their mistresses.
Disease was the other big fear, for both the sex workers and their clients. Gonorrhea and syphilis were treated with ointments containing mercury, the toxic effects of which could be as dangerous as the diseases. Side effects included kidney failure, severe mouth ulcers, nerve damage, and loss of teeth. On the other hand, untreated syphilis ends in abcesses, ulcers, severe debility, and madness or death. And gonorrhea can spread to the blood and eventually kill. So not good choices.
And if a sex worker survived these scourges, age was just around the corner. Cosmetics could be used to keep the appearance of beauty, but they had their own dangers. The white pigment used to colour face foundation was very toxic, being lead-based. Rouge might be made of tin. But slow poisoning being better than fast starvation, women painted anyway.
Even those with wildly successful careers seldom came to good ends. Many—probably most—died young. Some married. Some set up in business for themselves and retired rich. And some, like Harriet Wilson, became penniless as their appeal faded. Harriet famously responded by publishing her memoirs, having first warned all her former lovers, and taken out those who paid for her silence.
Sadly, the fortune she earned was squandered by the scoundrel she subsequently married, and she died in poverty in France.
- Daniel Cruikshank London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=wdOiNVveUoQC&pg=PA2&lpg=PA2&dq=hostile,+soulless,+wicked+all-devouring&source=bl&ots=Pf9dLo548f&sig=vUbqcGRotcTRv3c4Q4nv0Q07pgg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CBwQ6AEwAGoVChMIn73U7pi8xwIVSKeUCh0sBwV-#v=onepage&q=hostile%2C%20soulless%2C%20wicked%20all-devouring&f=false
- Judith Flanders http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/prostitution#sthash.eqdvAlNk.dpuf
- Vic https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/progress-of-a-woman-of-pleasureprostitutes-in-18th-century-london/
- Heather Carroll http://georgianaduchessofdevonshire.blogspot.co.nz/2008/10/safe-sex.html
- John Frith http://jmvh.org/article/syphilis-its-early-history-and-treatment-until-penicillin-and-the-debate-on-its-origins/
A Baron for Becky
Becky is the envy of the courtesans of the demi-monde - the indulged mistress of the wealthy and charismatic Marquis of Aldridge. But she dreams of a normal life; one in which her daughter can have a future that does not depend on beauty, sex, and the whims of a man.
Finding herself with child, she hesitates to tell Aldridge. Will he cast her off, send her away, or keep her and condemn another child to this uncertain shadow world?
The devil-may-care face Hugh shows to the world hides a desperate sorrow; a sorrow he tries to drown with drink and riotous living. His years at war haunt him, but even more, he doesn't want to think about the illness that robbed him of the ability to father a son. When he dies, his barony will die with him. His title will fall into abeyance, and his estate will be scooped up by the Crown.
When Aldridge surprises them both with a daring proposition, they do not expect love to be part of the bargain.
Jude Knight writes strong determined heroines, heroes who can appreciate a clever capable woman, villains you’ll love to loathe, and all with a leavening of humour.
Jude Knight is the pen name of Judy Knighton. After a career in commercial writing, editing, and publishing, Jude is returning to her first love, fiction. Her novella, Candle’s Christmas Chair, was released in December 2014, and is in the top ten on several Amazon bestseller lists in the US and UK. Her first novel Farewell to Kindness, was released on 1 April, and is first in a series: The Golden Redepennings.Buy links
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Candle’s Christmas Chair (free novella)
Farewell to Kindness (Book One, the Golden Redepennings)
Aldridge never did find out how he came to be naked, alone, and sleeping in the small summerhouse in the garden of a country cottage. His last memory of the night before, had him twenty miles away, and—although not dressed—in a comfortable bed, and in company.
The first time he woke, he had no idea how far he’d come, but the moonlight was bright enough to show him half-trellised window openings, and an archway leading down a short flight of steps into a garden. A house loomed a few hundred feet distant, a dark shape against the star-bright sky. But getting up was too much trouble, particularly with a headache that hung inches above him, threatening to split his head if he moved. The cushioned bench on which he lay invited him to shut his eyes and go back to sleep. Time enough to find out where he was in the morning.
When he woke again, he was facing away from the archway entrance, and there was someone behind him. Silence now, but in his memory, the sound of light footsteps shifting the stones on the path outside, followed by twin intakes of breath as the walkers saw him.
One of them spoke; a woman’s voice, but low—almost husky. “Sarah, go back to the first rosebush and watch the house.”
“Yes, Mama.” A child’s voice.
Aldridge waited until he heard the child dance lightly down the steps and away along the path, then shifted his weight slightly letting his body roll over till he was lying on his back.
He waited for the exclamation of shock, but none came. Carefully—he wanted to observe her before he let her know he was awake, and anyway, any sudden movement might start up the hammers above his eye sockets—he cracked open his lids, masking his eyes with his lashes.
He could see more than he expected. The woman was using a shuttered lantern to examine him, starting at his feet. She paused for a long time when she reached his morning salute and it grew even prouder. Then she swept her light up his torso so quickly, he barely had time to slam his lids shut before the light reached and lingered over his face.
She was just a vague shadow behind the light. He held himself still while she completed her examination, which she did with a snort of disgust. Not the reaction to which he was accustomed.
This post copyright © Jude Knight, 2015.