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History in the Raw
on 4 August 2010
The period of English history from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to the death of George 1V in 1830 can quite properly be called the age of the libertine. Society, particularly the aristocracy, followed a lifestyle of sexual activity which was captured in the poems of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, during the reign of Charles the Second and John Wilkes, the cross-eyed rabble rouser, during the time of George the Third. Thus, when Mervyn Griffith-Jones famously asked jurors in the 1960 trial of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, whether the novel was something "you would wish your wife or servants to read" he was not only out of touch with his own time, he showed remarkable ignorance of England's soical past. Not only were the four letter words to which Griffith-Jones objected far from new, they formed an integral part of popular expression in the Georgian society which Dan Cruickshank describes brilliantly in this superbly researched book.
The tendency to emphasise the relevance of sex to everyday life is not a modern invention. In the eighteenth century it was the talk of the town (in London at least) and in terms which would be bleeped out on modern television. Although the Georgians censored some words, these were usually the names of people, whose identity was nonetheless obvious from the initials used. What was not censorsed was the open misbehaviour of the aristocracy for whom marriage was a social act which did not serve to restrict their avaricous or sexual demands and dalliances. Many of these were carried out behind closed doors involving a combination of sexual fantasy and role play shortened only by the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. Nor was illicit sex confined to the upper classes. Samuel Welch, the high constable of Holborn, ascribed the problem of prostitution "to the irreligion, idleness, almost total want of morals and dissoluteness of manners of the common people." He discovered bawdy houses set up everywhere with group or threesome sex widely practiced and cross dressing far from uncommon. The content of porn sites on the internet is not just a contemporary record of one aspect of the sex industry it is simply repetition of what occured over two centuries ago with very little addition.
Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies was a regular publication providing details of expensive prostitutes from an area notorious for paid sex. In the 1788 edition of the List a Miss Corbett was reported as having a fixed rule about price. "She always measures a gentleman's maypole by a standard of nine inches and expects a guinea for every inch it is short of full measure." Apparently she made a fortune!!! Running a bawdy house was not cheap. A contemporary observer suggested there were different economic levels of sex from prostitutes who earned up to £30 a week from their homes, to the chancers who picked up the theatre trade and the cheap girls who made less than a £1 and often exchanged sex in return for drink. As the average weekly wage of a tradesman or cleric was no more than a pound a week some females had rich pickings. It has been estimated that the 80,000 London prostitutes in the late eighteenth century created an annual income of eight million pounds per annum, although it was not shared equally between the participants.
Condoms, referred to as armour, made from sheep's gut and expensive to buy, were widely used by wealthy prostitutes and their clients as a defence against venereal disease and pregnancy. James Boswell recalls an incident in his London Journal in which he "picked up a fresh, agreeable young girl called Alice Gibbs. We went down a lane to a snug place and I took out my armour but she begged that I might not put it on, as the sport was much pleasanter without it and, as she was quite safe, I was so rash as to trust her and had a very agreeable congress." Whether his rash action led to a rash condition is not recorded. Other tete-a-tetes involved masquerade balls, auctions with sex provided for all tastes in heterosexual and homosexual activity. Penalties for the former offences could include transportation while the latter, along with bestiality, was subject to the death penalty.
Cruickshank does not rely on written records alone for his research but uses other material such as the art work of William Hogarth whose "A Harlot's Progress" and "A Rake's Progress" provided a pictorial view of contemporary society. The former was a series of six paintings showing a country girl setting out on her career, her life as a prostitute and her death from venereal disease. The latter traces the career of the son of a rich merchant who wastes his money on extravagant living, gambling and whores, eventually dying in Bedlam, a psychiatric hospital. The moral message was reinforced by Hogarth's "Marriage a-la-mode" - half a dozen paintings which satarised the attitudes of the aristocracy towards marriage which was dictated by status and money rather than mutual respect between the parties. What becomes very clear is the importance of the French Revolution in the breakdown of traditional social values and the utter deprivation and loss of dignity suffered by the poor who were also afflicted by widespread violence.
Cruickshank has written a magnificent piece of social history. His footnotes and bibliography demonstrate both the depth and width of his research. The Secret History of Georgian London deserves to become a classic. I'm sure it will which is why I've awarded it five stars and placed an order for my own copy.