Caged Women

In the late 18th century there was certain stratum of the male population that was referred to as ‘gentlemen of intrigue’.  Their dark, conspiratorial life took them not amongst a world of subversion and politics, but a world of women.

These were the women leaning out of windows on plump, ivory forearms, the ones that waited in dank bedrooms, the ones that loitered in broken doorways.  London in the 1790’s was crowded with these strays, and the gentlemen in need of entertainment needed a guide to the newest, the jolliest, the cheapest, the most reliable ladies.

Happily, there was such a guide:  “Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalender “.

Harris' List of Covent Garden Ladies, p_ 2

Initially, it makes for an oddly amusing read.  It is an anthology of profiles, written with rude enthusiasm, dwelling on qualities both vulgar and admiring (“as delightful a female that ever graced the Cyprian train”).

The author is obligated, whenever he can, to mention a lady’s “fine set of teeth”.  There will be those given to swearing, or drinking overmuch – so the reader must take warning. There are those so skilled in the arts of love and deceit that “many of the most knowing rakes of the town would be easily deceived”.   A special few “are very dexterous at the game of the birch rod”.  Many ladies listed in the calendar are “finely” or “genteely” shaped – Mrs. B. is known for her short petticoats, Miss S. for the nosegay of flowers she tucks into her bosom.  Some frequent the theater, some follow officers, or barristers.  They ride in phaetons perched on open seats like flowers, or peer from the windows of their chariots, wrapped in ribbons and hidden like gifts.  A few are in their teens, most in their twenties, some in their thirties.

Each entry ends with a promise of satisfaction and the price each woman requests for her services. (“she never condescends to grant her favors for less than half a guinea”)

Regardless of age or quality, the enterprising writer has a story for each woman in his guide.  Some were unfortunately “debauched”, or widowed poor and early; they were disgraced, betrayed by “men of fortune”…and forced to accept a life “on the town”.  The phrase sounds blithe – almost amiable – an odd title for an existence these women accept only as a last resort.

Eventually, however, the initial amusement evaporates.   And the impression that remains becomes one of imprisonment – the false cheer, hidden abuse, “counterfeit passion” that is characteristic of the harlot’s progress.  As each page is turned, a new cage is discovered.  The prisoners appear to be genteel – some are even fashionable.  But beneath the skirts and bodices, the garters are torn, the wooden stays are soiled, their blouses are ripped as a result of too many business transactions, and their painted bodies are diseased and weary.

Under the control of their pimps and bawds, drunk and vulgar or fragile and enervated, these ladies wait.  If the List describes a girl as beautiful, without a doubt that freshness will fade from overuse and exploitation. If it dwells on a girl’s drunkenness and swearing she will surely end her days mocked for her blotched profanity.

But no matter what qualities these inmates possess, the bars of their parlors will swing open unceasingly until they are found inert on their couches – unresponsive and useless.   This ‘Pleasure Kalendar’ – like all calendars – is a finite listing, where the seasons are born, become rich and golden, yielding beautiful harvests and where they are doomed to die in a barren frost.

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4 responses to “Caged Women

  1. Snoring Dog Studio

    How very bizarre. There is no way to glorify that trade. It’s a rough life I imagine for most of them.

  2. One wonders what happened to these women once their looks faded—and I suppose they did quickly, with untreated STDs, alcohol and drug abuse (to make the job bearable) and the general lack of health care and protection, physical, economical, and emotional. Not all of them could become madames at a brothel or mistresses to powerful and wealthy men.

    It’s also sobering to think this was for many women the only “profession” available to them at the time.

  3. Very sobering. And still today, so many women have very little choice. In oh so many ways.
    Well written, Aubs.

  4. Wonderful post, as always… Honoring this *enormous* group of women. It was fascinating to study all of those who had to turn to this trade — by the sheer tragedy of losing a man in their lives, or some other absurdity.

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