When I consider that genteel society was passing during the period
of the Augustan essayists from a political and moral delirium towards
a state of repose, and the artificial scarcity of trained intellects which
yet recent events had created among the class for whom they wrote -
I am not surprised that earnest authors, careful of administering
strong meat to babes, should have elected to work upon the public
mind, as they did, with types and parables. But I do wonder that so
many able men, from that period to our own day, who might have
touched moral pitch without the fear or imputation of defilement,
have, whether through moral cowardice or considerations of expediency, still as it were by concert, been content to do little more
than retouch and restore the pictures of the ancient masters, adding,
from time to time, perhaps, some horrid feature. Thus has been
painfully built up a sort of 'bogie' in a corner cupboard, unheeded
by the infant, terrible to the aged, the untempted, and others whom
it concerned not; while the flower of the people have rushed into the
streets and worshipped the immodest Venus.
Thus, I believe, was firmly rooted - if it did not thus originate - and thus has mightily prospered, remaining even to our day an overshadowing article of almost religious belief, the notion that the career of the woman who once quits the pinnacle of virtue involves the very swift decline and ultimate total loss of health, modesty, and temporal prosperity. And herein are contained three vulgar errors:
1. That once a harlot, always a harlot.
2. That there is no possible advance, moral or physical, in the condition of the actual prostitute.
3. That the harlot's progress is short and rapid.
And the sooner fearless common sense has cleared the ground of fallacy, the sooner may statesmen see their way to handle a question of which they have not denied the importance.
It is a little too absurd to tell us that 'the dirty, intoxicated slattern, in tawdry finery and an inch thick in paint' - long a conventional symbol of prostitution - is a correct figure in the middle of the nineteenth century. If she is not apocryphal, one must at least go out of the beaten path to find her. She is met with, it is true, in filthy taps, resorts of crime, and in the squalid lairs of poverty - rarely courting the light, but lurking in covert spots to catch the reckless, the besotted, and the young of the opposite sex. And though such may be even numbered by hundreds, it must, on reflection, be conceded by those who have walked through the world with open eyes, that, considering the square mileage of the Metropolis, and the enormous aggregate I am treating of, they are but as drops in an ocean. The Gorgon of the present day against whom we should arm our children should be a woman who, whether sound or diseased, is generally pretty and elegant - oftener painted by Nature than by art - whose predecessors cast away the custom of drunkenness when the gentlemen of England did the same - and on whose backs, as if following the poet's direction, in corpore vili [on the vile body], the ministers of fashion exhibit the results of their most egregious experiments.
The shades of London prostitution. . . are as numberless as those of society at large, and may be said to blend at their edges, but no further. The microcosm, in fact, exhibits, like its archetype, saving one, all the virtues and good qualities, as well as all the vices, weaknesses, and follies.
The great substitution of unchastity for female honour has run through and dislocated all the system; but it must not be imagined that, though disordered and for a time lost to our sight, the other strata of the woman's nature have ceased to exist.
The class maintain their notions of caste and quality with all the pertinacity of their betters. The greatest amount of income procurable with the least amount of exertion, is with them, as with society, the grand gauge of position; and each individual, like her betters, sets up for private contemplation some ideal standard with which she may compare, deeming most indispensable to beauty and gentility the particular elements she may best lay claim to.
The order may be divided into three classes - 'the kept woman' (a repulsive term, for which I have in vain sought an English substitute), who has in truth, or pretends to have, but one paramour, with whom she, in some cases, resides; the common prostitute, who is at the service, with slight reservation, of the first corner, and attempts no other means of life; and the woman whose prostitution is a subsidiary calling.
The presence of the individual in either of these categories may of course depend upon a thousand accidents; but once in either rank, as a general rule her footing is permanent while her prostitution, in any sense of the word, continues. There is, although the moralist insist otherwise, little promotion, and less degradation. The cases of the latter are quite exceptional; those of the former less rare, but still not frequent. The seduction and primary desertion of each woman who afterwards becomes a prostitute is an affair apart; and the liaison of a woman with her seducer is generally of the shortest. This over, her remaining in the ranks of honest society, or her adoption of prostitution, becomes her question. Some few voluntarily take the latter alternative. Domestic servants, and girls of decent family, are generally driven headlong to the streets for support of themselves and their babies; needlewomen of some classes by the incompatibility of infant nursing with the discipline of the workshop. Those who take work at home are fortunate enough, and generally too happy, to reconcile continuance of their labours with a mother's nursing duties, and by management retain a permanent connexion with the army of labour, adopting prostitution only when their slender wages become insufficient for their legitimate wants.
Our first, or superior order, recruits its ranks as follows:
1. From women cohabiting with, or separately maintained by, their seducers.
2. From kept women who are, as it were, in the business, and transfer their allegiance from party to party at the dictates of cap rice or financial expediency.
3. From women whom men select for a thousand and one reasons, from promiscuous orders - or, as commonly said, 'take off the town'.
4. From women similarly promoted from the ouvriêre [working] class.
The prominent or retiring position the individual occupies in these three divisions - allowing, of course, for exceptions influenced by her idiosyncrasies - depends mainly upon gaiety or gravity of temperament. These characteristics exaggerated, on the one hand, into boisterous vulgarity, on the other, into nervous retirement - both chequered, more or less, at times, by extreme depression and hysterical mirth - pervade the devotees to this calling, and influence their whole career. A woman endowed with the one may, for a time, by force of circumstances, assume the other - but for a time only. The spring recoils, and the natural character asserts its sway. It is superfluous almost to allude, among men of the world, to the arrogant and offensive conduct into which some prostitutes of the upper class, and of mercurial temperament, will be betrayed, even when permitted to elbow respectability and good conduct in public places; or to their intense assumption of superiority over their less full- blown sisters, on the strength of an equipage, an opera box, a saddle- horse, a Brompton villa, and a visiting list. This is the kind of woman of whom I said just now that the loss of her honour seemed to have intensified every evil point in her character. She it is who inflicts the greatest scandal and damage upon society, and by whom, though she is but a fraction of her class, the whole are necessarily, but injudiciously, if not cruelly, judged. This is the flaunting, extravagant quean, who, young and fair - the milliners' herald of forthcoming fashions - will daily drag a boyish lover (for whose abject submission she will return tolerable constancy, and over whose virtue she presides like another Dian), [willy-nilly], like a lackey, in her train to Blackwall parties, flower shows, and races - night after night to the 'select ballet balls', plays, or public dancing saloons - will see him gaily, along with jockeys who are no gentlemen and gentlemen who are all jockey, through his capital or his allowances, and then, without a sigh, enlist in the service of another - perhaps his intimate friend - till she has run the gauntlet as kept mistress through half a dozen short generations of men about town.
Descend a step to the promiscuous category, and trace the harlot to whom a tavern-bar was congenial instead of repulsive on her first appearance there - say at 16 or 18 years of age. At 30 and at 40 you will find her (if she rises in the scale) the loudest of the loud, in the utmost blaze of finery, looked on as first-rate company' by aspiring gents, surrounded by a knot of gentlemen' who applaud her rampant nonsense, and wondering, hotel-sick, country men of business, whose footsteps stray at night to where she keeps her foolish court.
She is a sort of whitewashed sepulchre, fair to the eye, but full of inner rottenness - a mercenary human tigress; albeit there exists at times some paltry bulldog, nursed in the same Bohemian den, who may light up all the fires of womanhood within her - some rascally enchanter, who may tame her at the height of her fury, when none else human may approach her, by whispering or blows. Exigeant of respect beyond belief, but insufferably rude, she is proud and high- minded in talk one moment, but not ashamed to beg for a shilling the next. The great sums of money she sometimes earns, she spends with romantic extravagance, on her toilette partly, and partly circulates, with thoughtless generosity, among the lodging-house sharks and other baser parasites that feed upon her order.
Should such a light-minded woman descend in the scale of promiscuous prostitution, which of course is a matter of possibility, though not so likely as her rise, she will still be found the same. As no access of fortune will do much towards humanizing, so no ill-luck will soften or chasten her. She will be in Lambeth or Whitechapel as I have described her in Soho or the Haymarket - a drunken, brawling reprobate - but in a lower orbit.
On the other hand, the sad career in prostitution of the softer- minded woman, in whatever rank she may be, will be marked and affected by that quality. Whatever befall her in this vale of tears, the gentle-minded woman will be gentle still; and with this native hue will be tinged all her dealings with the sisterhood, and with the rough rude males whom ever and anon it is her fate to meet. If fortunate enough to have the acquaintance of some quiet men of means, she will not be puffed up with vain-gloriousness, but seeking comfort in obscurity, and clinging fast to what respect she may gain of others, will profess - what I dare say she really often feels - disgust at brazen impudence, and all the pomps and vanities. Whether this eschewal be from real delicacy, or considerations of economy, or because any sort of notoriety, instead of cementing, as in the case of others mentioned, would be fatal to their particular liaison, it is hard to say; but, however that may be, it is no less true that hundreds of females so constituted are at this moment living within a few miles of Charing Cross, in easy if not elegant circumstances, with every regard to outward decorum and good taste, and shocking none of the public who will not attempt unnecessarily close investigation, but for all that 'in a state of prostitution'. The ease and comparative prosperity that inflates the lighter woman into a public nuisance have no such effect upon such a one as I have spoken of last. They but cause her to prize each day more highly peace and quietness - more sadly to regret the irrevocable past - more profoundly to yearn after some way out of the wilderness.
Among the promiscuous prostitutes of the milder order will be found a numerous band, who, unlike the magnificent virago of the supper-shops, rarely see the evening lamps. Sober, genteelly dressed, well ordered, often elegant in person - such girls have the taste and the power to select their acquaintances from among the most truly eligible men whom the present false state of society debars from marriage. Their attractions, indeed, are of the subdued order that neither the hot blood of the novice nor the prurient fancy of the used-up rake could appreciate. Of course, they take the chances of their calling. They know that a short acquaintance often turns their sorrow into joy, and opens out a better, happier future. They know, too, that one unlucky hour may make them scatterers of pestilence. What wonder, then, that woman's tact, sharpened by uses of adversity, should induce them to prefer the respect and counsel of well-bred men of settled character to the evanescent passion of mere youths. From the former they get lessons, rarely thrown away, on the value of repose and thrift; from the latter, only new proofs of folly and fickleness. With the one they may for a time forget their occupation; with the other, only sharpen memory. They exhibit at times the greatest respect for themselves, and for the opinions, scruples, and weaknesses of those with whom they are connected, and whom they love to call their friends'; and, above all, they are notable for the intensity of love with which they will cling to the sister, the mother, the brother - in fact, to any one from home' who, knowing of their fall, will not abjure them, or, ignorant of their present calling, still cherishes some respect and regard for them. The sick man is safe in their hands, and the fool's money also. There is many a tale well known of their nursing and watching, and more than will do so could tell of the harlot's guardianship in his hour of drunkenness. I have seen the fondest of daughters and mothers among them. I fancy that where they have that regard for men which they are too pleased to return for mere politeness, they are well- meaning, and not always foolish friends - no abettors of extravagance, and, so far as absolute honesty is concerned, implicitly to be relied on. They are more dupes than impostors - more sinned against than sinning - till the play is played out, the pilgrimage accomplished, and they who have long strained their eyes for a resting- place quit the painful road (as I say they mostly do) for a better life on earth; or, leaving hope behind on their discharge from the hospitals, issue to an obscurity more melancholy and degraded than ever. For of such on whom has fallen the lot of foul disease, or whom a loss of health or beauty has deprived of worthy associates, are the abject maundering creatures who haunt the lower dens of vice and crime. Deficient in mental and physical elasticity to resist the downward pressure of intermittent starvation and undying conscience, they are pulled from depth to lower deep, by men who trample, and women of their class who prey upon them. Liquor, which other organizations adopt as a jovial friend and partner of each gleam of sunshine, is to these the medicine and permanent aggravation of dejected misery. Cruelly injured by the other sex, they moodily resolve to let retribution take its course through their diseased agency; trodden underfoot by society, what can society expect from them but scorn for scorn?
The woman, the castle of whose modesty offered stoutest resistance to the storm of the seducer, often becomes in time the most abiding stronghold of vice. Saturated with misery and drink, perhaps then crime and disease, dead long in heart, and barely willing to live on in the flesh - ceasing to look upward, ceasing to strike outward, she will passively drift down the stream into that listless state of moral insensibility in which so many pass from this world into the presence of their Judge.
'And here' - I can fancy some reader interrupting - here ends your catechism. You have led us a painful pilgrimage through the obscurest corners behind the scenes of civilized society, casting, by the way, a glare on matters from whose contemplation mature refinement would gladly be spared, and the bare conception of which should be studiously shut out from youth and innocence. At the end of all you show us the heroine of your prurient sympathy overtaken by her doom. We have seen by turns reflected on your mirror the pampered concubine and the common street-walker - the haunts of dissipation and the foul ward; but you dissent from our religious, and at least venerably antique belief, that between these stages there is an organized progression. You cast your lantern ray at last upon a guilty, solitary wreck, perishing, covered with sores, in some back garret, in a filthy court; and you ask us to believe that this is not retribution.'
I do, in truth. For if this fate were general - inevitable, unless by direct intervention of Providence, or arrest of its decree by perverse interposition of science - I might admit the truth of my opponents' creed. But I maintain, on the contrary, that such an ending of the harlot's life is the altogether rare exception, not the general rule; that the downward progress and death of the prostitute in the absolute ranks of that occupation are exceptional also, and that she succumbs at last, not to that calling, nor to venereal disease, but in due time, and to the various maladies common to respectable humanity.
I hope to show fair grounds for these conclusions, and for my opinion that the doors of escape from this evil career are many; that those who have walked in it do eagerly rush through them, neither lingering nor looking behind; that the greatest and most flagrant are not stricken down in the pursuit of sin, nor does the blow fall when it might be of service as an example. If in the following pages I can do something towards this, it may be more justly argued, I think, that an all-wise, all-merciful God has provided these escapes, than that those whom fate overtakes within the vicious circle are selected by His design. And if so, it justly follows that those are less impious and erring, than furthering God's will, who would widen the gates of the fold of penitence and rest, gather by all possible means yet another crop to the harvest of souls, and claim the Christian's noble birthright of rejoicing over more and yet more repentant sinners.
To those who may ask, What can it matter to us what becomes of them? The subject may be statistically interesting, but no further. The interests of society demand that a disgusting inquiry should be discouraged, lest by chance the eyes of youth should be polluted' - I have this much to say. That the Utopian epoch being long since passed, if indeed it ever had a beginning, when the book of evil could be sealed to the people, it is time that the good and wise, not flinching from the moral pitch, should emulate the evil and the crooked- minded in their attempts to guide the public.
The streets of London are an open book, and very few may walk therein who cannot and will not inquire and read for themselves. Shall those who of right should be commentators for ever leave an open field to the bigoted and the sinful, with the idea of fostering a degree of purity to which the state of society precludes a more than fictitious existence? Shall dirt be allowed to accumulate, only because it is dirt?
William Acton, Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects 2nd edition 1870