Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Seven Curses of London, by James Greenwood, 1869



Ignoring the Evil—Punishment fit for the “Deserter” and the Seducer— The “Know-nothing” and “Do-nothing” Principle The Emigration of Women of Bad Character.

   It is easy enough to understand, if one finds the courage to face this worst of all social evils, and inquire calmly into the many shapes its origin takes, how very possible it is that there may be living in a state of depravity scores and hundreds of women who are what they are out of no real fault of their own. “Then why do they not turn, and reform their infamous lives?” the indignant reader may ask. “They may if they will. Is there not this, that, and the other asylum open to them?” Perhaps so. Only perhaps. But for reasons hinted at in the commencement of this chapter, it might be clearly enough shown that, “this, that, and t’other,” to a very large extent, really and truly represent the substantiality of the asylums to which the curse is admitted for purgation. We have foolishly and blindly ignored the evil, and consequently we have not been free to provide adequately for the reception of those who have lived in it, and are now desirous of returning, if they may, to decent life. We have some asylums of the kind; but in capacity they are about as well adapted to perform the prodigious amount of work ready for them as a ten-gallon filter would be to purify the muddy waters of the Thames.
    Undoubtedly there are thousands of debased and wanton wretches for whom the doors of such houses of reform and refuge, did they exist in plenty, might in vain stand open. But let the reader for a moment consider how many there are at this moment whose fall was mainly due to misplaced trust and foolish confi­dence, and who are kept in their degradation out of a sort of mad and bitter spite against themselves. As everyone can vouch who has taken an interest in these fallen ones, and kindly questioned them on their condition and their willingness to turn from it, nothing is more common in their mouths than the answer, “I don’t care. It’s a life good enough for me. A pretty image I should appear in well-bred company, shouldn’t I? It’s no use your preach­ing to me. I’ve made my bed, and I must lie on it.” And it would be found in countless cases that these poor wretches did not in the original “make their bed,” as they call it, and that it reveals a wonderful amount of forgiving and generosity in them to profess that they did. If we could discover the truth, we might get at the real bed-makers—the villanous conjurers of couches of roses that were so speedily to turn to thorns and briars—in the seducer and the base deserter. If ever the Legislature finds courage enough to take up this great question in earnest, it is to be hoped that ample provision will be made for the proper treatment of the heartless scoundrel. As says a writer in an old number of the Westminster Review:
“The deserter, not the seducer, should be branded with the same kind and degree of reprobation with which society now visits the coward and the cheat. The man who submits to insult rather than fight; the gambler who packs the cards, or loads the dice, or refuses to pay his debts of honour, is hunted from among even his unscrupulous associates as a stained and tarnished character. Let the same measure of retributive justice be dealt to the seducer who deserts the woman who has trusted him, and allows her to come upon the town. We say the deserter—not the seducer; for there is as wide a distinction between them as there is between the game­ster and the sharper. Mere seduction will never be visited with extreme severity among men of the world, however correct and refined may be their general tone of morals; for they will always make large allowances on the score of youthful passions, favouring circumstances, and excited feeling. Moreover, they well know that there is a wide distinction—that there are all degrees of distinction —between a man who commits a fault of this kind, under the in­fluence of warm affections and a fiery temperament, and the cold­hearted, systematic assailer of female virtue, whom all reprobate and shun. It is universally felt that you cannot, with any justice, class these men in the same category, nor mete out to them the same measure of condemnation. But the man who, when his caprice is satisfied, casts off his victim as a worn-out garment or a who allows the woman who trusted his protesta­tions to sink from the position of his companion to the loathsome life of prostitution, because his seduction and desertion has left no other course open to her; who is not ready to make any sacrifice of place, of fortune, of reputation even, in order to save one whom he has once loved from such an abyss of wretched infamy— must surely be more stained, soiled, and hardened in soul, more utterly unfitted for the company or sympathy of gentlemen or men of honour, than any coward, any gambler, any cheat!”
    I may not lay claim to being the discoverer of this well-written outburst of manly indignation. It is quoted by a gentleman—a medical gentleman—who has inquired deeper and written more to the real purpose on this painful subject than any other writer with whom I am acquainted. I allude to Dr. Acton. The volume that contains it is of necessity not one that might be introduced to the drawing-room, but it is one that all thinking men would do well to procure and peruse. Dr. Acton handles a tremendously difficult matter masterly and courageously; and while really he is of as deli­cate a mind as a lady, he does not scruple to enunciate his honest convictions respecting the prevalent evil of prostitution, as though it were an evil as commonly recognised and as freely discussed as begging or thieving. In his introductory pages he says:
    “To those who profess a real or fictitious ignorance of prostitution, its miseries and its ill-effects, and those again who plead con­science for inaction, I have this one reply. Pointing to the outward signs of prostitution in our streets and hospitals, I inquire whether we can flatter ourselves that the subject has drifted into a satis­factory state on the ‘know-nothing’ and ‘do-nothing’ principle. I hint at the perilous self-sufficiency of the Pharisee, and the wilful blindness of the Levite who ‘passed by on the other side,’ and I press upon them that, after reading this work and testing its author’s veracity, they should either refute its arguments or be themselves converted.... I have little to say in the way of apology for my plain-speaking. The nature of the subject has forced this upon me. To have called things here treated of by another than their right name would have been in any writer an absurdity, in me a gross one. The experiences I have collected may to optimists and recluses appear exaggerated. The visions I have indulged in may be hard to grasp. But this more complicated knot demands a swords­man, not an infant. The inhabitants of a provincial city demanded of Lord Palmerston that the angel of pestilence should be stayed by a day of national prayer and fasting. ‘I will fast with you and pray with you,’ was the statesman’s answer; ‘but let us also drain, scrub, wash, and be clean.’”
    If by this taste of the preface to Dr. Acton’s book I induce my male readers to dip into it for themselves, I shall feel that I have done the cause the worthy writer has at heart good service. It will be something if the brief quotation bespeaks attention to the other extracts from the same genuine source that herein appear. On the subject of seduction and desertion, Mr. Acton writes:
    “If I could not get imprisonment of the male party to a seduc­tion substituted for the paltry fine of half-a-crown a-week, I would at least give to the commonwealth, now liable to a pecuniary damage by bastardy, some interest in its detection and punish­ment. The union-house is now often enough the home of the deserted mother and the infant bastard; and the guardians of the poor ought, I think, to have the right, in the interest of the com­mune, to act as bastardy police, and to be recouped their charges. I would not allow the maintenance of an illegitimate child to be at the expense of any but the father. I would make it the incubus on him, not on its mother; and I would not leave his detection, ex­posure, and money loss at the option of the latter. A young man who has a second and third illegitimate child, by different women, has not lived without adding some low cunning to his nature. It often happens that a fellow of this sort will, for a time, by specious promises and presents to a girl he fully intends ulti­mately to desert, defer making any payments for or on account of her child. If he can for twelve months, and without entering into any shadow of an agreement (and we may all guess how far the craft of an injured woman will help her to one that would hold water), stave-off any application on her part to the authorities, her claim at law is barred; and she herself, defied at leisure, becomes in due course chargeable to her parish or union. But not thus should a virtuous state connive at the obligations of paternity being shuffled on to its public shoulders, when, by a very trifling modification of the existing machinery, they might be adjusted on the proper back, permanently or temporarily, as might be con­sidered publicly expedient. I would enact, I say, by the help of society, that, in the first place, the seduction of a female, properly proved, should involve the male in a heavy pecuniary fine, accord­ing to his position—not at all by way of punishment, but to strengthen, by the very firm abutment of the breeches-pocket, both him and his good resolutions against the temptations and force of designing woman. I would not offer the latter, as I foresee will be instantaneously objected, this bounty upon sinfulness—this incentive to be a seducer; but, on the contrary, the money should be due to the community, and recoverable in the county-court or superior court at the suit of its engine, the union; and should be invested by the treasurer of such court, or by the county, or by some public trustee in bastardy, for the benefit of the mother and child. The child’s portion of this deodand should be retained by such public officer until the risk of its becoming chargeable to the community quasi-bastard should be removed by the mother’s marraige or otherwise; and the mother’s share should be for her benefit as an emigration-fund or marriage-portion.”
    “We cannot imagine,” says another authority, “that anyone can seriously suppose that prostitution would be made either more generally attractive or respectable by the greater decency and decorum which administrative supervision would compel it to throw over its exterior. We know that the absence of these does not deter one of irregular passions from the low pursuit; and we know, moreover, wherever these are needed for the behoof of a more scrupulous and refined class of fornicators, they are to be found. We are convinced also that much of the permanent ruin to the feelings and character which results from the habit of visiting the haunts of prostitution is to be attributed to the coarse language and the brutal manners which prevail there; and that this vice, like many others, would lose much of its evil by losing all of grossness that is separable from it. Nor do we fear that the improvement in the tone of prostitution which would thus result would render its unhappy victims less anxious to escape from it. Soften its horrors and gild its loathsomeness as you may, there will always remain enough to revolt all who are not wholly lost. Much too—every­thing almost—is gained, if you can retain any degree of self-respect among the fallen. The more of this that remains, the greater chance is there of ultimate redemption; it is always a mistaken and a cruel policy to allow vice to grow desperate and reckless.” It is for the interest of society at large, as well as for that of the guilty individual, that we should never break down the bridge behind such a sinner as the miserable “unfortunate” even.