Women who fell from grace in the 18th Century had few options open to them. Get married with speed was top of the list. Preferably to the fellow with whom you did the deed, but frankly anyone of respectability would do.
If Darcy had not intervened to get Lydia married to wicked Wickham, as Lizzie Bennet points out, not only Lydia, but her four sisters would have been tainted and probably doomed to spinsterhood since they had no money to bribe a prospective bridegroom into overlooking the disgrace.
The Bennet girls were lucky. In reality, the family would likely have disowned Lydia. When Wickham tired of her, she was young and pretty enough to have found herself another protector. As time went on, Lydia might have drifted in the direction of Covent Garden where she could well have found herself portrayed in a couple of extremely frank paragraphs in the annual publication of Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies.
This fascinating little volume was started in 1757 by one Samuel Derrick, as a venture to get himself out of debtor’s prison. His lively descriptions of the ladies who made themselves available for a gentleman’s amours proved so popular that he not only procured his release, but he started a phenomenon that continued until 1795.
Almost all the ladies spoken of as being of good education evidently fell into “the life”, as it was popularly called, by way of seduction and subsequent abandonment.
Like Miss Char-ton of No. 12, Gress Street, who “came of reputable parents…yet the address of a designing villain, too soon found means to ruin her; forsaken by her friends, pursued by shame and necessity; she had no other alternative...”
Seduction was not confined to the educated classes. There was Miss Le-, of Berwick-Street, Soho, who “was debauched by a young counsellor, from a boarding-school near town, where she was apprentice.”
Then there was Miss We-ls, of No. 35, Newman-Street, daughter of a Welsh farmer, who is described as being “as wild as a goat, of a sandy colour, her features are small, and is a tight little piece.” She was sent to London when young where “a young gentleman ingratiated him so far into her graces, as to gain her consent to make him happy by her ruin, under a promise of marriage” and then he subsequently “abandoned her to the reproaches and calumny of a merciless world”.
The majority of the ladies featured in this entertaining little black book for your pleasure-seeking young buck were in their teens or early twenties. An example is Miss Townsend, nineteen, of whom we learn that “the use of the needle first fired this lady’s imagination with the use of a certain pin”. This sort of witty euphemism abounds.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the anodyne of choice for a number of the ladies is strong liquor. Like Miss Godfrey, a commanding female, who “will take brandy with any one, or drink and swear, and though but little, will fight a good battle.”
The women are delineated in detail, depending on their particular attractions: “she is amorous to the greatest degree, and has courage enough not to be afraid of the largest and strongest man that ever drew weapon in the cause of love”. Or non-attractions, as “but a middling face, with large features, a coarse hand and arm, and in stature short and clumsy”, but she is “an excellent bedfellow”.
Their looks are described: “of a middle size, black eyes, plump made and her skin good” or another with “fine blue eyes that are delicious”. We are told about good teeth and “sweet breath”, in a day where these ere rare. We hear about “yielding limbs, though beautiful when together, are still more ravishing when separated”.
Disposition is mentioned, whether she is “agreeable” or “animated with no small degree of vanity” or indeed “a pompous heroic girl, without either wit or humour”. There is a figure to suit every taste, and an accommodation for every sexual whim. We learn whether or not she has a keeper (which doesn’t stop any lady selling her favours elsewhere) and what it may cost our young man about town to enjoy her charms.
One or two guineas appears the norm, with here and there a more expensive luxury on offer. The genteel Miss Le- above, who was led into sin, is only seventeen and a “has a piece of the termagant about her”, but she commands three or four guineas for her services, which include birching for those so inclined. While Miss - of Wardour Street, who is “but newly arrived” and “darts such irresistible glances as can scarcely fail to engage the hearts of the beholders” will not accept less than five guineas. Mrs Ho-fey, on the other hand, who “calls forth all her powers to give delight with uncommon success” will happily settle for half a guinea.
A guinea (one pound, one shilling) seems a pathetic sum to us. Yet these women were the middling class of prostitute. They could not aspire to the heights of high-class courtesans like the later Harriette Wilson, whose clients included the Duke of Wellington, but they were a good deal better off than the street corner girls who plied their trade for a few pence, or a few shillings at best.
But whether they earned a pittance or a fortune, many women ended up selling their bodies to make ends meet. There were 50,000 prostitutes in London in 1797, according to a contemporary magistrate’s account. That statistic argues a lack of opportunities for women to find gainful employment. The better bred, the fewer the options.
It’s tempting to withhold sympathy for our Covent-Garden ladies when you convert their earnings to the present day. In today’s money, a guinea is worth around £60. A lady’s maid was paid less than that in a year! And no doubt worked a lot harder. While Miss Le- with her five guineas was getting buying power to the tune of our £300 every time she lay flat on her back!
What’s more, these ladies of the night could afford to please themselves how they lived, which was more than could be said for most wives, be their husbands lord or boot boy. They lived in comfortable apartments, had a great deal of freedom, could pick and choose among their clientele, and enjoy all the entertainments on offer in the shops and theatres of the time. And all at the trifling cost of respectability.
The downside was the future. The lifestyle was no sinecure. There are very few females over thirty in Harris’s List. Assuming one could avoid a dose of “the pox” or any other disease and live, what to do when the charms of youth faded? How many of them were canny enough to salt away a quantity of takings as insurance?
A few, one assumes, if they had garnered sufficient fortune, might be lucky enough to marry. Others are mentioned as having moved into brothel-keeping themselves. But the rest?
What happened to Sally Robinson, who was given five shillings at the age of fifteen to cure her of the clap “which she got from her deflowerer”? On the town in 1761, what hope had “a tall, fat girl” of any kind of living thirty years later? Or Kitty Buckley, who was one of the few older females and already 35 in 1761? She was “reported to have ruined twenty keepers” because she was “as wicked as a devil, and as extravagant as Cleopatra”. Since she had been in the bailiff’s hands about three times a year, did she end her days in prison?
While Harris’s List is a delight in many ways, there is something a little distasteful in the warts-and-all public exposure of a whole generation of unfortunate females, whose only mistake was to succumb to the lure of sensual gratification.
Besides marriage or prostitution, was there any other way out for the fallen woman? If they were lucky, or had kind and generous relatives, there was hope. Transported to another place, perhaps with an allowance, they could start a new life under an assumed name - but with the shadow of the past always ready to catch up with them.
This is of course a familiar theme in our modern take on the historical romance. Our heroine is plucked from this life of shame and obscurity by the love of a good man. What better way to compensate her for enduring such punishment for what was, to our twenty-first century thinking, perfectly natural behaviour?
As for the luscious Covent-Garden Ladies, who had the gumption to use the only means they had of making a decent living - good for you, ladies!
Elizabeth Bailey’s latest Georgian historical crime was published by Berkley Books (Penguin) in the US on 3rd April 2012, and comes to the UK on 7th June. Her sleuth Ottilia, now wife to Lord Francis Fanshawe, is drawn by insatiable curiosity to investigate the murder of a blacksmith in the village of Witherley, where Cassie, a young woman with second sight, is stigmatized a witch and blamed for the death. What terrible secret is Cassie hiding that makes her feel unworthy of the love of Aidan, the new vicar, who has taken up the cudgels in her defence? More info at www.elizabethbailey.co.uk