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Friday, February 3, 2017

The Persuit of Pleasure in Georgian England

by Guest Blogger Jenna Jaxon

Georgian London was a wild and wooly place. Men gambled and drank to excess, losing fortunes in the popular gaming hells. Noblemen raced all manner of vehicles, for wagers or simply for the sheer fun of it. Duels were common and fought regularly to defend one’s honor. And the sex trade ran rampart throughout the city. Current estimates say that one in five women in London were prostitutes.
Women became prostitutes for a variety of reasons: women who had nowhere to turn to after the death of a husband might begin to sell her wares; young girls just come to town could be tricked into joining a bawdy house; children as young as eight years old were sometimes sold into prostitution. London was considered the most depraved city of the age.

As there was a class system for all English people, there was also a hierarchy for whoring. On the bottom most rung was the common streetwalker, also called a “two-penny bunter,” who did her business up against a building or fence but out in the public, albeit dark, street. Next up the ladder was the harlot who worked from rented rooms or a lower-class bawdy house (run by a bawd or female procuress). If a woman were very comely, she might find herself in a higher-class establishment (like the House of Pleasure in my series), often called a “nunnery” (shades of Shakespeare’s Hamlet!), where a woman would be taught manners, how to speak properly, and how to give men the most pleasure possible. The highest place a courtesan could aspire to was the patronage of a nobleman who would keep her in style until he grew tired of her, at which point she would move on to the next wealthy “protector.”

Although some women made fortunes at their trade—it is estimated that prostitutes of at least the middling sort could earn over 400 pounds a year—most women who fell into this life most often lived hard lives (save for the highest valued courtesans), dying in their early thirties usually of venereal diseases such as gonorrhea or syphilis.

Changes did not begin to occur in London’s tolerance for such vices until the early 19th century, when street lights were installed (banishing the dark alleys) and the beginnings of the modern day police force began to patrol the streets and take their responsibilities seriously. By the Victorian era, prostitution had severely diminished as middle-class morality was enforced more stringently. Georgian debauchery had met its match in Queen Victoria.


Katherine Bone said...

Great post, Lady Jenna! I can't imagine being a woman in those times, dependent on turning to prostitution just to eat. Yikes!!!

Melissa Keir said...

What a tough situation for women. They did what they needed but sadly it didn't always end well. I can just imagine how all the STD's were spread. Yikes!

Thanks for sharing!

Beppie Harrison said...

Glad I didn't live then, or if I did, pray that I would have been reasonably prosperous so that my worst possible fate would have been being a poor relation to wealthier but charitable relatives. Although some husbands back then could be fairly monstrous and were in most cases unchecked by the law . .

Barbara Bettis said...

Yes, the options for women not of the gentry were extremely limited. I'd have hated to have to survive in that age. Very interesting post.

Jenna said...

Thank you for coming by, ladies! This was my inaugural post with Historical Hussies as I will now be a regular blogger for the group! So happy to be here. I've followed this blog and really depended on it for research purposes, so to be a part of it now is truly exciting!

And yes, I have done a bit of research on this subject for the period and women's lot was not great at best and pretty monstrous at worst. Women had so few rights, it isn't hard to believe that one small infraction or a slip in funds could spiral a woman down to the depths of degradation. A wild and wooley period indeed!