The Crimson Petal and the White starts on TV later this evening. To get you up to speed with the world of Victorian prostitutes, here’s historical crime novelist James McCreet with a very interesting briefing…
As Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White brings Victorian prostitutes to the BBC, I welcome the creeping vice with open arms. A flash of naked ankle is never a bad thing, and nor is a thorough beating with a brush of holly if you really get into the matter.
My second book, The Vice Society, required me to do a lot of research into Victorian vice and the indecent book trade of London – a fascinating and surprising area as it turned out. And the Victorians agreed: the term “pornography” was a neologism of the 1850s referring to the great number of books and pamphlets being written on the subject. Like much of the crime genre itself, it had that irresistible ‘car-crash’ attraction of revulsion and compulsion.
The allegation at the time was that 80,000 prostitutes worked in London – an estimate that was virtually impossible to prove, but also one that was credible when you learn that many working class girls would resort to it periodically at times of need. They were known as “dollymops” and were often milliners’ girls.
In truth, the world of the prostitute was highly stratified. At the upper end were the beautiful and intelligent courtesans of Park Lane who would pleasure diplomats and princes. Not much below them were the women who ran the numerous houses of the West End where gentlemen could choose from a variety of implements and receive a professional whipping or bloodletting. No practice was beyond the pale at these addresses, giving lie to the old myth of Victorian prudery.
Next down the list were the girls who worked independently of a pimp or madam (a “bully” or an “abbess” in the parlance) and maintained their own flats in semi-respectable parts of the city. Golden Square was known for its French girls, who offered beauty and a degree of sexual expertise not generally available from the home-grown girls. For example, the pornographic diarist known as “Walter” was quite shocked when his regular French girl offered to demonstrate her linguistic abilities. He soon got over his modesty.
Brothels tended to offer a lower class of younger girl, many of whom had been coerced into the work or sold by their parents. They might, in time, become beautiful and skilful enough to take up residence in Golden Square, or they could equally go the other way and become streetwalkers around Haymarket. Only in their old age and poverty would they descend to the hell of becoming a soldier’s girl or, worse, a sailor’s girl. For many, the end of the line was a long drop from the parapet of Waterloo bridge (about 40 suicides a year in the 1840s).
As for the indecent books, they could be bought with a wink and a brown paper cover on Holywell street (now beneath Australia House). Photography was still just the realm of science in my period, so the pictorial porn of the day was etchings demonstrating the kinds of things that photography would soon capture. They weren’t cheap, but the working classes – who lived in ridiculously over-populated conditions – had little need of them. It is said that every bush or alley in poor areas would emit grunts and groans in summer, while “Walter” complained of being roughly groped in most busy public places. So much for curtains on piano legs.
The recent success of Belle du Jour is proof enough of the enduring interest in vice – or, more specifically, an answer to the tacit question “What do they actually get up to?” But it is also, I believe, the vicarious urge that stands behind the fascination with most crime fiction: the urge to see into a dark or forbidden place without having to enter it. What is the mind of the murderer? How does it feel to kill? What is the thrill of transgression? On the page, all is sanitised and safe.
It’s a topic I’ll be exploring in more depth during my session at the next Theakston’s Old Peculier Harrogate Crime Festival. I hope to see there. Bring your own holly.
With thanks to James McCreet. Find out more about James’s novels at Pan Macmillan here and find the author’s site here. James’s third novel in his Victorian series comes in May, in hardback and with a very lovely and evocative cover (pictured above).