The Covent Garden Ladies

Hallie Rubenhold

2005


An entertaining dive into a part of 18th-century society that's too often only considered voyeuristically. The survival of "Harris' List" provides a starting point, but it's the detailed archival study and the willingness to dig into the histories of the three main protagonists that really sets this book apart. In doing so it also gets to uncover some of the grimier realities of living on (or close to) the streets in a period when money was all that really counted in terms of life chances.

Rubenhold is very sympathetic to the Covent Garden ladies. "Prostitutes" (or "harlots" in the TV adaptation) is a too-harsh judgement: many adopted sex work only because society gave them no other options, or adopted it only periodically when forced to by poverty, or as a semi-acceptable companion to stage-work. She is also unforgiving of the male customers, who avoided most social sanctions or consequences.

The fact that "Harris' List" ran for nearly four decades (and that we have examples of most of them) also makes it a revealing social document as the mores and morals of society change across the 18th century. The descriptions become less straightforward, more ornate and (one would imagine) less useful as time goes by and the publishers become more susceptible to legal action for obscenity (even as the underlying social conditions remain largely unaddressed).

Finished on Sat, 22 Jan 2022 00:00:00 -0800.   Rating 4/5.