The Covent Garden Ladies is a book about sex workers in eighteenth century London and is written by Hallie Rubenhold who also wrote The Five about the victims of Jack the Ripper. The latter is a book which I found absolutely gripping and so have most of the people to whom I have recommended it. I was, therefore, looking forward to another informative and entertaining read and I was not disappointed.
In the eighteenth century sex work was centred on Covent Garden in London. The author brings the world to life with its pimps, brothel owners and sex workers of all types. The book centres on the publication in 1757 of Harris’ List, a book containing details and opinions about the active sex workers at the time. This sold in its thousands and was published for many years. The author shows us how the list came about, how it was used and what sort of entries it contained.
To tell the story of the list the book features the life stories of three people who were involved with it; a pimp, a courtesan who became a brothel owner and a writer. This book is filled with detail without appearing over researched and the detail is human based. Along the way we hear about debtors’ prisons, how theatres worked, sex workers who married into the aristocracy and even those who experienced true love. It is an excellent work of social history.
The fascinating centre of the book consists of extracts from the original list giving us details of sex workers, where they resided, what they would do for their money and the personal views of the writer. We are told about diseased women, those who steal, those who have been part of the industry so long that their personal parts are no longer accommodating and those who are very beautiful. These entries are really interesting and the rest of the book helps to put these stories into context so that you can understand how women got the reputations they did and what that meant for their livelihood.
Sex working at this time was not easy for anyone but it could be lucrative. On the other hand, it could also mean dying young and in poverty. Women could end up marrying into the aristocracy or living on the streets and selling their bodies for gin money. Chance might be the only things that made the difference for some women.
If you have ever read Michel Faber’s book The Crimson Petal and the White you will note that Harris’ list features in that story (I am not necessarily recommending it as a read because it is very long and I felt that the ending was unsatisfactory but it does deal with a lot of the same subject matter in a fictional setting).
An absorbing and informative read. My second book where a woman writes about women for my 12 in 12 Challenge but a very different subject matter than my first book of the month.