Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies (1757–95)
The essayistic introductions of Harris’s List, an annual digest purporting to review and catalogue sex workers in Georgian London, did not shy away from castigating moralizers. The 1765 edition begins by claiming that “Ladies of Pleasure are public benefits”, while painting opponents of prostitution as zealous believers in the sentiment that, as versified by Matthew Prior’s Paulo Purganti and his Wife (1708): “The Nation ne’er will thrive, / Till all the whores are burnt alive”. Extinguishing this disgusting, incendiary charge, the author asks his readers to consider the Ancients, especially Horace’s anecdote about Cato the Elder, who congratulated a punter, upon exiting the brothel, for sequestering his lust away from “the wives and daughters of their neighbors”. Harris’s List shifts this praise from patron to provider. Commending prostitutes as the guardians of a harmonious polis, the List suggests that “the whole conduct” could be legalized or “regulated by rules”, urging “both Laws and Magistrates [to] be kind to those public-spirited Nymphs”. “Do we not owe to them the peace of families, of cities, nay of kingdoms?” asks the 1787 edition. “What villainies do they not prevent? What plots, what combinations, do they not dissolve? . . . What a miracle!”
If some may see in these enthusiastic calls for decriminalization an echo of modern-day approaches (as practiced, for example, in the Netherlands), any trace of social progressivism wanes after this introductory foreplay gives way to the lists themselves. In format, these works present a bizarre melange of travel writing, guide books, yellow pages, and cheap erotica — reportage dissolves into racy fiction with the intent to “amuse and entertain the reader”, writes Sarah Toulalan. We encounter hundreds of barely redacted names, services rendered (using euphemisms such as “the Maypole of Love”), street addresses and prices, biographical information, employment history, and lengthy reviews of women and their temperaments. Miss Ph-llis of Tavistock Court is a “fine crummy plump-made dame”, specializing in the “elderly gentleman”, while Miss C-rb-tt of Bridges Street’s skin has a whiteness that “surpasses the new-fallen snow” and a heart comparable only to “Juno Queen of Heaven”. Others are treated far less kindly: Miss Th-m-es of Bow-Street is “too lusty and fat, but her limbs are exquisitely well turn’d”; the body of Mrs. Cl-l-nd of Swallow Street, who hails from Scotland, gets transformed through blazon into a highland landscape, whose “mountain, at the top, is not always destitute of flowers”; and Miss C-ll-ns of Oxford Street, formerly employed as a cow-keeper, has her lovemaking ridiculed with literary conceits, not to be repeated here, related to dairy farming and butter churning.
Reading both the praise and admonishment of particular sex workers, we begin to sense that the fundamental desire of the List’s author is less sexual than textual: his prose brims with awkward literary allusion and frequently tips into a purple register encumbered with stock similies. Miss N-wc-mb of King’s Place prompts an outburst borrowed from Joseph Addison’s Cato (1713): “I’m lost in extacy. / How shall I speak the transports of my soul?” Mrs. D-x-n has breath “like the fragrance of new mown hay”, while “Cupid has called forth his choicest arrow of the amorous kind to warm” Miss Ke-t of Tottenham Court Road, and there is “no one fitter” than Lambeth’s Mrs. B-nn-r “to initiate the young officiating priest in the deepest mysteries of his office.” Risqué metaphors are italicized throughout the list as if to announce their innuendo to even the most unimaginative mind. After Mrs. P-tt-rs-n, through the voice of our author, communicates her preference for elder clients (who give her “the longest pleasure”), she describes how “the eagerness and impetuosity of youth make the transports mere momentary . . . furnished with a profusion of the coin of love, they pay the liquid toll almost as soon as they have entered the gate; nay, sometimes at the very portal”.
As historical documents, the surviving editions of Harris’s List — originally published in print-runs of roughly ten thousand copies — offer today’s readers a rare (though partial) glimpse into the sex trade of eighteenth-century London. While the Scottish statistician Patrick Colquhoun once estimated that 50,000 women, either partly or wholly, “resorted to Prostitution as a livelihood” by 1800, the British Library puts the number closer to six or seven thousand. The lists’ authorship remains opaque: it is possible that Jack Harris, a tavern waiter at the Shakespeare’s Head — who styled himself “The Pimp General of All England” — began the project, while Samuel Derrick took over the task in later years, continuing to use the Harris name for titillation. Published annually between 1757 and 1795, Harris’s List had precursors, such as The Wandering Whore (1660), which included a list of London’s “Crafty Bawds”, “Common Whores”, “Maiden-sellers”, “Night walkers”, and others who, according to this text, abided by the dictum that “mony and Cunny are good Commodities”. Yet Harris’s List proved the most popular example of this genre and has had a considerable afterlife: leading to spinoffs in other British cities, such as Ranger’s Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh (1775), and inspiring, by way of Hallie Rubenhold, BBC’s Harlots.
In addition to raising questions about historical veracity and the politics of sex, reading Harris’s List reveals the potential violence of its form. In his 1996 essay “I’ve Got a Little List”, novelist William H. Gass writes that “the list detaches objects from their place in the world and enumerates them elsewhere”. Something similar happens here: body parts are isolated from their person, emotions decontextualized, and the amorous techniques of “ladies of pleasure” perversely reduced to a checklist for the male reader’s amusement.
May 12, 2022
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