“…if I wanted a woman that much, I’d do anything.”
So argues Beryl Stuart when her half-brother Court Furor explains that he refuses to become a groom for Winifred de la Coeur because he's too proud to “shovel ’er shit.” Miss Stuart reminds Court that she makes her living as a dominatrix. It's the price of her devotion to her one and only love, former child prostitute Rosie Cartwright.
In 1892, police records show that there were 5,678 prostitutes in London. This statistic reflects cases known to law enforcement. It is significantly lower than the popular press’ estimations throughout the Victorian era. For example, Michael Ryan, editor of the London Medical and Surgical Journal, supposed in his 1839 work Prostitution in London that there could be as many as 80,000 women soliciting on the streets, while in 1851 William Acton, a surgeon specializing in genito-urinary disorders, calculated that there were as many as 210,000 prostitutes in the city based on live births to unwed mothers recorded during that year (The Victorian City, Judith Flanders, 2012; 395). While these studies may accurately reflect middle class fears of prostitution’s rampancy, Ryan’s and Acton’s methods of gathering data are suspect.
There are significant differences between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries’ definitions of prostitution. For instance, in the mid 1800s, any unmarried woman engaged in any form of sexual activity could be identified as such. Her dress and behavior might prompt undue male solicitation. Apparently, slow walking (even window shopping), eye contact, or exposed ankles led to frequent comedies of errors. An 1865 lithograph shows a man trying to hand out an “improving” tract to a fashionably dressed woman. “Bless me sir…” she tells him. “I am not a social evil. I’m only waiting for a bus” (Flanders, 403).
The true figure reflective of women making a living (or barely getting by) via the sex trade is probably higher than police estimates and lower than Victorian news stories suggested. As Flanders concludes, “It cannot be stated too emphatically that we have no firm knowledge of the number of prostitutes on the streets of London for most of the nineteenth century.”
What do we know about the life of London’s working women?
In 1892, Jack the Ripper was still at large, yet murders bearing his distinct signature ceased after February 13, 1891. Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886 meant a woman could no longer be detained (for prostitution), often on little more evidence than her appearance, and subjected to a physical examination for venereal disease (and subsequent admission into a locked hospital for treatment if she was infectious). Passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885 ensured that a girl could not be drugged to procure her services, and the age of consent rose from 12 to 16.
Things were “looking up,” Court might tell his sister and Rosie.
Beryl has no time to consider those legal changes or suffragists’ efforts on her and Rosie’s behalf. Of more interest would be the Boston marriages au courant amongst American feminists such as Alice James and other New England intellectuals. Their arrangements, like the well born Regency’s feminine rake Anne Lister’s Sapphic pursuits or the romantic long-term idyll of the “Ladies of Llangollen” (elopers Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby), required cash (The Regency Years, Robert Morrison, 2019; 126, 168). There are some estimates that as many as 70 percent of women who traded sex for money had lost one or both parents, and they were most certainly from the working classes (Flanders, 399).
Arthur Munby, a civil servant famous for his diaries (1859-98) about working class women and his clandestine marriage to the maid Hannah Cullwick describes the story of another servant who voluntarily became a prostitute for three years in order to save up and invest in a coffee house, of which she eventually became landlady. Though Beryl’s initial contact with Bess Lancaster's brothel was voluntary, and it caters to men of means, she is unlikely to, in the words of Munby’s interviewee, “get on” or be able to save much.
In 1892, all Beryl Stuart wants is a home of her own, and in it, a life with Rosie. The double standard that presumed women had no sexual desires outside childbearing or fulfillment of their husband’s physical needs at least ensured that the chance of their being charged with crimes against nature were slim. The law that did not acknowledge the fundamental longing of one woman for another also denied all women’s desire for independence.