In which the capital of Old Blighty turns polymorphously perverse—and fascinatingly so.
Modern officials in Washington, D.C., or New York with an interest in retiring municipal deficits might take a hint from the London of the Kings George. There, writes architectural historian and TV presenter Cruickshank (The Story of Britain’s Best Buildings, 2003, etc.), around 1750, one in five women was “involved in some manner with the sex industry,” and any of them who kept a room paid ferociously high rents that in turn were taxed to the hilt. Even so, the British government made pennies compared to the pounds the city’s 60,000-plus prostitutes were turning over. Bawdy houses were scattered throughout London but were densely concentrated, perhaps ironically, off Maiden Lane and an area that Cruickshank calls the “sexual highway,” which included not just houses but also dark alleyways and wooded parks. The author uses the lens of sexual commerce to examine class relations and economic history, for the history of prostitution is always a history of the poor have-nots oppressed by a few haves. He examines the popular culture of the day, interpreting a series of William Hogarth prints as windows into attitudes that condemned prostitutes, suggesting “the penalty a harlot was supposed to pay for having lived an immoral life even when—as Hogarth acknowledged—it was really through no fault of her own.” Cruickshank notes that the ever censorious crowd, glad to murder monarchs and picnic at public executions, roundly hated homosexuality but despised sexual bullies even more. The author even makes a few suggestive hints about the book trade, observing that the popularity of Captain Cook’s accounts of voyaging in the South Seas may have been due to their titillating accounts of native sexual practices, which local houses of prostitution did their best to replicate.
A lively work of social history, full of surprises and memorable characters.