THE £5 VIRGINS by Michael Pearson


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The Victorian preoccupation with Sin and ""fallen women"" approached an obsession. While Prime Minister, Gladstone often roamed the streets of London in search of prostitutes in need of tea, Jesus, and rehabilitation, but it was not until William Stead, the fire-eating editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, printed his sensational expose of the traffic in virgins -- abducted and forced into prostitution -- that Parliament was forced to legislative action. ""The rich of all classes are purchasing for damnation. . . the as yet uncorrupted daughters of the poor,"" thundered Stead, revealing to a horrified public the sordid details of his own mock purchase of a fourteen year-old. Pearson climaxes his story of the Purity Movement of the 1880's with the furor Stead caused, but not before painting a vivid picture of the ubiquitous London brothels and the social attitudes which condoned them. And although Steven Marcus' The Other Victorians is more incisive on the literary manifestations of Victorian prurience, Pearson excels in probing the psychological makeup of the distraught reformers. He shows that many, such as Alfred Dyer, the Quaker publisher of religious tracts, were themselves hysterical and somewhat unbalanced -- and their motives far from ""pure."" Au fond, Pearson suggests that both the anti-sin battalions and those who operated and frequented the flesh markets believed in the sanctity of (upper class) womanhood and the insatiable lust of men. Pearson's touting of the Purity Movement as ""the first assault on the previously unchallenged double standard, the first move towards Women's Liberation"" is somewhat hard to swallow; but as a further exploration of the social ramifications of repressed sexuality and its effect on the Victorian psyche this should interest students of the period.

Pub Date: Jan. 24th, 1972
Publisher: Saturday Review Press