Victorian Prostitutes, Part 2, or: How to Become A Victorian Prostitute

Probably the best case scenario; actual photos I found were too grim for this blog, and might even get me investigated on Facebook…

Careers for Girls:
Mother of a “Natural” Child

The average Victorian unmarried female had, of course, one great shining career hope: marriage.  She only had a few years to play the courtship game, and bad judgment or bad luck could end her prospects forever.  A girl or woman who bore a suitor’s child before marriage was considered “ruined.”  The circumstances didn’t matter — even if she was seduced and abandoned, as the old saying goes, or actually raped, it was commonly assumed she had failed in her moral duty to keep her suitor from giving in to his baser instincts.  Yes.  In a society where men were preeminent in every way, woman were purported to have one great virtue: their innate feminine disinterest in sex and sin.  Males were, after all, savages at heart who couldn’t be expected to control themselves without help; they might turn on an unwary woman at any moment.  Think of how The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde captured the public imagination to understand this imagined duality.  If females were split into Madonna and Whore, the males were split into Man and Beast.

So the woman who bore a “natural” child (that is the kindest Victorian term) couldn’t just pick herself up, put on a brave smile, and go to work as a maid.  No one would write her a letter of reference, and no one would hire a maid with a child tugging at her aprons.  But the brothels would accept her and her child, if she were pretty enough.  If not, she could always chance it on the streets, alone or with a pimp.

From HonorĂ© de Balzac’s novel, The Splendors and Miseries of the Courtesan

Maid Without a Reference
The importance of a reference letter in Victorian society cannot be overestimated.  London’s population teemed with illiterate females ten and up, desperate for work.  They needed that letter to say they were hard-working, Christian, and not a thief.  Mind you, the positions they fought for would be almost unendurable for a modern person.  The maid’s lot was back-breaking work from dawn to dusk, with one half-day PER MONTH for personal time off.  Maids lived on the premises, which is why they couldn’t be married or have children — it would have added to the employer’s burden.  They were on call 24/7 for any task their master or mistress demanded.  Even having a boyfriend — called a “follower” — was reason enough for dismissal.  Say the wrong thing or break the rules and find yourself out on the street with precious little options and none of the social agencies we now take for granted.

Working Class Girl to Working Girl

Those females who were employed within their own families, serving in their father’s tavern or shop, were  the lucky ones.  Many girls were herded into factories where conditions were so inhumane, the consequences could be early death.  In matchstick factories, for example, the phosphorus used on the match sticks gave many young women “phossy jaw,” a fatal necrosis of the jaw which ate away the bottom part of their face.  (Think I’m exaggerating?  Take a look at the side effects for today’s popular calcium supplement, Fosamax.  It includes jaw pain as a reason to “stop taking and tell your doctor immediately.”)  Other great careers for females include street-selling of flowers and oranges, but the competition was fierce and most of the competitors, male.  I have to wonder how many girls tried to make a go of it with a basket of oranges, only to have them rot or get stolen, and ended up selling themselves instead.

Sold Into the Business

Grimmest of all was the virgin girls sold to brothels, only to be resold to customers at a premium price.  Some of my books claim virgins were popular due to fear of STDs, but I am not yet convinced.  After all, even in the 1860s, the “bad smells” theory of disease still held sway.  I doubt men fully understood they were less likely to contract syphilis from a virgin.  From what I can tell, they seemed to believe the ACT of debauchery caused disease, not the germs passed from human to human.  So I suspect the obsession with virgin girls was just what it seemed — a desire to conquer new ground.

Here at the amusingly named Hackwriters.com you’ll find a very good article which includes current London prices charged by modern working grrls.

3 thoughts on “Victorian Prostitutes, Part 2, or: How to Become A Victorian Prostitute

  1. It was a horrible life for a working girl whether a prostitute or not…the same here in America. The saddest part of this, is that in parts of the world this is still true.

  2. @mewofford: so true. Scary, but true. If you're wondering why I didn't address the boys … I know they existed but I have a dearth of hard facts about them. @ Jenx Byron: I see them more as being like the zealots in The Handmaid's Tale, and getting THAT reality they thought they wanted.

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