Posted by: meghanhealy | October 25, 2010

Women of Ill Repute

(First off, I must admit that I stole the title of this entry from the title of a course I took at Amherst two years ago on nineteenth-century prostitution in France.)

Although it was just a brief passage in Imperial Leather, this one caught my attention:

“Domestic workers, female miners and working-class prostitutes (women who worked publicly and visibly for money) were stationed on the threshold between the white and black races, figured as having fallen farthest from the perfect type of the white male and sharing many atavistic features with ‘advanced’ black men…Prostitutes–as the metropolitan analogue of African promiscuity–were marked as especially atavistic and regressive. Inhabiting, as they did, the threshold of marriage and market, private and public, prostitutes flagrantly demanded money for services middle-class men expected for free. Prostitutes visibly transgressed the middle-class boundary between private and public, paid work and unpaid word, and in consequence were figures as ‘white Negroes’ inhabiting anachronistic space, their ‘racial atavism anatomically marked by regressive signs: ‘Darwin’s ear,’ exaggerated posteriors, unruly hair and other sundry ‘primitive’ stigmata.” (56)

With this renewed interest of the figure of the prostitute in mind, I was also struck by this passage:

“Under imperialism, I argue, certain groups are expelled and obliged to inhabit the impossible edges of modernity: the slum, the ghetto, the garret, the brothel, the convent, the colonial bantustan, and so on. Abject peoples are those wom industrial imperialism rejects but cannot do without: slaves, prostitutes, the colonized, domestic workers, the insane, the unemployed, and so on. Certain threshold zones become abject zones and are policed with vigor: the Arab Casbah, the Jewish ghetto, the Irish slum, the Victorian garrett and kitchen, the squatter camp, the mental asylum, the red light district, and the beddroom. Inhabiting the cusp of domesticity and market, industry and empire, the abject returns to haunt modernity as its constitutive, inner repudiation: the rejected from which one does not part.” (72)

This idea of the threshold—public/private, marriage/market, paid/unpaid work, white/black—stuck out, for in a society obsessed with neat classification, how should liminal figures be classified? I was also interested in the fact that, just as the slums of London were treated similar to colonies—dark spaces that must be penetrated, documented, made comprehensible—prostitutes are viewed as similar to blacks, not just in terms of morals/character traits but also in terms of genetics. All these forms of the “Other” become linked together—the insane, slaves, prostitutes, the unemployed—and both the justification for their “Otherness” (genetic differences) and the solution (“polic[ing] with vigor”) are the same. (As an aside, I wasn’t sure what the reference to Darwin’s ear meant, but as I was intrigued by the fascination of the Victorians with criminal ears, I decided to google Darwin’s ear. I found Darwin’s earpoint and Darwin’s tubercle: and show that it is a recessive trait similar to that of monkeys.)

I am curious if anyone more familiar with photography at this time knows of the existence of photographs (documentary, artistic, official, or otherwise) of prostitutes. I am familiar with the French obsession with the figure of the prostitute (specifically the courtesan) and the wide-spread obsession of artists with prostitutes. Degas paints prostitutes in France, Delacroix penetrates harems in Algeria in order to paint the “Oriental” prostitutes. Within the category of French prostitutes, there are paintings that use them as models but do not label them as such and there are others that specifically try to represent the prostitute. Nineteenth-century French novelists, sociologists, anthropologists, painters—all seem obsessed with the figure of the “woman of ill repute.” With poems centering around the figure of the prostitute, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Webster’s “A Castaway” (both occurring contemporaneously with the Contagious Diseases Acts), it seems that there was a British interest in the figure of the prostitute (though perhaps to a lesser extent). Yet I am unfamiliar with photographs of French prostitutes, and I am particularly unfamiliar with British visual culture and if there is a tradition of prostitutes in paintings or photos. I would be curious to see how they are depicted, in what circumstances the photos were taken, how the figures are framed, etc. In other words, is there a correlation between the ways in which colonized female subjects are captured and those of domestic female “Others” such as prostitutes?


  1. I’d like to contribute a little bit that I know about the visual representation of prostitutes in Britain. It’s coming from the mid-18th Century, though, so it’s not quite up-to-date with Imperial Leather.

    In 1731-32 William Hogarth made paintings and later engravings of a series called “A Harlot’s Progress” that proved very popular with the British public. The series of six images illustrate a pretty young woman coming to the city, becoming a prostitute and kept woman, being imprisoned, dying of disease, and finally her wake after her death.

    The engravings were incredibly popular because of the raunchy nature and the moral focus of the time. They followed a prostitute and that was scandalous, so of course they were well-received. He reveals the follies of vice in dirty, comedic panels. It functions to give an example of poor conduct and its inherint destruction of self for the general public.

    This series actually came to mind for me when we were studying Doré’s images of London street life. It takes a critical look at the brutality of city life and the poor effect it can have on humanity. Here Hogarth takes particular interest in the vulnerability of women.

    Hope this gives you some idea of the depiction of prostitution in Britain. At least some hundred-odd years before, anyway.

  2. In addition during this time period (Victorian era) there was an intense focus, almost obsession with the idea of the “fallen woman” or figures representing a sort of tragic beauty. Many of the Pre-Raphaelite artists you mention in your post (Rosetti, Delacroix) also chose to portray famous femme fatales, most notably that of Hamlet’s Ophelia. The depiction of her death (suicide) is one that has been interpreted and adapted for centuries, most famously by Victorian British painter John Millais.
    Many of these Victorian representations of Ophelia present a woman not only mentally unstable, but also a woman betrayed or left behind in a world dominated by men.
    Millais’ depiction of her is decidedly focused on the beauty of her natural surroundings, but also the essence of extreme loss; a woman drowining, singing, unaware of her own distress.

    To see Millais’ famous rendering simply google “millais, ophelia”

  3. Thanks, Ellen. I will look into Hogarth’s Harlot. It’s curious that you mention the vulnerability of women, for a lot of the French accounts of prostitution I’ve read are remarkably ambivalent–simultaneously sympathizing with the vulnerable prostitute and fearing the menace they represent to middle-class morality and society (threats of contagion, physical and figurative). Those images sound fascinating.
    Also, I love Millais’ rendition of Ophelia! Your mention of the focus on the drowning woman and women left behind in a world dominated by men also reminds me of Lady of Shalott (Tennyson’s poem and Waterhouse’s paintings).

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