The Covent Garden Ladies By Hallie Rubenhold

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The unchaste and profitable alliance between a pimp, a hack, and a whore is one story in Hallie Rubenhold's book. Alongside their unholy dance of circumstance, however, is another - the account of a remarkable document in the history of advertising and the sale of sex. In a world where bare survival was the goal, John Harrison, the waiter-pimp, Samuel Derrick, the bankrupt poet, and Charlotte Ward, the Venus born in a brothel, pooled local knowledge, tongue-in-cheek lyricism and business acumen to create Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. From 1757 to 1795 - when gentility and the law finally managed to smother it - the List was a bestseller.

The unchaste and profitable alliance between a pimp, a hack, and a whore is one story in Hallie Rubenhold's book. Alongside their unholy dance of circumstance, however, is another - the account of a remarkable document in the history of advertising and the sale of sex. In a world where bare survival was the goal, John Harrison, the waiter-pimp, Samuel Derrick, the bankrupt poet, and Charlotte Ward, the Venus born in a brothel, pooled local knowledge, tongue-in-cheek lyricism and business acumen to create Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies. From 1757 to 1795 - when gentility and the law finally managed to smother it - the List was a bestseller.

Rubenhold quickly situates the reader in the chaotic region around the Drury Lane theatre, where the Shakespeare tavern was a seedy conduit between the theatre and the bawdy-houses. Here young male aristocrats came to play, to throw up, and to be relieved of their guineas in ways breathtaking for their barefaced ingenuity. Hogarth is the presiding genius, and Rubenhold's handsome book is peppered with his art: how would we imagine ordinary Georgian lives without his visual vocabulary?

Like John Cleland's tale of the complaisant Fanny Hill, Harris's List was the product of desperation in a debtor's prison. Derrick found penury trying to become the second Alexander Pope, but he rescued his fortunes when he translated John Harrison's workaday notebook of available working women into a titillating guide to what was locally available for the male sensualist.

The List was a guide to location, availability, health and pricing. Yet it also aspired to low wit: the "nonpareil" in Goodge Street who used to be a fruiterer was "once paired with a comical husband but now cares not a fig for anybody". Special talents were quite tactfully indicated - the tongue which could revive the dead - but Derrick was uncomfortable about more dangerous perversions. Not everything in the List, however, was geared to practical advertisement. There's the anecdote about Miss Grant, who allows one of her customers to pay her two guineas to wash her underclothes. Derrick also included women to avoid: those undergoing mercury "cures" for venereal disease, and the lewd girl in St Martin's Lane who was a thief and a "vile bitch".

These entries lead one to suspect that many of the List's purchasers went nowhere near the carefully described women, but relished it as closet entertainment - which makes it one of those anomalies in the history of advertising, more desired for its own sake than for the product it listed. Rubenhold is convinced that the List's "primary function was to serve as a practical catalogue to the sexual goods on offer".

But The Covent Garden Ladies does much more than provide samples of the List, and here Rubenhold proves herself both a keen researcher and a writer who understands narrative tension (while the book is clear of footnotes, it provides sources and a good bibliography). She traces the three lives most affected by the List with sharp dramatic timing: "Pimp General Jack" survived a spell in gaol - illustrating the perils of being too conspicuously successful. Derrick managed to keep his authorship of the List a secret from the fashionable world. Charlotte Ward, Derrick's lover, did best out of the List, for at his death he admitted his authorship in an unofficial will, and left her its profits. Maybe Rubenhold is right to suggest that Derrick had sympathy and fellow feeling for the women he listed. Perhaps he thought there was little difference between selling your writing and selling your body.

There is, though. The historian Gwyn Prince suggests that between ourselves and history is a kind of "glass wall", which needs to be shattered for us to begin to grasp the past. Rubenhold's lively anatomy of Georgian male and female need sometimes comes close to doing this, but history lives in the present too. Rubenhold tries not to romanticise her subject: "a patriarchal England," she explains, "where women existed to serve men, required prostitutes," pointing out that the women of the List had no voice with which to refute it. Yet there is a problem about all this - the problem of the heritage harlot. Nobody wants a sermon, but while Rubenhold is scrupulous about the horrors of disease, forced labour, destitution, and addiction awaiting many of these women, she nowhere reminds the reader that such perils are not only things of the past.

Small revenges can be taken, however. Rubenhold ends this compelling and ingenious book with her own list, naming from her researches all those gentlemen who were customers and keepers of the ladies of pleasure, including some of the highest in the land. The Enlightenment drive to list, classify and catalogue still has its power.

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