The Secret History of Georgian London, By Dan Cruickshank<br />Behind Closed Doors, By Amanda Vickery

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The Independent Culture

These books both explore the history of sexual relationships and of housing during the long 18th century, mostly in London. They broadly share a subject, yet hardly overlap at all. While The Secret History... unpacks a cornucopia of prostitutes, pimps and bawds, Behind Closed Doors investigates family life and home-making among the gentry and "middling sort".

Naturally, the latter sometimes became clients of the former, and a few courtesans ascended into the ranks of the respectable. But, for the most part, these present themselves as accounts of two different universes, united only by a desire for elegant wallpaper and the need for money to pay for it.

The Secret History... begins with images of prostitutes "swarming" through London streets in "flood" proportions: this is how contemporaries saw them. In reality, much of London's sex trade took place indoors, in brothels, bagnios, seraglios, masquerade parties, "nunneries", bawdy houses and private apartments. It created a demand for well-designed, affordable premises, often (as in bath-houses) equipped with state-of-the-art plumbing.

As Dan Cruickshank argues, the result was not only stimulation to the general economy but a significant impact on the architecture of Georgian London. Builders designed houses with such markets in mind, and looked for buyers both among active sex workers and those who had retired with money to invest – people such as the former pickpocket and prostitute Moll King, who bought a whole street of terraced housing in Chalk Farm, soon dubbed "Moll King's Row". For Cruickshank, "the built fabric of London, and the life lived within its buildings and streets, echoed to the motion and machination of the city's sex trade."

The Secret History... has many motions and machinations of its own, and heads down unexpected byways, exploring such oddities as the West Wycombe garden of Sir Francis Dashwood, in which a Mound of Venus was set off by a womb-shaped Parlour of Venus accessed through a vulva-shaped portal – the ultimate in sexually inspired architecture. Other chapters cover more familiar territory: the lives of noted courtesans and rakes, of the rapist Francis Charteris, of alleged abductee Elizabeth Canning, and the Foundling Hospital where the products of these activities were dumped. The stories are all well told, the material evidence and documents carefully deployed, and the theme of building provides enough unity to make it a book rather than a collection of articles.

Behind Closed Doors is just as engaging, but keeps a stricter focus. Using diaries, financial accounts and commercial letter-books, Amanda Vickery fleshes out a nuanced and often shocking portrait of the Georgian home – and of the limitations under which its occupants often laboured. For the luckiest, the process was fun. A young, well-matched couple with a good income could follow up their wedding with a frenzy of design schemes. Husbands dealt with builders; wives managed the linen and china and decided much of the interior decoration.

The goal was to demonstrate good "taste", a new ideal in both décor and decorum, prioritising beauty and restraint. Wallpapers, for example, should be pretty but never "gaudy". Too much red was dangerous; calmer colours such as green were safer. "I am quite vex'd at this mistake," wrote one irate customer on coming home to find a blaring crimson instead of nice yellow: "it will make the back Room frightful." Even poorer clients favoured "pretty" patterns, and everyone liked designs with trellises and flowers.

Behind the wallpapers and veneers, sometimes not all was well. An unhappy marriage turned a home into a prison: the diary of Anne Dormer of Oxfordshire, who lived with 11 children, 20 servants and one tyrannical husband, reveals a woman whose only respite was the time she spent weeping in her chamber. Less fortunate spouses lacked even this facility for "the defence of the boundaries of the self". Their only private space might be a desk or a locked box: the 18th century saw a great demand for such things, the more packed with secret drawers and compartments the better.

The greatest lack of privacy was endured by those most likely also to be lonely: unmarried women. Devoid of status, they often had to drift from one relative's house to another, trading childcare or other labour for subsistence. Sometimes they ate with the servants rather than their kin, and when they became tiresome would have to move. If marriage meant signing away many legal rights, for a woman, it also meant a huge gain in social prestige.

Men, too, found the bachelor life a strain, and those who could escape a loveless existence in urban lodging houses usually did so as soon as they could. Taking a wife and settling down meant becoming a proper man. Among Georgians, Vickery sees none of the modern fear of "commitment", or of loss of masculinity. Marriage meant adulthood, for men and women alike, and the establishment of a household represented an increase of the self, not a threat to it. Vickery builds up these conclusions carefully from the evidence, and writes with verve and wit. Her book is strengthened by its confinement to respectable society, where her arguments about solitude and substance ring true. The one kind of single woman's life she does not examine is the one that dominates Cruickshank's study: that of the courtesan, or of the bath-house manageress, the bawd or the keeper of "disorderly houses".

Did these women see their lives in terms of good taste? Did they retreat to private closets to weep? Did they enjoy choosing wallpaper, and pride themselves on their porcelain teapots? From Cruickshank, one gets the impression that they did, and that the gap between "orderly" and "disorderly" was much smaller than we would expect. Between them, these two books create a vivid portrait of 18th-century lives as they were lived: at home, in bed, in the Parlour of Venus, and in secret chambers of all kinds.

Sarah Bakewell's 'How to Live: a life of Montaigne' will be published by Chatto & Windus in January