- Whore Biographies 1700-1825
There is a moment in the event-packed Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Fanny M—(2d edn, 1759) when the enterprising eponymous heroine, having survived seduction, disease, bawdy-houses, debt, rape, the French royal court, fraudulent Methodists, and more, is introduced to a Reviewer, having been told (along with the reader) "that he was a person of great power . . . that there was not an author from my Lord ——, down to the writer of the bellman's verses, but paid his court to him" (3:338). Ever eager to hone her high-culture credentials, Fanny listens avidly to a trenchant satire on the publishing scene and learns, among other things, that reviewers judge books "[b]y their title pages, and the booksellers they are printed for"; for to read them "would be fine drudgery indeed!" (3:342). But the author of Fanny's Memoirs and many other eighteenth-century texts about, and sometimes by, prostitutes, brothel-keepers, and "kept women" knew that readers found no "drudgery" in that sort of text: those who wrote and published them profited well. And as fine as the title pages are in this eight-volume, mostly facsimile reprint collection, the present Reviewer found no drudgery either in moving beyond title pages into a rich discursive world of biographical play and historical fascination.
Whore Biographies 1700–1825 comprises thirty-one texts arranged chronologically, from John Dunton's [unsigned] The Shortest Way with Whores and Rogues (1703) to Confessions of Julia Johnstone, Written by Herself (1825). The texts include memoirs and biographies, autobiographies, "whores' indexes," reformist tracts, and pop poems; visuals are part of these verbal texts, and the fact that most of the texts are reprinted in facsimile form allows us as later [End Page 466] readers to enter that graphic world. By offering a series of generically varying texts on a focused theme and type of biographical subject, Peakman helps us to place each publication in social and textual context as part of an ongoing public conversation and a shifting history of representations of, and attitudes toward, women who got through life by means of some sort of sex work. "Public women" as well as men participated in this representational work. Women used available media—the public circulation of cheaply printed texts (as well as more expensive versions)—to explain, justify, blackmail, and profit their way through often difficult life circumstances. Every legal and social deck was stacked against them, whether they were upper-class daughters (such as Kitty Fisher) who could not make class-appropriate marriages or—an economic and social status with useful metaphoric possibilities—flower-vendors whose "deflowering" by seduction led them to the whorehouse. From the third-person biographies where women's voices are silent to the later self-portraits of assertive victims (and, at least representationally, independent women emerging as powerful and smart figures amidst almost uniformly negative seas of men), and from the erotica of the earlier texts to the respect-inducing and sex-minimizing first-person texts of the later writers, these texts both echo and stand apart from the canonized high-culture trajectory of auto/biographical writing in English of that same period—the sort of works, perhaps, that Fanny's Reviewer regarded as "drudgery."
The "whore biography" as a (shifting) genre, which in its "biography" and somewhat later "autobiography" branches constitutes the bulk of this series' material, emerged at the start of the eighteenth century, explains Peakman, in concert with the proliferation of the European novel and out of earlier French and British erotica focusing on prostitutes and courtesans. She distinguishes thematically between the later autobiographies and the biographies that preceded them. The latter were generally of poorer women who were often victims of sexual predations, who then had no choice but to make a life of prostitution; these texts were composed by "male hacks . . . [and] are not recollections of...