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The Garment and the Man: Masculine Desire in Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies, 1764-1793

From: Journal of the History of Sexuality
Volume 11, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 357-394 | 10.1353/sex.2003.0011

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Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.3 (2002) 357-394

Truly My Satan thou art but a Dunce
And dost not know the Garment from the Man
Every Harlot was a Virgin once
Nor canst thou ever change Kate into Nan

—William Blake, "To the Accuser Who Is the God of This World"

WHAT DO MEN WANT? The question is as jejune as its counterpart asked of women; may not men desire as variously and as perversely as women do? It has never, however, lacked for answers, especially when rephrased, What should men want? Harris's List of Covent-Garden Ladies; or, Man of Pleasure's Kalendar, a series of mid- to late-eighteenth-century guides to London prostitutes, is composed of answers to both versions: they assume that men want whores; that men want to read about whores; that men want to read about themselves successfully visiting whores; and that men ought to do all these things. These are boring answers to barren questions, and yet the guides are nosegays binding together a wide variety of the plastic flowers of rhetoric. In their pages, Kate regularly becomes Nan; she becomes so many other things as well that the women described seem at times to undergo all of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Men, too, are transformed, though chiefly by implication. This essay attempts to spell out some of those implications in the context of the London sex trade during the later eighteenth century and the early nineteenth, a time of growing prudery in which, as James Raven puts it, "the blush extended its domain." I shall, within this context, take into account earlier writing about whores, such as the works of John Dunton and Edward Ward, and later ones, especially Pierce Egan's novel Life in London (1821), in which some of the sexual beliefs and literary practices of Harris's Listare taken up and renewed.

The belief on which Harris's List depended fundamentally was that whatever else they might fancy, men ought to be interested in sex with women who had gone upon the town. "Beautifully packaged" little volumes in "the style of the modish twelves" (i.e., duodecimos, measuring roughly six by three inches), they usually cover 120 to 190 prostitutes in fewer than 150 pages. Their writers hit early on a successful formula for their sketches and clung to it for nearly forty years. Consisting of the name by which a woman was known, her exact address, an epigraph, a descriptive vignette, and the price of her services, the entries combined appeals to the imagination of the sedentary reader and directions to the male walker of the streets. Above all, the lists advertise: in them women are "quite a perfect piece!" with "lovely blue eyes, the halcyon's azure plume" and "kisses fierce and fervent," who "will grasp the pointed weapon with genuine female fortitude," and whose exploits would "fill two pretty novels for Mr. Noble's Library." The market strategy of their rhetoric demands that the lists be read in at least two ways, for they have a double structure: names, addresses, and prices all point to their practical use, while the lush descriptions of women also function as soft-core pornography. An initial reading of one striking entry, a sketch of the social situation of prostitutes and their clients in eighteenth-century London, and a brief history of the lists themselves will clarify the rhetorical strategies of the lists and their place in the complex of discourses surrounding prostitution in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Miss Clicamp's entry in the list of 1788 provides an introduction to the historical and literary problems posed by the lists:

Miss C[licam]p, No. 2, York-Street, Middlesex-Hospital
Give me a nymph with all her charms,
A full grown nymph to fill my arms;
And leave to them that cannot feel,
The insipid things they call genteel.
Strange it is, but not less strange than true, that Englishmen in general have a great itch for variety; and according to our promissary [sic] note in the preface, we here present them with one of the finest, fattest figures as fully finished for...

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