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Reviewed by:
  • Representing Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century English Popular Print and Culture
  • Joost Daalder
Carter, Sophie , Representing Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century English Popular Print and Culture ( British art and visual culture since 1750: new readings), Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004; cloth; pp. ix, 211; 37 b/w illustrations; RRP £49.95; ISBN 0754606295.

This is an extremely uneven book. It would have been much better if, to begin with, the visual material under discussion had been more satisfactorily presented. The illustrations are too small, and the full length of the page should have been used rather than only a small portion. Many details – including details referred to in the text – are largely invisible. As importantly, one of the sets of prints, from The Harlot's Progress: being the Life of the Noted Moll Hackabout (1732) is numbered quite incorrectly. The Harlot's Progress offers crude illustrations based on Hogarth's A Harlot Progress. However, what is shown as Plate II of The Harlot's Progress should undoubtedly be Plate IV, as it is a match for Plate IV in Hogarth's publication. 'Plate III' should be 'Plate II', and 'Plate IV' ought to be 'Plate III'. As a result of this disorder, a good deal of Carter's discussion is not easy to follow. On p. 147, she quotes a caption belonging to, supposedly, Plate II in her book, but it does not resemble any of the verses shown on pp. 17-22 as accompanying the plates from The Harlot's Progress.

In terms of content there is otherwise a good deal of interest. Chapter 1 is one of the best, especially because it is mostly factual rather than – as much of this book is – merely interpretive and tendentious. We learn, for example, a good deal about the places where prostitution was practised, and that it was a very prominent [End Page 204] activity in eighteenth century London. It is intriguing to learn that, probably, by far 'the majority [sic] of prostitution in London was undertaken by women operating independently, unsupervised, and, as necessity dictated, on the streets or in private lodgings' (p. 12). To say this is not, of course, to suggest that their life was easy; as Carter reminds us, prostitution was an illegal activity and thus 'subject to a variety of regulatory and punitive measures' (p. 17). Soon, however, she starts claiming matters she cannot – and does not – prove, e.g. that 'the majority of women working as prostitutes in London endured an utterly wretched and miserable life' (p. 18). Sweeping statements like this become all too readily part of a construct in which prostitutes are, in effect, always victims, and men always their exploiters. This suits Carter's purposes because she wishes to make out that eighteenth century 'culture' was one which saw matters the other way round.

The arguments advanced are often quite forced or even perverse, as when we read that the several plagiarised versions of Hogarth's A Harlot's Progress are to be seen, with 'only a slight adjustment of perspective', as 'the gauge, not of the originality of Hogarth's Progress, but of its derivative nature' (p. 36). By definition, it is difficult to argue that if B follows A, which came first, somehow that proves lack of originality in A, and Carter simply does not make her case in an instance like this, even though the view on prostitution which Hogarth's illustrations imply may well have been widespread.

Visual material from the past, especially if there is a dearth of other material to guide us, is often extremely difficult to interpret with confidence. Carter is unhappy to note 'how much energy has been expended by generations of commentators in seeking to determine once and for all whether Hogarth's Moll Hackabout enters into prostitution knowingly and willingly' (p. 38). If anything, I veer toward the view that Hogarth may very well deliberately have left the matter quite open. I agree with Carter that the verses she quotes from plagiarised material (p. 39) suggest that, at the least, Moll is far too easily bribed, but no such commentary accompanies Hogarth's images.

I think that on the whole Carter is on safer...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 204-206
Launched on MUSE
2005-08-03
Open Access
No
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