- Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture
What is most surprising about Laura Rosenthal’s wonderfully textured cultural history of prostitution in eighteenth-century Britain is that it was not written earlier. Given the predominance of the whore’s story in the period and “the copious, even obsessive, writing about prostitution in the eighteenth century,” as Rosenthal rightly attests, the fact that no comprehensive survey of this literature had been published to date seems like a critical aberration that Infamous Commerce finally corrects (p. 200). Much has been written about prostitution in histories of eighteenth-century sexuality (Tony Henderson’s social history Disorderly Women in Eighteenth-Century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis, 1730–1830 is the most comprehensive); there are individual readings of many of the better-known prostitute narratives that Rosenthal covers (for example, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure); and chapters on prostitution exist in more general discussions of gender and sexuality (significantly, Felicity Nussbaum’s chapter in Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives). However, no work to date has synthesized the vast breadth of literary and cultural material on prostitution and done for the eighteenth century what Judith Walkowitz did for the nineteenth century fifteen years ago with City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. Infamous Commerce not only provides an incredible archival breadth—from reading the figure of the prostitute in canonical novels such as Clarissa and Tom [End Page 173] Jones to lesser-known narratives such as The Secret History of Betty Ireland or Laura; or, The Fall of Innocence—but it combines this impressive breadth with a razor-sharp critical focus.
The organizing thesis of the book is both historical and analytical: “[I]n the eighteenth century we can see a shift in representations from early inscriptions in which prostitutes embody insatiable desire to later configurations in which the economic meaning of the transaction of prostitution becomes increasingly prominent, even to the point that prostitutes appear to embody a new kind of commercial identity that can empower or threaten the individual through self-control, self-sacrifice, and self-division in marketplace exchanges” (p. 2). Imagining prostitution as a commercial exchange and not a sexual one distinguishes eighteenth-century representations from earlier Restoration narratives of sexually lascivious wandering whores. Rosenthal does not claim that one image—the prostitute as commodity and as business woman—quickly and decidedly replaces the other—the prostitute as an insatiable pleasure machine—but that the two appear side by side throughout the century to produce interesting tensions and effect a transition to modern conceptions of prostitution. The historical claim is succinctly captured in Rosenthal’s example of the changing meaning of “whore” and “prostitute.” While in the Restoration period there is little difference between the use of the two words, by the end of the century, “prostitute” signified the narrower definition of a person who sells sex for money whereas “whore” continued to be used to refer more generally to a woman who has illicit sex.
To this historical thesis, Rosenthal adds an analytical interest in prostitutes as “anxious points of recognition” for an emergent commercial society (p. 200). The economic figure of the woman who literally sells her “self” through sexual labor, Rosenthal argues, provided eighteenth-century culture with a fantastically expressive image to capture the contradictions, anxieties, and tensions in the new boundaries between private self and public work, and between feeling and finance, produced by emergent capitalism. Rosenthal observes: “Prostitutes represent the fallout of commercial society; they represent the anxious possibility of abandonment to an unforgiving marketplace that threatens the boundaries of personal and national identity” (p. 7). Prostitutes are imagined as the abject other to domestic bourgeois femininity, but their proximity to models of subjectivity required by new economic formations also suggests that they provided a startlingly clear model for the self-division that alienated waged labor requires. The division between one’s body as a commodity...