- Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture
In spite of the old cliché that it is the world's "oldest profession," prostitution in its modern sense did not emerge until the eighteenth century in England. Whereas moralists of the Tudor and Stuart period had subsumed all categories of sexual immorality under the category of "whoredom," eighteenth-century writers began to use the term "prostitution" to designate commercial sex from other forms of sexual relations. This development and its cultural implications is at the core of Laura J. Rosenthal's engaging study. Eighteenth-century writers were fascinated with prostitution, but their interest went beyond prurient titillation or the expression of moral outrage about female "ruin." Instead, commercial prostitution "provided [End Page 422] an explosive opportunity to hold capitalist relations up for scrutiny" (212). Through the literature of prostitution, writers explored many of the controversies raised by the developing commercial economy, including gender relations, desire, imperialism, trade, luxury, and social mobility, and by the end of the period prostitution had become a focal point for exploring the ills of commercial society.
In this book Rosenthal focuses on the commercial transaction that defined prostitution as sex work, departing from previous studies of prostitution that have emphasized the growing sympathy for prostitutes in this period. What defines "modern" prostitution, Rosenthal argues, is not only the ways in which new initiatives policed, reformed, or sentimentalized prostitutes but also the way in which culture represented the commercial exchange of prostitution itself. Earlier portrayals of prostitution had placed little emphasis on this transaction, regarding whores as agents of insatiable desire, and only ironically was prostitution presented as a form of labor. Yet as eighteenth-century writers became increasingly concerned about the development of commercial society, so prostitution as a form of "infamous commerce" became "an explosive opportunity to hold capitalist relations up for scrutiny" (212). In particular, writers were intrigued by the "disturbing intersection of the economic and the personal that prostitution comes to emblematize" (4). The troubling self-division entailed in presenting the most "private" part of the self as a commodity came to exercise a powerful hold over the eighteenth-century British literary imagination.
Infamous Commerce explores this transformation in perceptions of prostitution through a series of case studies that take the reader from Restoration stage comedy to late eighteenth-century travel journals and also using canonical texts such as Daniel Defoe's Roxana and John Cleland's Fanny Hill. One of the strengths of Rosenthal's book is her command of a rich variety of texts, and she places the better-known novels in their wider cultural context by incorporating a host of more obscure sources, ranging from prostitution narratives, biographies, reform literature produced by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, and the literature of roguery. Through a close reading of her sources, she skillfully elucidates the relationship between portrayals of prostitution and broader anxieties raised by commercial expansion. Moral reformers, for example, drew attention not only to the insatiable lust of prostitutes but also to the ways in which the sex trade might threaten legitimate commerce, for example, by distracting men from "business." Yet the boundaries between "infamous" and "legitimate" commerce were increasingly questioned by writers such as John Dunton, whose Night-Walker periodical began to expose some of the economic forces that drove women onto the streets, and, most radically, by Bernard Mandeville, who proclaimed that luxury, pride, and vanity were essential features of a successful marketplace. [End Page 423]
While few commentators went as far as Mandeville in demolishing the boundaries between legitimate and illegitimate commerce, writers became increasingly intrigued with prostitution as a form of transaction, often at the expense of the sexual aspects of prostitution. This is apparent in a variety of biographical narratives of prostitutes, both fictional—as in the case of Defoe's Roxana—and in accounts of "real-life" prostitutes such as Sally Salisbury and Margaret Leeson. Although Roxana is set in the bawdy world of the Restoration, Rosenthal argues that in...