- The Prostitute’s Body: Rewriting Prostitution in Victorian Britain by Nina Attwood
Nina Attwood proposes that “Victorians were more complex in their representation of prostitution than historians have given them credit for” (2). She further criticizes the grand narrative of the prostitute’s fall into disease, destitution, and early death as having been reproduced without empirical examination. Attwood’s reexamination of canonical and lesser-known texts through a postmodernist lens emphasizes multiple dissonant “voices” in otherwise “shared schema of representations” about the Victorian prostitute (12).
Her first task is to explore the venereologist William Acton, whose editions of such works as Prostitution Considered (1857) remain a staple for those sketching a picture of medically based Victorian attitudes to prostitution and sexuality. Acton’s work has often been utilized for his somewhat [End Page 297] typical views on female “passivity” and prostitution as a physical, moral, and social problem. Attwood’s reexamination of Acton’s work leads her to conclude that, while Acton perpetuated stereotypes, he simultaneously presented counternarratives. Acton’s contradictions suggest that Victorian views of the prostitute were far from monolithic or stable.
The evolving and variegated representations of the prostitute are developed in the second chapter, which analyzes the “Report of the Royal Commission on the Contagious Diseases Acts” (1871). Attwood challenges common interpretation of the report as codifying the prostitute within the context of venereal disease as a threat to society and yet a victim of society: “Closer scrutiny” of the report “reveals a multiplicity of contrasting, and often directly conflicting, viewpoints on prostitution” (43). Far from presenting a coherent representation of prostitution, the report revealed commissioners’ dissent over such issues as whether incarcerating those largely working-class women mistakenly thought to be prostitutes was fair legal practice.
The following chapter on the writings of the charismatic leader of the Ladies National Association, Josephine Butler, examines how one female social reformer’s voice “constructed a portrait of women enslaved by commercial sexuality” (71). Attwood challenges Judith Walkowitz’s suggestion that feminist discourse on prostitution either failed or was inconsistent in order to argue that Butler’s rhetoric “was more multifaceted than focus on failures allows” (74).
Chapter 4 turns the reader’s attention to fictional representation of a former prostitute, Mercy Merrick, from Wilkie Collins’s novel The New Magdalen (1873). Attwood argues that Collins’s adaptation of Victorian sensation fiction involved narratives around criminal plotlines and transgressive heroines. The New Magdalen encapsulated “the real heterogeneity of Victorian prostitution” in its formulation and reformulation of Mercy’s self-awareness, outspokenness, and “goodness.” Her heterogeneity therefore challenged the binary metanarrative of the fallen woman as emblem of social chaos as well as social victim.
In her final chapter, Attwood explores the purported diaries of “Walter,” whose pornographic musings in My Secret Life (ca. 1890) have largely been dismissed by historians. Yet as Attwood powerfully claims, My Secret Life presents a unique celebratory view of bought sex and pornography that subverts stereotypes found in more licit texts of the time. Walter’s view of prostitutes and women as sexually assertive and as having desires that perhaps matched (his own) sexual fantasies destabilizes “our understanding of what Victorian prostitution was, or can be characterised as” (134).
An ongoing theme in Attwood’s book is that Victorian attitudes toward and opinions about prostitution were diverse and changeable; her book seeks to illustrate such complexity. Even so, the reader gains little insight into working-class attitudes toward prostitution, though this a fault found [End Page 298] in many other works on prostitution. In her conclusion, Attwood briefly examines a selection of letters allegedly written by prostitutes who, she argues, offer “the voice” of the prostitute. Aside from questions about their authenticity, these prostitutes’ voices seem muffled despite the women’s claims of success and progress through their career. Attwood’s depiction of the diversity and fluidity of Victorian representation(s) of prostitution is, in the end, largely constructed from writings by members of the middle classes. Some consideration of the relatively unexplored discourses on economic inequality and...