Saturday, March 13, 2010
Fancy a game of loo?
I fell in love with the Georgian era when I was nine and saw an engraving of a coffee house. Love at first sight.
The coffee houses were situated close to the City, and very often they shared streets with the more insalubrious gaming house. In “A Betting Chance,” which is out next month, the heroine, Sapphira, goes to a gaming house to try to win enough money to run away from home. So my research for this book had a lot of the shadier side of Georgian London. And what fascinating research it turned out to be!
“A Betting Chance” is set in 1756, the time when Covent Garden held sway as the center of London’s nightlife. With the two London theatres close, it could draw on the men out for a night’s carousal, after the balls and the theatre were done. Mother Brown’s was one of the most notorious of these houses, and I borrowed the name for the madam of the whorehouse in my book. Covent Garden is a central covered market with an outer layer of shops that face the piazza it’s set in. Around that are tall, redbrick buildings and while the original Mother Brown’s was in one of the less salubrious and shack-like centre buildings, for the purposes of my story, I moved her out to the redbricks.
In this period, the notorious Harris’s List which was updated frequently, told the pleasure-seeker where he could find the best whores, and what they were known for. Even when “conversation” is an obvious metaphor for sex (a term that is anachronistic to the Georgian period in the sense of “having sex”) the whores are described as individuals. One has “Fine, black eyes,” and another has “a delicate way of disposing her hands.” A version of Harris’s List is still available today, and is eye-opening reading!
In an age when people didn’t hold back, Covent Garden held the most colourful and the most notorious of the ladies of the night. Depicted by Hogarth, most notably in “The Rake’s Progress,” whores came in all shapes and sizes and of various refinements. A courtesan was expected to do more than service her male customers in the bedroom. She had to be inventive, elegant and she might hold salons that rivalled those of the most exacting society hostess. A society mirrored.
Respectable women never ventured into these establishments, at least not if they weren’t in disguise. They faced extortion and disgrace if they were discovered so a respectable woman had to be really desperate to go forth into the mire of the Garden after dark. During the day, though, it was a market in the early morning, where much of the produce of the market gardens that surrounded London was sold and a site for several shops and coffeehouses. While coffeehouses were male-only concerns, a respectable woman could shop at the market (very early, though) or visit the shops without approbriation, and she could ogle the shuttered houses that held the ladies of the night, their shadowy counterparts.
More about the book next month, but check here on the Samhain website if you want to see the blurb, extract and the gorgeous cover art.