Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Georgian gentleman’s version of the Little Black Book - a historical Wednesday post

Welcome to another of our historical Wednesday posts. Today, Elizabeth Bailey takes a look into the underside of Georgian society with Harris's List.

Harris’s List was a fascinating little volume, started in 1757 by one Samuel Derrick, as a venture to get himself out of debtor’s prison. His lively descriptions of the ladies who made themselves available for a gentleman’s amours proved so popular that the book was revised annually until 1795.

“Harris” often explains how a lady “fell into the life”. Miss Char-ton of No. 12, Gress Street, “came of reputable parents…yet the address of a designing villain, too soon found means to ruin her; forsaken by her friends, pursued by shame and necessity; she had no other alternative...”

Miss Le-, of Berwick-Street, Soho, “was debauched by a young counsellor, from a boarding-school near town, where she was apprentice.”

The majority of ladies featured in this entertaining directory for the pleasure-seeking young buck, which abounds in witty euphemisms, were in their teens or early twenties. For example, there is Miss Townsend, 19: “the use of the needle first fired this lady’s imagination with the use of a certain pin”.

Strong liquor was the preferred anodyne apparently. Miss Godfrey, a commanding female, “will take brandy with any one, or drink and swear, and though but little, will fight a good battle.”

It’s rather tragic to find women’s attractions (or otherwise) delineated in detail:
“she is amorous to the greatest degree, and has courage enough not to be afraid of the largest and strongest man that ever drew weapon in the cause of love”.
“but a middling face, with large features, a coarse hand and arm, and in stature short and clumsy”, but she is “an excellent bedfellow”.
“of a middle size, black eyes, plump made and her skin good”
“fine blue eyes that are delicious”.
We are told about good teeth and “sweet breath”, in a day where these were rare.

We also find out what it may cost our young man about town to enjoy a particular lady’s charms. One or two guineas appears the norm, with here and there a more expensive luxury on offer.

The genteel Miss Le-, who was led into sin, is only seventeen and “has a piece of the termagant about her”, but she commands three or four guineas for her services, which include birching for those so inclined. While Miss - of Wardour Street, who is “but newly arrived” and “darts such irresistible glances as can scarcely fail to engage the hearts of the beholders” will not accept less than five guineas. Mrs Ho-fey, on the other hand, who “calls forth all her powers to give delight with uncommon success” will happily settle for half a guinea.

A guinea (one pound, one shilling) seems a pathetic sum to us, yet in today’s money is worth around £60. A lady’s maid was paid less than that in a year, and no doubt worked a lot harder. The downside was the future. There are very few females over thirty in Harris’s List. Assuming one could avoid a dose of “the pox” or any other disease and live, what to do when the charms of youth faded? How many of them were canny enough to salt away a quantity of takings as insurance?

A few, one assumes, if they had garnered sufficient fortune, might be lucky enough to marry. Others are mentioned as having moved into brothel-keeping themselves. But the rest?

What happened to Sally Robinson, who was given five shillings at the age of fifteen to cure her of the clap “which she got from her deflowerer”? On the town in 1761, what hope had “a tall, fat girl” of any kind of living thirty years later? Or Kitty Buckley, who was one of the few older females and already 35 in 1761? She was “reported to have ruined twenty keepers” because she was “as wicked as a devil, and as extravagant as Cleopatra”. Since she had been in the bailiff’s hands about three times a year, did she end her days in prison?

The life was pitiful, if there was nothing else, but there’s no denying Harris’s List is a riveting read and has a lot to tell us about the less glamorous side of life in the 18th century.

My heroine in An Undesirable Liaison narrowly escapes falling into the prostitution trap:

In the tradition of Regency Romance, scandals past and present unravel in the path of destiny. Caught by an overwhelming attraction to her new employer, Florence struggles against temptation. Can Jerome withstand Florence’s allure, when his desire can only mean her ruin?


Mimi Matthews said...

Fascinating Post, Elizabeth! I've tweeted it.

Elizabeth Bailey said...

Thank you, Mimi. It's a fascinating little book!