Saturday, April 13, 2013

A House in Covent Garden

Covent Garden Today
There’s a house that features in most of my mid-Georgian set books, which the owner calls “The best whorehouse in London.” In order not to violate the terms of the contracts I sign, sometimes it’s run by Mrs. Brown, and sometimes she has another name.
Mrs. Brown is a bit of an enigma. She dresses garishly during business hours, but prefers something a bit practical and more tasteful in her own time. She has a broad Cockney accent but when she forgets, it becomes a bit more refined. Not that she’s a countess in hiding or anything, but it’s obvious to anyone who knows her that she’s not as “common” as she claims to be.
In fact, during this era there was a real Mrs. Brown who ran a whorehouse in Covent Garden, but her brothel was in one of the lean-tos by the market, not one of the grander houses that ring the square.
Covent Garden has an interesting history. It was built to house the aristocracy but by the time it was ready the really posh nobs were moving out to the West End, so it never caught on, but it did become the theatre district, with Drury Lane and the Opera House within spitting distance of each other. That was where the young bloods went when they wanted a bit of action. The green rooms in the theatres, which often acted as unofficial brothels, private houses that contained whores running themselves and the brothels, where many girls were run. There was a House of Correction, which specialised in the “English Vice,” ie flogging and early sado-masochistic practices (not really BDSM, as it didn’t have the conventions and rules we associate with that term).
Hogarth depicted a scene of debauchery in “The Rake’s Progress.” Hogarth was a member of a distinctive group that included the Fieldings of Bow Street, so his engravings, showing the anti-French, anti-Jacobite view they shared have a particular point of view not necessarily shared with everyone in society. But there are real people depicted in his painting, apparently.
The first time I saw the original of “The Rake’s Progress” I was astounded. Not just because of the paintings themselves, but their situation. They’re in Sir John Soane’s house, somewhere everyone should see before they die. The house is packed. Top to bottom, every tiny crack and cranny, packed with statues, plaster casts, fragments and paintings. “The Rake’s Progress” is kept in an amazing room and it opens like a book so the viewer can see all eight paintings without it taking up too much wall space.
Anyway, I digress. I went to Covent Garden, had a good look and chose a house that I wanted for my brothel. It’s on the corner of King Street, a prime postion, near the site of Button’s Coffee House, which is now, appropriately, a Starbucks. Gentlemen went to the coffee house to discuss politics, finance, insurance, and in Button’s, the arts. Similarly, the brothels weren’t just for sex. They held gaming rooms, some of them hells (high stakes and sometimes card sharps), they’d have shows of lascivious activity, some with wit and style, some just sleazy, and rooms where men could drink themselves to oblivion and then choose their woman for an hour or two.
Note, I said “men.” Respectable women never set foot in those houses, or so the historians would have us believe. However, they discover new things every day. Was there a similar establishment for women? Maybe a bit more discreet, a little more refined?
We can never be absolutely sure, can we?
But look for Mrs. Brown’s in my upcoming release, the first book in a new series set in the thrilling, full-bodied, Georgian era. More about it nearer release, but I am really excited to be revisiting my favourite historical period.


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What an enjoyable post, Lynne!

There was a discreet meeting house in the 1860s for ladies and gentlemen of the ton at nos 26-28 Burlington Arcade, run by the astute Madame Parsons, milliner, specializing in guinea bonnets, whose shop was downstairs.

Burlington Arcade was built 1815-19by Samuel Ware and some of the shops had a suite of rooms above - as at nos 26-28. I see no reason why it shouldn't have had the same convenient function in the Regency period.

Jane Pollard said...

A fascinating post, Lynne. I enjoyed your comment too, Elizabeth. As most marriages of the period were contracted for financial or dynastic reasons, the enterprising Madame Parsons was generously - for a small consideration - facilitating romance!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

My thoughts exactly, Jane!