In 1757, a down-and-out Irish poet, the head waiter at the Shakespear’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden, and a celebrated London courtesan became bound together by the publication of a little book: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. This salacious work – detailing the names and ‘specialities’ of the capital’s sex-workers- became one of the eighteenth century’s most scandalous bestsellers.
Yet beyond its titillating passages lies a glimpse into the lives of those who lived and died by its profits – a tragicomic opera of the Georgian era, motivated by poverty, passionate love, aspiration and shame.
In this modern and visceral narrative, historian Hallie Rubenhold reveals the story behind Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, and the legion of ordinary women whose lives in the sex trade history has chosen to ignore.
Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five was one of my favourite non-fiction reads of 2020 for many reasons, one of them being the fact that Rubenhold told the stories of five women that history had forgotten. For well over a century, people have obsessed over and, hell, even romanticised Jack the Ripper. Everyone wants to know who Jack the Ripper was, but no one seems interested in who his victims were. Hallie Rubenhold wrote The Five as a means of changing this. By writing The Five, she gave a voice to the Canonical Five – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – who, up until the book’s publication, had largely been overlooked by historians, writers and true crime enthusiasts.
And this is what I liked about The Covent Garden Ladies. Published fourteen years before The Five, The Covent Garden Ladies gives a voice to those who have slipped between the cracks in history. Rubenhold not only discusses the lives and careers of pimp Jack Harris, down and out poet Samuel Derrick and madam Charlotte Hayes, she also delves into the lives of the women who worked out of the pubs and brothels they ran or frequented. She details the daily struggles of an 18th century sex worker with brutal honesty, an honesty that will have readers’ hearts breaking for these long-dead women. It wasn’t uncommon for women to be forcibly ‘recruited’ into the sex trade, and, once working for a pimp or madam, they simultaneously became objects of lust and disdain. Men would point disapprovingly with one hand while dishing out guineas to pay for their services with the other.
There’s a chapter in The Covent Garden Ladies in which passages from various editions of Harris’s List are printed verbatim. It’s a grim read. Not only is each sex worker’s ‘write up’ (I can’t think of a better way to describe them) laced with stomach-churning misogyny, they’re very often filled with complete and utter nonsense that will make any reader grateful to have been born in the 20th (or even 21st – I’m getting so old) century. There was one particular ‘write up’ that, if I interpreted it correctly, blames a woman supposedly being “very wide and relaxed in a particular place” on her excessive consumption of tea (page 182, 2020 edition). If that was in any way true, my internal organs would have spilled out of me about ten years ago. Sure, the people of centuries past built the foundation upon which today’s society was built…but God, some of them were absolute idiots.
If you were a fan of Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five and are a fan of books that give history’s marginalised women a voice, The Covent Garden Ladies is a book that you should definitely read.