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Actresses and Prostitutes in Victorian London

  • Tracy C. Davis (a1)


Despite the tendency for Victorian performers to be credited with increasing respectability and middle-class status and for actors to receive the highest official commendations, the popular association between actresses and prostitutes and belief in actresses' inappropriate sexual conduct endured throughout the nineteenth century. In the United States, religious fundamentalism accounts for much of the prejudice, but in Great Britain, where puritanical influences were not as influential on the theatre, other factors helped to preserve the derogatory view of actresses. In certain times and places actresses did have real links with the oldest of all ‘women's professions’, but the notion that the dual identity of Roman dancers or the exploits of some Restoration performers justify the popular association between actresses and prostitutes in the Victorian era is patently insufficient. The notion persisted throughout the nineteenth century because Victorians recognized that acting and whoring were the occupations of self-sufficient women who plied their trades in public places, and because Victorians believed that actresses' male colleagues and patrons inevitably complicated transient lifestyles, economic insecurity, and night hours with sexual activity. In the spirit of Gilbert and Gubar's axiom that experience generates metaphor and metaphor creates experience, the actress and the prostitute were both objects of desire whose company was purchased through commercial exchange. While patrons bought the right to see them, to project their fantasies on them, and to denigrate and misrepresent their sexuality, both groups of women found it necessary constantly to sue for men's attention and tolerate the false imagery. Their similarities were reinforced by coexistence in neighbourhoods and work places where they excited and placated the playgoer's lust in an eternal loop, twisted like a Mobius strip into the appearance of a single surface.



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1. Baker, Michael, The Rise of the Victorian Actor (London: Croom Helm, 1978); and Davis, Tracy C., ‘“Does the Theatre Make for Good?”: Actresses’ Purity and Temptation in the Victorian Era', Queen's Quarterly 93.1 (Spring 1986): 3349.

2. Johnson, Claudia D., American Actress: Perspective on the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1984), PP. 336.

3. See Sanger, William W., The History of Prostitution (1897; New York: Eugenics Publishing, 1939) on actress/prostitutes of the Restoration, or Eraser, Antonia, The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Methuen, 1984), pp. 473–93.

4. Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979), p. xiii.

5. States, Bert O., Great Reckonings in Little Rooms. On the Phenomenology of Theater (Berkeley: U of California, 1985), p. 127.

6. See Green, Gayle and Kahn, Coppelia, Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 3.

7. Richardson, Joanna, The Courtesans. The Demi-monde in nineteenth-century France (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967), p. 225.

8. Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor. Extra vol. (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1862), p. 255.

9. From the hand enumerated census of 1861 in the Public Records Office, London, and published data in The Census of England and Wales, 1861.

10. ‘The Greatest Social Evil’, Tail's Edinburgh Magazine, 24 (1857): 748–9.

11. Mayhew, , pp. 262–3.

12. From Middlesex court records in the Greater London Record Office. Records of 108 summary convictions for riotous behaviour among common prostitutes (in violation of the Vagrant Act, 5 George IV) survive for 1860–62, and although there is no reason to suspect that there are omissions the findings are curious. There is no justification for why Westminster police court heard such cases when neither Bow Street nor Marlborough Street heard a single one (all Middlesex police courts' summary convictions are interfiled). Both Kensington and Chelsea had low actress populations (0.0215°, and 0 0235° of women), and none of the prostitutes' names coincide with occupational self-declarations of any theatrical occupation on the hand enumerated census of 1861 in St. Martin's, St. Mary-le-Strand, St. Paul (Covent Garden), St. Anne (Soho), St. Clement Dane, St. Pancras (south and west sections), or Lambeth, so evidently actresses were not travelling outside their residential and work areas to carry out prostitution. Many of the convicted prostitutes came before the courts again and again, clearly going back to the streets at the end of each prison term.

13. Rev. Merrick, G. P., Work Among the Fallen as seen in the Prison Cells (London: Ward, Lock and Co., 1890), pp. 25–6; and Royden, A. Maude, Downward Paths. An Inquiry into the Causes which contribute to the Making of the Prostitute (London: G. Bell, 1916), pp. 194–5. Royden's figures are based on a field of 830, of whom 257 were subjects in the 1908 Royal Commission on the Feeble-Minded, 552 were referred through charities, and 21 were interviewed in West End restaurants and music halls where they sought their clientele. Eight of the 573 mentally normal subjects gave their previous occupation as ‘The Stage’, etc.

14. Guest, Ivor, Victorian Ballet-Girl. The Tragic Story of Clara Webster (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1957), p. 28.

15. Sanger, p. 330; and Acton, William, Prostitution, ed. Fryer, Peter (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), pp. 140–2.

16. Select Committee on Public Houses, 1854.Minutes of Evidence. Vol. 14; p. 70.

17. Select Committee. 1854, p. 281.

18. ‘Report from the Select Committee on Dramatic Literature (1832)’, Westminster Review (01 1833): 41–2.

19. Select Committee on Theatrical Licenses and Regulations. 1866. Minutes of Evidence, p. 57.

20. Advertisement, Era, 5 07 1868: 8. This exceeds the totals for South Kensington Museum (1,402,591) and the Zoological Gardens (1,083,563). The Alhambra netted annual receipts of about £150,000, which yielded shareholders 17°.

21. Letter to Editor, Daily Telegraph 18 10 1894: 3.

22. ‘Empire Theatre. Scene at the Re-Opening’, Daily Telegraph 5 11 1894, 3. The controversy is described in a paper by Joseph Donohue, ‘The Empire Theatre, Leicester Square and the 1894 Licensing Controversy’, delivered to the American Society for Theatre Research, 1986.

23. Turner, E. S., Roads to Ruin. The Shocking History of Social Reform (London: Michael Joseph, 1950), pp. 229–31; Trudgill, Eric, Madonnas and Magdalens (London: Heinemann, 1976), p. 127; Guest, Ivor, The Empire Ballet (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1962), p. 82.

24. Tait's, 1857, p. 748.

25. Storch, Robert D., ‘Police Control of Street Prostitution in Victorian London: A Study in the Contexts of Police Action’, Police and Society, ed. Bayley, David H. (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1977), pp. 51–2, 65.

26. Paul Pry, 22 01 1849, 4.

27. Select Committee, 1866, p. 56; and Letter from ‘A Ballet Girl in Necessity’, Daily Telegraph, 19 10 1894, 3.

28. [William Rathbone Greg], Westminster Review, 53 (1850): 547–8.

29. Walkowitz, Judith R., Prostitution and Victorian Society (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), p. 21.

From the original study of women's statements on their lives prior to conviction and imprisonment in the only prison for women in metropolitan London, serving Middlesex, Surrey, southern Essex to Southend, and northern Kent to Gravesend. Rev. Merrick, G. P., Work Among the Fallen as seen in the Prison Cells (London: Ward, Lock, 1890), pp. 20–7.

30. Greg, , p. 458, and Sanger, , p. 331.

31. Emery, Winifred, ‘The Stage as a Profession. IV – Something About Success’, Woman, 8 01 1891, 3.

32. Ouida, , ‘The Woman Problem’, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine 83 (06 1909): 714.

33. Styles, John, An Essay on the Character, Immoral, and Antichristian Tendency of the Stage (Newport, Isle of Wight: Medina Press, 1806), p. 34.

34. Era, 18 06 1892, 15; and 25 06, 14.

35. Greg, , pp. 458–61; Mayhew, , p. 257.

36. Dubois, Ellen Carol and Gordon, Linda, ‘Seeking Ecstasy on the Battlefield: Danger and Pleasure in Nineteenth-century Feminist Sexual Thought’, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Vance, Carole S. (Boston: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 32.

37. Hollingshead, John, My Lifetime, 2 vols. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1895), vol. 1, p. 231.

38. Leppington, C. H. d'E., ‘The Gibeonites of the Stage: Work and Wages Behind the Scenes’, National Review 17 (1891): 261.

39. Letter, Era, 25 01 1852, 12.

40. See ‘Theatrical Types. No. XI. – The Corps de Ballet’, Illustrated Times, 16 07 1864; Mowatt, Anna CoraAutobiography of An Actress (Boston: Ticknor, Reed and Fields, 1854), pp. 314–17; and ‘The Moral Ministry of the Ballet’, Stage, 16 07 1886, 1718.

41. Gayle Rubin, unpublished essay (1981) quoted by Judith Walkowitz, R. in ‘Male Vice and Female Virtue: Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, Powers of Desire, ed. Snitow, Ann et al. (New York: Monthly Review, 1983), p. 426.

42. Dubois, and Gordon, , p. 33.

43. Rosen, , p. 46.

Actresses and Prostitutes in Victorian London

  • Tracy C. Davis (a1)


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