Caged Women

by Melinda Giordano

In the late 18th century there was certain stratum of the male population that was referred to as ‘gentlemen of intrigue.’ Their dark, conspiratorial life took them not amongst a world of subversion and politics, but a world of women.

These were the women leaning out of windows on plump, ivory forearms, the ones that waited in dank bedrooms, the ones that loitered in broken doorways. London in the 1790s was crowded with these strays, and the gentlemen in need of entertainment needed a guide to the newest, the jolliest, the cheapest, the most reliable ladies.

Happily, there was such a guide: “Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies or Man of Pleasure’s Kalender.” Initially, it makes for an oddly amusing read. It is an anthology of profiles, written with rude enthusiasm, dwelling on qualities both vulgar and admiring (“as delightful a female that ever graced the Cyprian train”).

The author is obligated, whenever he can, to mention a lady’s “fine set of teeth.” There will be those given to swearing, or drinking overmuch – and so let the buyer beware. There are those so skilled in the arts of love and deception that “many of the most knowing rakes of the town would be easily deceived.” A special few “are very dexterous at the game of the birch rod”. Many ladies listed in the calendar are “finely” or “genteely” shaped; some are known by their accessories: Mrs. B. is known for her short petticoats, Miss S. for the nosegay of flowers she tucks into her bosom. Some frequent the theater, some follow officers, or barristers. They ride in phaetons perched on open seats like flowers, or peer from the windows of their chariots, wrapped in ribbons and hidden like gifts. A few are in their teens, most in their twenties, some in their thirties.

Each entry ends with a promise of satisfaction and the price each woman requests for her services. (“She never condescends to grant her favors for less than half a guinea.”)

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Regardless of age or quality, the enterprising writer has a story for each woman in his guide. Some were unfortunately “debauched”, or widowed poor and early; they were disgraced, betrayed by “men of fortune”… and forced to accept a life “on the town.” The phrase sounds blithe – almost amiable – an odd title for an existence most women would accept only as a last resort.

Eventually, however, the reader’s initial amusement evaporates. And the impression that remains becomes one of imprisonment – the false cheer, hidden abuse, “counterfeit passion” that is characteristic of the harlot’s progress. As each page is turned, a new cage is discovered. The prisoners appear to be genteel – some are even fashionable. But beneath the skirts and bodices, the garters are torn, the wooden stays are soiled, their blouses are ripped as a result of too many business transactions, and their painted bodies are diseased and weary.

Under the control of their pimps and bawds, drunk and vulgar or fragile and enervated, these ladies wait. If a girl is described as beautiful, without a doubt that freshness will fade from overuse and exploitation. If it dwells on a girl’s drunkenness and swearing she will surely end her days mocked for her blotched profanity.

But no matter what qualities these inmates possess, the bars of their parlors will swing open unceasingly until they are found inert on their couches – unresponsive and useless. This ‘Pleasure Kalendar’ l- ike all calendars – is a finite listing, where the seasons are born, become rich and golden, yielding beautiful harvests and where they are doomed to die in a barren frost.

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Melinda Giordano is a native of Los Angeles, California. Her written pieces have appeared in Lake Effects Magazine, Written River, River Poets, Scheherazade’s Bequest, dansemacabreonline, mirrordancefantasy.com and others. She writes flash fiction and short fiction that speculates on the possibility of remarkable things. Melinda is interested in history, art, fashion, social–everything has a past–and anything to do with Aubrey Beardsley.

 

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