‘The Sexual History of London’: Plus ça Change, Plus c’est la Même Chose

From the shivering slaves on the docks of Romano-British Londinium to the Cheapside tarts of the 18th century; and onwards to poor slaughtered Mary Kelly (the last known victim of Jack the Ripper in the 1880s) in Miller’s Court and ending with the good-time girls of the Swinging ’60s Soho, controlled by sinister organised crime bosses and pimps: ‘Plus Ça Change …’ Catharine Arnold concludes in her final chapter: ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’. The more things change the more they stay the same.

There are elements in this dramatically detailed history that bolster the myth of the ‘happy hooker’ and the ‘tart with a heart’. Arnold occasionally offers up the ‘Fanny Hill’ character (from John Cleland’s notorious 18th century novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) as an exemplar of the in-control, relatively free female courtesan. But she rapidly contrasts this with real-life histories of women and girls (and they are mostly female — some little more than children) that were forced, coerced and compelled into sexual slavery.

The rose-tinted views of the sex industry are mercifully few and far between. The good time, liberal, all-embracing joie de vivre of sexual expression is championed; but always tempered with the fact that where there is sexual history, there is sexual exploitation.

Arnold deals strategically with the syphilis epidemic of the 19th century, W.T. Stead’s compromised 1885 ‘sting’ operation (where the journalist purchased a 13-year-old girl to highlight the problem of child prostitution), and the ongoing debate between freedom and censorship. As she remarks: ‘the authorities refused to draw a distinction between high art and smut’ (Arnold, 242).

Indeed, difficulties, ambiguities, and hypocrisies populate these pages in what is a buoyant and absorbing history. It’s a sexual biography of London – shown as a living, vibrant, throbbing (sometimes quite literally) metropolis for two millennia, with the abiding feature of the male/female double standard. However, there is the heartening presence of reformers such as the Victorian early feminist, Josephine Butler.

Unlike similar material and other cultural historians working in this genre, Arnold avoids those lists of statistics which to the untrained eye make little sense. She steers away from the demographic charts and stays with the anecdotal, historical and evidentiary examples of the city’s society and geography. This tactic drives the history along, so that the narrative reinforces itself and keeps the reader’s attention– for all the right reasons.

As well as being highly informative, it’s entertaining and – let’s face it intriguing (for all the wrong reasons) – rather like looking up all the rude words in the dictionary. When you read about the medieval mania for buggery and the Victorian craze for flagellation it’s difficult not to feel a blushing fascination for our forebears and their proclivities. It makes you realise just how little we really do know, against what we think we know, and also just how dry and sarcastic Philip Larkin was being in ‘Annus Mirabilis’ when he wrote:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban

And the Beatles’ first LP

RATING 8 / 10