Why was the Perception of the Actress and the Prostitute Interchangeable in the Eighteenth Century? 


During the eighteenth century, the social standing of the actress and the prostitute was targeted by moral reformers and satirical authors.  The moral reformer targeted actresses for criticism ‘as their actions and speech on stage were considered immodest.’  The satirical author was interested in publishing any related scandal that surrounded the actress.  Historians have argued that ‘either sort of author could criticise an actress as a whore given the way she supported herself by displaying herself on stage.’  Furthermore, the flirtatiousness of the actress was central to the perception of the actress as a whore.  The mutual flirting between the actress and the audience during the performance was crucial to the success of the show, as the eighteenth century theatrical play was contrived on the audience and players being able to interact with each other.

The Actress

The perception of the early modern actress was often one of a wanton woman, who had morals that paralleled those of a prostitute.  This was due to several factors, which included having multiple sexual relationships outside of marriage, acting provocatively on stage, acting male roles and performing in male attire and therefore shocking society by exhibiting her legs in male breeches.  One of the most celebrated actresses of the eighteenth century was Mary Robinson.  She famously wore breeches playing Jacinta in The Suspicious Husband in 1779.  Two weeks after wearing her breeches on stage, she wore them to a masquerade in Covent Garden ‘at considerable risk to her reputation.’   ‘Breeches roles’ were tremendously popular, not least for the males watching, who would not usually get a glimpse of women’s legs in public, ‘but they reinforced the old prejudice that women who disported themselves on stage were little better than prostitutes.’  The plays which included roles in which women had to cross-dress ‘contributed to a discourse of sexual confusion and moral ambiguity.’  Breeches roles were popular in the theatre from the time of the Restoration when actresses were allowed to perform in public.  The role appeared to have been designed for the sole function of displaying a woman’s body, to titillate, ‘as there was no question of the actress truly impersonating a man.’  

The actresses would assume the ‘characteristics of the women who drew the most attention to themselves in the audience: the prostitute, known and ridiculed for seeking custom in the pit and galleries; and the aristocratic lady.’  All women, including actresses, had to be careful of their public image.  By aspiring to emulate the aristocratic lady the actress elevated herself to a position of celebrity, where people could then in turn try to emulate her.  By presenting herself as the bawd or the lady, she showed the audience her skills as an actress, as she represented polarised images of femininity.  She could seek the audience’s approbation or disapproval with the role that she was acting. 

Whilst many actresses refined their manners and actions, emulating the aristocratic audience member, some actresses like Anne Catley would ‘play up the licentious characteristics to appeal to the less cultivated portion of the audience.’  It was actresses like Anne Catley, who would help to reinforce the interchangeable image of the actress and the prostitute as one and the same.  The behaviour of women within the theatre did not seem to benefit from any rules.  The actresses’ respectability, or lack of, did not appear to hinder their career and, in some cases, they even benefitted from the notoriety that surrounded them.  Anne Catley’s father had infamously brought a court case against her aristocratic lover, yet it didn’t diminish her popularity.

The Prostitute

The word prostitute first appeared in the Old Bailey Session Papers in 1685, but was not in regular use until the latter half of the eighteenth century.  More commonly, synonyms such as whore, harlot, Moll and bawd would be applied.  The word whore was commonly used in eighteenth century literature.  Recent feminist discourse has emphasised the need to clarify notions of the sexually promiscuous actress.  It has been suggested that ‘definitions of ‘whoring’ were often less precise than in more recent usage,’ as now it connotes that a gift has been received, or a financial transaction has been completed, in return for sex.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the word whore could be used to describe any woman who was perceived as having loose morals, and not just for women who were paid, in gifts or money, for their sexual favours.    

Up to sixty per cent of the prostitute population came from the British Isles, including Ireland.  The common prostitute was usually in her late teens or early twenties and used prostitution as a means to avoid starving.  The average prostitute in the metropolis was of an impoverished background and used prostitution as a means to avoid destitution.  Not all women who were prostitutes used prostitution as their only means of employment, it was often ad hoc; and used to supplement a small income.  Often it was her only recourse.  Women’s employment was limited in the eighteenth century.  To survive an unmarried woman needed a trade.  She could be a skilled seamstress, milliner, or find employment in domestic service.  

Prostitution was an urban phenomenon.  There were recognised ‘red light’ districts in many areas containing brothels (bawdy-houses or stews) but they were unlicensed. The stews were condemned under Henry VIII and some were closed down.  During the Puritan period a greater emphasis was placed on the morals of the English and by the 1690s societies like the Reformation of Manners attempted to have prostitutes indicted by the courts.  At the beginning of the eighteenth century, judges found these private initiatives unwelcome and there appeared to be ‘a softening of the attitudes towards the prostitute.’  However, the prostitute in the eighteenth century was still viewed as problematic due the amount of women who ‘went on the town.’   One historian argued that the total quantity of prostitutes in London is ‘ludicrously exaggerated,’ as it is claimed that ‘in 1728 there were 62,500 prostitutes in and around London.’  He suggested that this figure is unreliable as it would make it a total of around eight per cent of the population involved in prostitution, although he agrees that ‘prostitutes were a highly visible presence on London’s streets.’ 

Another historian  argued that contemporary estimates on the prostitute population were high due to ‘middle-class moral panic, more than accurate social measurements.’  As major cities, like London, grew exponentially, so did the prostitute population, particularly in dock areas with transient trade.  By 1800, ‘it was not Rome and Venice which were the capitals of whoredom, but London, Paris and Amsterdam.’  This was facilitated by the concentration of deprived women in cities with little means of employment. 

Indicating that prostitution was a concern for eighteenth century society, Daniel Defoe published, Some Considerations on Street-Walkers (1726).  In this, he argued for greater legislation to proscribe the actions of the prostitute.  London was mostly unregulated and prostitutes were generally only prosecuted when associated with another offence.  The policing of prostitution was lax until the prostitutes themselves were linked with another crime, particularly theft. If they were charged with an offence, they sometimes use aliases.  In the charge books of St James’s in London between 1733 and 1739, the favourite false name was Miss Nobody.  ‘Miss Nobody’ conveys two subliminal messages, one view is that she is of little importance and it would not matter if she gave a false name as ‘nobody’ expresses eloquently that she is without a name and an identity in the tumult of life in the slums of London.  The other, is of the defiant woman, being questioned after being apprehended, a confident ‘Moll’, with her chin raised high, who will do anything to survive.

The prostitutes in London fell into four distinct categories.  First was the prostitute   forced to sleep rough on London’s streets and who worked from street corners.  Generally, she would have suffered from venereal disease and belonged to the criminal underclass.  Second, were the girls who worked out of rented rooms with a ‘whoremaster or mother’ to take their rent from them.  These girls would have worked on the streets and picked men up to take back to their rooms.  Third, were the women who were able to advertise for their trade in periodicals.  They lived comfortably in brothels, with trappings often supplied by a male protector, but they were still expected to service extra clients.  Fourth, were the courtesans, the fashionable kept-mistresses, they had great style and influence.  The courtesan, would have many talents that were necessary to mix in genteel society, she would also have other talents that would entertain her rich catch. 

The name courtesan instantly glamorises their professional activities for the word connotes beauty, fashion and allure.  One such courtesan was Elizabeth Armistead.    She was ‘found’ on the streets of London by Mrs Jane Goadby, who was ‘the most notorious procuress in London.’  Goadby’s ‘establishment was far removed from the usual rumbustious bawdy-houses and in consequence escaped the notice of moralistic magistrates and constables.’  Elizabeth Armistead was the mistress of politician Charles James Fox, but before Fox, her lovers included two dukes, an earl, a viscount and the Prince of Wales. The courtesan mixed in the same exalted circles as the star actresses on the London stage.  They would wear elegant dresses and dazzling jewellery and comport themselves in ways that befitted an aristocratic lady, much like the eighteenth century actress.  This could help illustrate, in part, why the actress was perceived to be a prostitute in the eighteenth century. 

The actress and the prostitute worked in the same densely crowded district of the metropolis.  The theatre district of London surrounding Covent Garden, Drury Lane and The Strand was renowned for its brothels.  It is no surprise that the actresses, who plied their trade in the same locality as the eighteenth century prostitutes, were repeatedly accused of the same acts of immorality and licentiousness.  ‘These were specific urban spaces in which the ideas of the actress as a flirt or coquette, elided easily with that of the urban whore.’ 

The eighteenth century sex-trade was highly visible on its streets and the financial transactions have been recorded and analysed.  Social commentator, James Boswell reported at the time that he ‘”was surrounded by all manner of free-hearted ladies of all kinds: from the Madam at fifty guineas a night, down to the civil nymph…who tramps along The Strand and will resign her engaging person to your honour for a pint of wine and a shilling.”’  It has been noted that among prostitutes there was a hierarchical gradation of pricing and in the terms applied in popular discourse as a euphemism for prostitution.  The prostitutes at the lower end of the scale were termed ‘whore, street-walker, park-walker or bunter.’  At the higher end of the scale, the women were termed ‘women of fashion, demi-reps or kept-mistresses and this would denote a more ambiguous up-market status.’  

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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