London’s Sinful Secret by George Cruickshank
One of the fruits of my nonfiction library spree back in March, George Cruickshank’s London’s Sinful Secret: The Bawdy History and Very Public Passions of London’s Georgian Age proved well worth the read. It isn’t a quick read by any stretch (coming in at 2 pounds and 672 pages according to Amazon), but it is a fascinating one and an eye-opening one to boot.
Cruickshank himself is an architectural historian, which lends an interesting lens to an already-scintillating topic. The overarching argument of the book is that the sex industry was pervasive and vital to London as an economic hub of eighteenth-century Europe, but, because of his training, Cruickshank is able to take the book beyond basic history and standard “my topic is important and unique!” statements. Throughout the book, he includes fascinating examples of the ways in which the architecture of London was shaped by London’s prominent sex industry and how what remains of Georgian architecture in contemporary London can provide us with vital clues about the city’s often sordid past.
Apart from his architectural arguments, however, the book is also a surprisingly serious discussion of prostitution in eighteenth-century London. A book called London’s Sinful Secrets could easily veer off into sensationalism, but Cruickshank instead produces a restrained, tightly-woven, and well-researched book that delves into all the details without ever being lewd.
The book is also a perfectly horrifying account of woman’s position in London in the 1700s. Perhaps unfortunately, because Cruickshank isn’t really a feminist historian (although that would have no doubt produced opposite biases), so he doesn’t touch too heavily on this bald fact. He does discuss why a girl might become a prostitute, but, like contemporary men at the time, he looks mostly into how girls were tricked into prostitution and doesn’t spend nearly as much time looking at all the women who made the active decision to become sex workers. These women had agency, probably more than most women at the time, and, while I know source material is scarce, it would fascinating to explore their decisions more closely.
On the whole, it was a great read, but one requiring a serious time commitment! And it gave me one more example of the amazing serendipitous possibilities at libraries.