I recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Covent Garden Ladies. This book is about the women who worked in the sex industry in eighteenth century London and inspired the BBC’s series Harlots – a soap opera of scandalous, scurrilous, salacious sagas.
The women themselves inspired a wildly successful guide book – the Harris List. This was a small publication produced every Christmas and listed the physical appearance, sexual specialities and physical address of the women who worked as prostitutes around Covent Garden. It sold for two shillings and sixpence and its circulation was about 8,000 copies annually. I have copy of this book also and when I first read it – with my twenty-first-century sensibilities – I felt it was extremely sad. I though it was exploitive of women. Entries included
Apparently the Guide was written by an Irish man called Samuel Derrick. He was heir to a rich aunt who wished him become a linen draper. He wanted to be a writer. On fabric buying trips to London, he ignored cloth and instead spent time in shady taverns soaking up atmosphere and female company. Eventually the aunt cut him off and he found himself in a debtors’ prison. In order to extract himself from penury he turned to what he knew: writing and prostitutes. The Harris List was born. The early copies of the guide have a poetry and lyricism which is down to Derrick. His aim was to celebrate the women – to praise them, and to promote their trade. The guide continued after his death and later copies are more prosaic.
The idea behind a guide book is to give useful information about a particular subject. We are most familiar with the travel guide format.The first guidebook was written by Mariana Starke, an aspiring British poet and playwright who shared the same publisher as Jane Austen and Lord Byron. Her book Travels in Italy Between the Years 1792 and 1798 gave solid factual advice using a subjective rating system based on one to five exclamation marks. A later book, Information and Directions for Travellers on the Continent covered Europe from Portugal to Russia and was stuffed with pithy advice on “tolerable” inns, how to hire a horse carriage and the variable state of the continent’s post-roads. She inspired a publishing genre which, from Baedeker to Lonely Planet, is still embraced today.
What is it about guides the prove so popular? Looking to my own experience, when I went to Malta I bought a guide before I left. It gave me an idea of what to expect. I followed most of its suggestions when I was there. And I enjoyed looking over it on my return replaying my own memories over the book’s images and text. So I get that bit – I get why a guide would be useful.
But what is the part of human nature that inspires us to share our knowledge. Why do we want to show the way to others? Part of it must be rooted in boasting. It feels good to be superior. But another part must come from kindness. It may be cynical, but I believe all human acts are based in the need for survival. Displaying kindness is a way of making connections and making oneself invaluable.
But I don’t think that’s it. I think there’s more. I think there is a part of us that wants to help others because we share humanity. Because we know how it felt to be confused or lost or unhappy and we found a way through. Because we can help another to not feel so lost we share our knowledge.
For me, I’m writing the Curious Lady’s Guides because I want to find out how things happen. When I discover something, I feel so excited, that I want to share my discoveries. I also want to test myself to see if I can design factual information to make it look appealing. I guess that places me soundly in the boasting and sharing place.
But hey, I’m human.