You are on page 1of 7

The Oldest Profession Made Modern

Lisa A. Freeman
University of Illinois at Chicago

For the last twenty years, studies of the rise of the novel in the eighteenth cen-
tury have focused critical attention on the concomitant emergence of the mod-
ern subject. In particular, the eighteenth-century novel has been construed as
a technology for shaping and representing that modern and middling subject
in the context of, and in response to, burgeoning anxieties over the expanding
marketplace and its disturbing capacity to turn everything and everyone into a
commodity. With its formal abilities to delineate distinctions between the pub-
lic and the private, between exteriority and interiority, and between masculine
and feminine forms of agency, the novel has been both valorized and critiqued
as a vehicle for producing the idea of a core self that can stand apart from the
market and for instantiating and cultivating that ideal in the figure of the do-
mestic woman. In recent years, however, critics and scholars have begun to
reexamine the relationship between the public and the private and to contend
that these spheres were shaped and defined not so much by their separation or
difference as by their proximity and similarity. Among the works that have ap-
peared, Laura Rosenthals Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century
British Literature and Culture (Cornell, 2006) should be considered an important
contribution to this new turn in the field.
In Infamous Commerce, Rosenthal resists the usual truisms regarding the
representation of prostitutes and prostitution. While she concedes that the
degradation, eroticization, exoticization, and condemnation of prostitutes in
eighteenth-century literature lies beyond dispute, she strives to great effect to
place this observation in tension with another one: that in the eighteenth cen-
tury, many kinds of texts, from Grub-street whore biographies to major novels
by Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, tell their stories from the perspective of
or with some form of empathy for a character faced with a choice between re-
munerated sexual activity and abject poverty (7). Drawing on a wide body of
evidence including materials as varied as prostitute biographies and memoirs,
reform literature, libertine writing, brothel guides, pornographic texts, and

The Eighteenth Century, vol. 51, nos. 12 Copyright 2010 University of Pennsylvania Press. All rights reserved.

19433.TX_ECT_TheoryInterp_51_1-2.indd 235 9/20/10 10:46:13 AM


travel narratives, Rosenthal is interested in exploring why that might bethat

is, in understanding why prostitutes and prostitution might figure so promi-
nently in so many works from the period. To do so she first traces the shift in the
representation of prostitutes from the Restoration into the eighteenth century
and demonstrates that in the latter period prostitutes were treated increasingly
not merely as figures of sexual pleasure or moral degradation but rather as
figures of commerce. Where the term whore could be applied to any woman
who engaged in undisciplined sexual behaviorincluding adulteresses or un-
married women who were sexually activeby the mid-eighteenth century,
prostitutes were specifically distinguished as those who engaged in the ex-
change of commodified sexual activity for remuneration (5). Prostitution was
thus understood in its modern sense as a form of work and as an activity that
involved economic transactions. While Rosenthal is certainly not the only critic
to note either this shift or this distinction, she is surely the first to insist that nar-
ratives that portray prostitutes need to be read accordingly, not just in the con-
text of infamy but also in the context of commerce (3). Breaking new ground,
then, Infamous Commerce engages in a sustained exploration of how such an
alteration in our frame of reference might change the way we read some of the
major works of the period.
Rosenthals insistence that we examine representations of prostitutes not
merely as negative versions of the virtuous female but also as self-alienating
individuals who enter into contracts and engage in commerce and labor has
at least two major consequences (6). First, it becomes possible to surmise that
for writers who were concerned or anxious about the growth of a social and
economic system which demanded self-division and the alienation of labor
in the public marketplace, prostitution provided an exemplary point of entry
for exploring both the limits of commodificationwhat could be soldand
the threat posed by self-commodification to the integrity of the individual
how much of a core or private self could be preserved or held apart from
the public market. Indeed, much to the fascination of eighteenth-century
writers, Rosenthal explains, prostitution undermined the separation of the
public and private spheres at the moment of their inception, for it placed in
the marketplace the very thingsexualityunderstood to define the private
sphere that in theory provided a haven from business (2). As such, she argues,
prostitutes came to represent both the most liberating and the most disturbing
and threatening aspects of the modern commercial economythe possibility of
social mobility through trade and the possibility of complete abjection through
the commodification of the self. In this respect, she contends, writers in the
eighteenth century turned to prostitute figures . . . not only to condemn the ir-
rational passions raised by commodity culture, erotically to charge their narra-
tives, or to police female sexuality, but perhaps most grippingly to explore the
transformation of identity demanded by the social, economic, and the political
changes in the period (14). The proliferation of prostitute figures in eighteenth-

19433.TX_ECT_TheoryInterp_51_1-2.indd 236 9/20/10 10:46:13 AM


century narratives can thus be understood as a function of the extent to which

they could serve as exemplary figures for exploring the contradictory condi-
tions of modern identity.
As individuals, moreover, who entered into contracts and exercised what
was construed as masculine agency in the eighteenth-century marketplace,
prostitutes could function in a secondary sense for writers as emblematic fig-
ures for all personsmale or femalewho found themselves subject to the va-
garies of commerce. Like any other persons of business, prostitutes had to face
down the perils of the marketplace and hope for commercial success. Their
trade practices were not so dissimilar from those who peddled other wares,
and with only their labor standing between them and abject poverty, pros-
titutes offered a disturbing reminder of just how closely everyone in a market
economy teeters on the edge of respectability and just how easily they might
fall into the realm of the disreputable. Hence, as Rosenthal explains, While
not by any means representing prostitution as legitimate work, writers in this
period nevertheless explore the predicament of the prostitute for its economic
resonance for . . . emerging middle-class and laboring-class subjectivities (4
5). In this manner, she makes a compelling case that we need to read familiar
texts differently, abandoning assumptions about the irredeemable otherness of
those who alienate sexual labor (16). Accordingly, she submits that where at-
tention to the representation of female virtue in eighteenth-century culture has
shown the ideological limits of these novels; attention to prostitution opens up
different possibilities (16).
These different possibilities become evident immediately in Rosenthals
first chapter, where in a compelling account that culminates in a brief discus-
sion of Pamela and the anti-Pamela controversy, she argues that, for models of
manipulative resistance to sex and the capacity to quell ones own desire, we
must . . . turn away from novels of amorous intrigue and to prostitute narra-
tives (37). Rosenthal begins the chapter by tracing in greater detail the shift
from early modern representations of prostitutes as figures over-mastered by
desire to modern representations of prostitutes as figures of commerce, who
divide themselves between a private inner self with a virtuous potential and
an exterior, public practice of often highly unpleasant sexual encounters un-
dertaken for compensation (18). Drawing in particular on the admonitions
offered to prostitutes by Mother Creswell in The Whores Rhetorick (1683), she
demonstrates both how this condition of dividedness in the prostitute repre-
sented a response to the demands of the new economy and how, as such, it
played a crucial role in shaping modern subjectivities. The prostitute or agent
who was best able to cultivate a Cool State of Indifference (33)that is, the
ability not only to conceal but also to estrange her (or his) desireswould be
able to negotiate the best terms and drive the hardest bargain in the market-
place. On this basis, Rosenthal submits that if, as so many critics have argued,
Pamela captured something fundamental about the modern individual, it

19433.TX_ECT_TheoryInterp_51_1-2.indd 237 9/20/10 10:46:13 AM


was not simply because she internalized domestic virtue but rather because
she modeled precisely the kind of split between interiority and exteriority that
prostitutes had found so expedient for operating in the commercial market-
place (36). Reading across the texts of the Pamela controversy, she concludes,
that if Pamela and Shamela suggest the opportunities in a commercial culture
for those who combine cleverness, restraint, and strategic self-division (41),
the abject humiliation of Eliza Haywoods Syrena Tricksey represents the fate
of those who cant manage the skillful self-division and thus allow desire to
overtake and then undermine their interests (39).
In chapter 2, Rosenthal continues to build her case for recognizing prostitutes
as pivotal figures for the modeling of modern subjectivities, arguing that while
Bernard Mandeville may have taken a position on the treatment of prostitutes
in his Defence of Public Stews (1724) that appeared diametrically opposed to
that of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, what they shared was an
understanding of prostitution as a modern commercial enterprise that required
self-division. Although the Societies viewed prostitution as an impediment to
prosperity and Mandeville viewed it as a boon, their works provide further
support for Rosenthals claim that for many writers in the eighteenth century,
prostitution seemed to hold the secret to the ethical meaning of commercial
culture itself (45).
These ethical concerns are very much on display in Rosenthals third chap-
ter, which takes on Daniel Defoes Roxana (1724). Moving away from accounts
that focus on Roxana as mother, Rosenthal focuses on Roxanas status as an
economic agent in the marketplace and on the conflicted relationship she bears
to her potential embodiment as a new Mandevillian subjectivity, defined
by theatrical self-division and motivated by rational self-interest (74). Rosen-
thal traces the ways in which the Jewstereotyped in the eighteenth century
as ruthless, unfeeling, and relentless in the pursuit of wealthshadows and
haunts Roxana, serving as a foil to her own accumulative compulsion. Illumi-
nating once again one of the different possibilities opened up by situating
prostitutes in relation to the logic of commerce, Rosenthal is able to present
the somewhat shocking, but ultimately compelling argument that Roxana is
punished not for being a whore or for being a bad mother but rather for fail-
ing to divorce herself entirely from maternal affection and make a complete
sacrifice of her children. Unlike the Jew, who is able to maintain his distance
from desire and affection, Roxana seeks against her own material interests to
repair her self-division, to glimpse the possibility of wholeness beyond her split
Mandevillian performance (88). She is punished, then, not for running afoul
of domestic ideology through prostitution but because she inexplicably hangs
on to the hope of caring for these children rather than abandoning them to the
individualistic marketplace to which she herself has been abandoned (76).
In chapter 4, Rosenthal traces the two main strandsthe libertine and the
reformistthat dominated the prostitute narratives that flooded the print mar-

19433.TX_ECT_TheoryInterp_51_1-2.indd 238 9/20/10 10:46:13 AM


ketplace in the eighteenth century. Focusing on their shared fascination with

forms of self-distancing demanded by marketplace transactions, she argues
that, in both cases the prostitute emerges as an extreme version of an emergent
modern selfhood in her rational distance from herself (99100). While in the
libertine narratives such self-division was instrumental in ensuring a prosti-
tutes survival and economic mobility, in the reformist narratives it was both
the sign of her tragic condition and the basis for her redemption. By dwelling
on the endurance of sentimental feelings in the face of objectification, Rosen-
thal explains, reform narratives sought to assure their readers that even those
who live by their commodities do not entirely become commodities (120).
Ironically, as she points out, this was also precisely the fantasy offered in John
Clelands Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (174849): that Fanny could indulge
in the activities of economic alienation without incurring a concomitant loss of
In chapter 5, Rosenthal continues her exploration of the extent to which pros-
titute narratives served as the uneasy double for some of the most significant
works of the period. Tracing with great insight the significance of the house of
prostitution that stands at the center of Samuel Richardsons Clarissa, Rosenthal
contends that Clarissas heroism lies in her refusal to engage in exchange rela-
tions of any kind and hence in her resistance to the very conditions of modern
existence. In a compelling passage, she writes:

Clarissas tragic virtue . . . resides not in resistance to sexuality itself, but in the
refusal of the commodified exchange of sexual activity that threatens abjection
in both her family home and in Mrs. Sinclairs brothel. That Clarissa dies for this
refusal suggests not necessarily the authors idealization of an abstract economic
purity, but rather his recognition of the impossibility of survival without negotiat-
ing the vulnerable boundaries of the self. (130)

Observing Clarissas adamant and practically pathological refusal of all offers

of either restitution or aidthat is, of any gesture that would rewrite the rape
as either an exchange or the basis for an exchangeRosenthal concludes, what
defines Clarissas tragedy is Richardsons fundamental observation that in the
eighteenth centurys emergent capitalist economy, those who refuse contracts
cannot survive. Everyone has to alienate something. Clarissas quixotic heroism
consists in her refusal to do so (153).
In chapter 6, Rosenthal turns her attention to Henry Fieldings Tom Jones
(1749) in order to demonstrate that male prostitutes also provoke anxieties over
extreme possibilities of what the marketplace demands of those abandoned to
it (154). Noting that this is an aspect of this novel yet to be fully confronted,
Rosenthal challenges more conservative readings of the text and again opens up
different possibilities by reading Tom Jones in relation to the growing body of
popular stallion narratives which were circulating in the eighteenth century

19433.TX_ECT_TheoryInterp_51_1-2.indd 239 9/20/10 10:46:13 AM


and by focusing on the three affairs and range of sexual contractswith Molly,
with Jenny Jones/Mrs. Waters, and finally with Lady Bellastonthat organize
the novels plot. In a compelling and multifaceted reading that accounts for
why . . . Toms fate ultimately rest[s] in the hands of a prostitute, Rosenthal
demonstrates how the novel touches on the possibility of male descent from
security to urban anonymity with nothing but the bodys labor to sell (174,
156). In this context, she explains, Tom to his horror discovers that neither
his gender nor his privileged upbringing can protect his sexuality, and thus the
most intimate aspect of his identity, from commodification (158).
In a final chapter, Rosenthal extends the reach of her study by examining
the intersections of commercial and sexual transactions in representations of
travel to the South Seas. Focusing in particular on the debate over whether
prostitution already existed in the South Seas prior to contact with Europeans
or whether it was introduced by the incursions of foreign travelers and traders,
Rosenthal traces how in texts as divergent as the many satires of Omai, John
Hawkesworths Account of the Voyages Undertaken (1773), and Captain Cooks
journals, infamous commerce provides a critical trope either for representing
or for disclaiming Britains imperial ambitions. In effect, she argues, to nor-
malize a system of prostitution in these islands naturalized not just bourgeois
sexuality but certain kinds of commercial relations as well (189). As a conse-
quence, she explains, Rather than the violent potential conquest of one people
by another, contact emerges as contractual rather than exploitative (198).
Over the course of this ambitious study, Rosenthal makes a compelling case
that prostitutes and prostitute narratives played not only a critical but also an
essential role in modeling modern subjectivity and identity in the eighteenth
century. To the extent that they were shaped and governed by the conditions of
commerce, prostitutes could function as emblems of the individual in the public
marketplace and of the desire and the struggle to preserve a part of the self for
private exchange only. Given the studys wide range across canonical and non-
canonical texts, it is not surprising to find that at times critical concepts such as
self-division lose their efficacy, or that the idea of a core self is not probed as
itself an illusory concept invented to mitigate the anxieties attendant upon the
modern subject. But it is somewhat disappointing that Rosenthal steers away
from any sustained discussion of homosexual prostitution and the potential it
had to disrupt the sex/gender system upon which the private and public spheres
were built. These concerns, however, only point to the wealth of new possibilities
opened up by Rosenthals study and suggest directions for future studies that
may follow in her footsteps. Suffice it to say, here, that Rosenthal has certainly
changed the way we might read narratives of exchangesexual or otherwise.
She has demonstrated, moreover, that whether lamented or excoriated, to deny
the prostitute her market would be to nullify something fundamental not only
about modern capitalist conditions but also about the necessary and sustaining
fictions of modern subjectivities and modern identities.

19433.TX_ECT_TheoryInterp_51_1-2.indd 240 9/20/10 10:46:13 AM

Copyright of Eighteenth Century: Theory & Interpretation (University of Pennsylvania Press) is the property of
University of Pennsylvania Press and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a
listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or
email articles for individual use.