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Catharine Arnold – The Sexual History of London

February 13, 2012

LibraryThing Early Reviewers12. The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City – Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages by Catharine Arnold (2010)

Length: 384 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Started: 29 January 2012
Finished: 04 February 2012

Where did it come from? LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Why do I have it? I saw this not long after having read the first of the Lord John books, and I thought learning more about London’s sexual underworld through history sounded interesting.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 02 December 2011.

A look at the world’s
oldest profession in one
of its big cities.

Summary: For all that the Brits are supposed to be repressed and uptight, London’s always had a bit of a reputation when it comes to sex. Arnold takes readers on a historical tour of sex in the city, from the slave girls brought in to service the Roman soldiers of Londinium to the the modern exploits of Belle Du Jour.

Review: While the topic of this book sounds fascinating, I was disappointed in its execution. This disappointment boils down to one thing: a misleading title, and a too-narrow focus. I feel like this book promises a broad overview of the history of sex, the attitudes surrounding sex, etc., but what it actually delivers is 90% just a history of one kind of sex, namely prostitution. There are occasional chapters dedicated to other topics, such as the Victorian interest in erotica, the Hellfire Club and other eighteenth century homosexual activities, and Oscar Wilde and the love that dare not speak its name, most of the book was about prostitution.

To be fair, Arnold covers the history of prostitution with remarkable thoroughness, going back some 2000 years, and covering every segment of society – from high-class courtesans and mistresses to poor women suffering on the street. I can also understand why she focuses on prostitution; it leaves a historical paper trail, in the form of legislation and court cases, in way that more private sex acts typically do not, so Arnold had much more source material to work from. However, after several hundred pages of reading about these laws and arrests, I was left with the impression that the more things change, the more they stay the same (and indeed Arnold’s last chapter, on sex in the 21st century, is entitled “Plus Ça Change”). While that’s a fine point to make, it did mean that I often felt like I was reading the same things over and over again; the life of a prostitute during the Restoration was not that different from the life of a prostitute during the Victorian era, and things started to feel repetitive after a while.

I was also not crazy about Arnold’s style of presenting the information. She handles her primary sources nicely, incorporating plenty of quotes while still making it sound like she’s got something of her own to say, and she manages to present the subject in such a way that walks a fine line between overly dry and overly vulgar. However, I didn’t find her style of writing particularly lively – perhaps due to the amount of time spent describing repetitive arrests and court cases, as I mentioned above – and I kept wishing I could have seen this information as presented by someone like Mary Roach.

Overall, while there is plenty of interesting information in this book, I feel like the book described itself as the history of sex and then primarily discussed only sex that’s been paid for, and I was left wanting something with a less narrow focus. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you’re interested in a history of British prostitution, this book is your ticket, but if you’re looking for a broader picture about the history of sex more generally, you’d be better served elsewhere.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: When it comes to sex, London has always had a bit of a reputation.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 87: “James also included a clause ‘for the prevention of connivance’ designed to prevent beadles being bribed by the prostitutes, but this ordinance made no difference.” – a parish officer having various subordinate duties, as keeping order during services, waiting on the rector, etc.
  • p. 127: “This menu covers almost the entire range of specialties available at a high-class brotherl: […] defloration – of a soi-disant virgin – flagellation and a stud for the female client, who is charged far more for this service than her male counterpart.” – so-called or pretended.
  • p. 129: “Fanny Hill is essentially a titillating saga about a lively country girl who is forced to live on her wits in London by prostituting herself, and was accurately described by the lubricious James Boswell as ‘a most licentious and inflaming book’.” – arousing or expressive of sexual desire; lustful; lecherous.
  • p. 177: “She romanticized her origins, hammed up her Scouse accent and entranced her admirers with a winning combination of classical beauty and a mouth like a docker.” – a person who lives in or comes from Liverpool.
  • p. 181: “In the haze of tobacco smoke, the heat and glare of gas, the excitement of strong drink and the unrestrained licence of many of the most prominent visitors, a ‘ballet’ would be performed by a throng of bold women, two-score half-naked girls and middle-aged women, all painted and raddled, brassy smiles plastered across their weary faces as they skipped and pranced in response to the applause that greeted an indecent gesture or an obscene leer; these were the dancers who were willing to divest themselves of the last remaining shreds of modesty – and most of their clothes as well.” – to color coarsely.
  • p. 314: “A society osteopath who numbered Winston Churchill, Ava Gardner and Douglas Fairbanks Jr among his clients, Ward was a social climber who ensured a constant stream of invitations by supplying a steady flow of attractive girls to the establishment.” – a person who practises osteopathy.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2012 10:56 am

    That’s too bad you didn’t like this a bit more. It does sound interesting!

    • February 23, 2012 3:55 pm

      It’s got a ton of good info, I just wanted a bit more variety.

  2. February 13, 2012 7:21 pm

    Reading about prostitution doesn’t sound that great to me, so I’ll skip this one. Thanks for the review.

  3. February 13, 2012 7:52 pm

    I do actually like reading about prostitution, so I could totally go for this — now that my expectations have been tempered not to want a general overview of London and sex. :)

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