The Forum: Journal of History


Aiden Evans


Prostitution in London’s West End came to constitute a multidimensional transgression for middle-class observers during the late-Victorian period, contesting traditional distinctions between West and East, middle-class and working-class, and public and private life. First, through the use of Late Victorian urban exploration narratives, I will show that urban explorers applied a rigid conceptual framework to identify the working-class prostitutes occupying London’s affluent West-End. Rooted in class-based hierarchies, these systems of identification presumed that working-class prostitutes were categorically distinct, visible, and undisguisable in London’s West End. Moreover, I argue that this conceptual framework reveals the authors’ binary understandings of prostitutes’ public and private life, which assigned middle-class prostitutes to the domestic and private realms and relegated working-class prostitutes to the observable public. Additionally, I will show that working-class prostitutes contested the urban explorer’s system of identification by adopting middle-class modes of fashion, dress, and expression. Ultimately, I hope to show that these transgressive activities subverted urban spectators’ systems of knowledge on multiple levels. First, they challenged bourgeois understandings of the working-class as an object of empirical study and a source of male pleasure, rendering the activities of working-class prostitutes effectively “unreadable.” Second, they confused traditional middle- class conceptualizations of public life, as groups traditionally relegated to marginalized sectors of London unobtrusively entered middle-class social spaces. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these activities conflicted with the middle-class observer’s traditional understanding of the West End as a familiar location in the urban environment, decreasing their ability to reliably monitor this affluent sector of the London metropolis.