Saturday, April 16, 2005


The Mack Daddy of Covent Garden

Before there were tart cards in British phone booths, there was Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies:

For almost 30 years from 1757, Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies was the essential gentleman's accessory for a night on the town. Historian Hallie Rubenhold estimates it sold at least 250,000 copies. It offered very particular advice, guiding clients to the doorstep of Miss Smith, of Duke's Court in Bow Street, "a well made lass, something under the middle size, with dark brown hair and a good complexion"; warning them off Miss Robinson, at the Jelly Shops, "a slim and genteel made girl - but rather too flat"; and kindly including Mrs Hamblin, No 1 Naked-Boy Court in the Strand.... The alleged author was as famous as his book. Jack Harris, real name John Harrison... His ghosted autobiography called him "Pimp General to the People of England".

But now, The Guardian reports, it appears that the real author was Samuel Derrick, poet and actor, and wannabe friend of Dr. Johnson.

The Guardian, though, has not included any of the really randy descriptions from the guide that are buried halfway into a more detailed account over at the Times. Like most such things once considered dirty, the Guide is now a fascinating sociological artifact. In reviewing Bradford Mudge's When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature, this same Times article quotes Mudge's very useful observation on such matters: "Pornography names a debate, not a thing; (it is) a controversy about where to place the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate cultural artefacts, not an unchanging category of stylistically similar, generically consistent objects”.

The Times notes, interestingly, that in the old days the British Library had a special place reserved for their really smutty stuff:

The North Library was reserved for: those consulting rare books; ladies (under an arcane 19th-century rule) who sought refuge from unwelcome attention; and anyone reading items from the “closed” cabinet. The “dirty desk” was directly under the eye of the librarian. The story went that readers were required to keep both hands visible at all times.

They had the "closed cabinet" and shy ladies assigned to the same location? Oh, you cheeky librarians...

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