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The Victim, after John Collet, 1780

It is safe to say that selling sex constituted a significant, and visible, part of urban culture in Georgian England. Over the course of the eighteenth century the multitude of ways in which the prostitute could be represented meant that the ‘whore’ remained a particularly prevalent character in popular and political discourse. Alongside the glamorous courtesans, beautiful young nymphs, sinfully happy hookers and hideous wretches offering their services for “a pint of wine and a shilling”, The Victim gives a face to a figure who became an increasingly familiar creature from around the 1740s onwards – the young innocent betrayed into a life of vice and exploitation, by false promises or by force.

The narrative of the print is clear enough. The central figure, a rather portly woman, presents a young and heavily made-up girl to an elderly gent, who, although he lacks the strength to stand, eagerly closes his fingers round her dainty wrist. Not feeling the need to impress his company with formalities, he sits in his night-cap and dressing-gown, and although he too is flushed, it is from a different cause altogether. The girl herself cannot bear to set eyes on her intended seducer, and she turns away, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. It is, however, too late. She owes her finery (and no doubt the bed she has been sleeping in) to her respectable-looking but conniving companion, a bawdy-house (or brothel) keeper. By refusing, she would be condemning herself to a life on the streets, or perhaps Madam might accuse her of stealing the expensive clothes and commit her to Bridewell. The iconography of the room none too subtly reinforces the evil intent of her associates. On the left a cat and a grinning monkey mirror the postures of the couple, and a painting hanging on the wall depicts a sheep about to be sacrificed at the altar. Racy books such as the “Art of Love” and the writings of the notorious libertine the 2nd Earl of Rochester are strewn on the floor, with the former propping up a bottle of “Viper Wine.” A concoction apparently used in the 17th century by “gray-bearded gallants” to “feele new lust, and youthfull flames agin”, it also hints at the fact that the virtue of this young maiden is about to be poisoned with vice. The verse of an open book laments her fate with the words:

This Bud of Beauty, other Years demands, Nor should be gather’d by such wither’d hands.

The overall effect of the image is to intimate that, unlike the insatiable strumpets merrily plying their trade in the Restoration era, the “rabble of Harlots” populating Georgian England’s streets could be viewed with a more compassionate eye. The seducer, and perhaps even more vehemently the manipulative Madam, came to represent the evils of prostitution.

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