The Prostitute's Body: Rewriting Prostitution in Victorian Britain by Nina Attwood (review)

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The central figures in Nina Attwood’s The Prostitute’s Body—William Acton, Josephine Butler, Wilkie Collins, and that shifty bastard, the anonymous john sometimes called Walter—have been much discussed in feminist, historical, and literary-critical circles over the last thirty years. By focusing on these widely discussed writers, Attwood turns attention to their representational economies, specifically those around the figure of the prostitute. And The Prostitute’s Body does, indeed, thicken the account of Victorian culture’s representational structure. Blending a historian’s insistence on textual accuracy with a literary critic’s receptivity to voice and language, Attwood aims to enrich ongoing discussions about the prostitute’s representation. This argumentative modesty appeals: drawing attention to the representational complexity surrounding the prostitute, Attwood hopes to challenge the limiting stereotype of the contagious fallen woman, whose complicity in sexual exchange streamlines her descent to death. One difficulty with a principle of modesty is that Attwood’s work comes after thirty years of feminist intervention that, in part, worked across disciplinary boundaries to dislodge the connection between a woman’s entrance into sexual exchange and her immiseration. Another problem is modesty’s requirement that argumentative lines be clearly marked and carefully focused. In practice, this mark is hard to meet; Attwood insists on the nuance and subtlety of her account without fully developing where this new precision can be employed. The writers with whom Attwood most carefully engages, Amanda Anderson and Judith Walkowitz, bridge the book’s disciplinary divide. At times, it’s hard to see where Attwood improves on Walkowitz’s searching accounts of these same primary sources, and it’s easy to see where Attwood’s purported resistance to what Anderson calls “aggrandized agency” fails (11). In Anderson’s account, certain critical positions—especially those focused on sex, sexuality, and gender—encourage their practitioners to imagine their subjects as either fully victimized by their political contexts or, somewhat uncannily, able to escape those contexts by manipulating and subverting cultural contrivances. Attwood recognizes the problems in these accounts but, periodically, slips into a similar mode. As a practitioner, Collins’s critique is “blunted” by novelistic conventions, but his novel’s ending “subverts” those same paradigms (120). Another subject, Acton, uses language of “contagion, filth and pollution” to describe prostitutes (33), while also contradicting this image with a vision of the prostitute as “healthier” than the average woman (35). Attwood resolves this with a claim for Acton’s prescience: he “work[s] within the existing mythology of the Victorian prostitute, just as he also undermine[s] certain aspects of it” (40). A word more on this description of Acton’s “healthy” prostitutes: Attwood draws attention to a passage in Prostitution (1857), wherein Acton explains the difference between the public women he’s encountered and the imagined, syphilitic figure of the prostitute. Acton writes: “The fact of a girl’s seduction generally warrants her possession of youth, health, good looks, and a well-proportioned frame—qualifications usually incompatible with a feeble constitution” (qtd. in Attwood 35). From this point—that the young women who are seduced into prostitution are healthy, and thus slower to decline into a syphilitic stupor—Attwood draws evidence of Acton’s “complex” view of the prostitute (35). But Acton’s point seems to be that syphilis, if unchecked in persons of “feeble” constitutions, results in physical deterioration—a sunken nose, for example, or a decayed palate. According to Acton, young women “seduced” into prostitution are not typically “feeble,” their attractiveness being the very thing that spurs on men to seduction. In other words, what we see is Acton—despite his own evidence to the contrary—adopting the view that seduction, not economic want or agency, causes most prostitution—something Walkowitz’s Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980) has shown to be more representation than fact. Here, Attwood disregards the workings of Acton’s novelistic imagination. Instead, Acton’s “healthiness” connects more to the soft, round bodies of fictional quasi-heroines (the Fannys on their novelistic by-paths) whose seductions, warnings to their novels’ true heroines, are their narrative reasons for being. Similarly, early in her fourth chapter, Attwood dispatches with Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) to emphasize the...

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