I came to this both this book and to Hallie Rubenhold after inhaling Harlots on Starzplay (where the incomparable Samantha Morton’s décolletage should get a starring credit all of its own) which was inspired by this book, which was itself inspired by the notorious Harris’s List –a who’s who of the ladies whose time and bodies who could be bought in 18th century England.
The Covent Garden Ladies charts the careers of three figures who were linked to the list – the pimp John Harrison (aka Harris) who inspired the list, the writer who wrote and published the list (Samuel Derrick), and one of its stars (Charlotte Hayes). Rubenhold has done a great job of taking what was essentially just a list of ladies alongside their attributes and their prices, and turning into a very human story.
As with her other books, what really comes across is just how precarious life was for anybody who wasn’t extremely wealthy – each of our ‘stars’ spent some time being considerably rich for their before landing in prison (and interestingly, none of them went to prison for anything more criminal than being in debt) – although of course it was far more precarious for women. Even Charlotte’s status as one of the more celebrated and sought after sex workers of her day didn’t stop her from having to fight tooth and claw to survive, which makes you wonder just how bleak were the lives of some the less beautiful, and less fortunate.
Once again Rubenhold has written a fascinating book centred around the lives of women, and one that has made me more grateful than ever to have been born in the 20th century.