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The Naked Anthropologist · Women selling sex in the postwar London of Doris Lessing | The Naked Anthropologist

The postwar London of Doris Lessing: Sex work in fiction

b9a907e1e2523f49ac6e82860572f05eThe Four-Gated City was published in 1969 by Doris Lessing. The passage quoted below describes a single young woman walking west on the Bayswater Road in 1950. The woman is Martha Quest, recently arrived in London from southern Africa, a migrant from colonies considered peripheral observing life in the presumed cosmopolitan centre. Her route takes her from a middle-class dinner held east of Marble Arch to a poor squat in Notting Hill. The photo above shows another part of London at the same period; the photo below the young Lessing.

29lessing-master675-1Note the absence of moral comment and that the job of the police is to make sure the marketplace functions peacefully.

Now she slowed, almost stopped in surprise at a cool hard getaway look from a young woman who stood with her back to a hedge. Of course, she had passed another invisible boundary. From here until Queensway, the pavements were lined with prostitutes, standing singly or in pairs, dozens of them, along the pavements. But Martha was freer here than she had been in that other territory she had only just left, whose boundary was simply a bisecting street. She was protected precisely by the line of girls for sale, who knew she wasn’t one of their trade union and because their hostile warning faces that said go away, you shouldn’t be here, kept her safe from being accosted. Three kinds of animal here. The women, standing with their backs to the hedges, on sale. The ordinary traffic of the pavement – but a slight traffic, mostly couples hurrying past the marketplace, keeping close under the lights, looking embarrassed, as if they were here by mistake, yet glancing furtively at the buying and bargaining.

NYC39209The customers, men of all ages, walking slowly past the women, or standing under the trees smoking, making choices. And across the street, policemen, spaced out with twenty or thirty yards between each couple, not looking directly at the haggling and dealing, but observing it sideways to make sure that it went on without incident. Martha walked more slowly than she had had to walk in the part of the street she had left. All the way down the street, by lit airy trees, they stood. Although it lightly drizzled, they wore summer dresses, bare necked, bare shouldered; and high thick sandals with bared insteps; and sometimes they held a jaunty umbrella. But there was no elegance here either. They weren’t well-dressed. They shared the national disposition towards gracelessness.

82867b7fe426e102857aaf9970f08b72There has been a war on. Suppose one of these men who was making up for the starvation of the war… approached one of the girls saying: I’d like you to wear … whatever was his fantasy, would she snap back: There’s been a war on, you know? Yes, very probably … Martha found herself imagining rooms where furniture, curtains, objects had charm, had flair, and a girl with charm, flair, undressed slowly to show off wittily charming underclothes – a man’s fantasy? Perhaps in all this city it was only these girls’ rooms where there was anything attractive, gay, rightly made? Well, not from the way they were dressed as they stood on the pavement.

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

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