The author of Room, Slammerkin, and Astray picks five of the best historical fictions about the oldest profession.
Considering that I have no personal experience of either selling it or paying for it, I’ve been oddly preoccupied (as both reader and writer) with prostitution all my life. For me it’s the ur-job, the original trade, the one that stands for all the other bargains in which we rent out our time or energy. For pre-20th-century women, in particular, whoring and marriage could be described as the two default positions.
1. Roxana by Daniel Defoe.
This unsettling last novel by the early master of English fiction focuses on a highborn woman—one of whose pseudonyms is Roxana—forced to resort to prostitution. Its subtitle, The Fortunate Mistress, is ironic, because our first-person heroine’s moves up and down the social ladder may earn her a fortune, but also entangle her in complicated miseries, including twelve children and an obsessively devoted maid.
2. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor.
This bodice-ripper about Restoration England, banned in fourteen US states, was the bestselling novel in 1940s America. Published at almost a thousand pages, it had been edited down from a manuscript five times as long. A meaty story of one woman trading her way up a ladder of men while saving her heart for one, it’s a richly satisfying, read, and contains the most memorable scenes of the Great Fire and Plague that I’ve encountered.
3. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters.
Waters’s cheeky debut follows her oyster-girl protagonist through many adventures, but perhaps the most interesting and atmospheric is her stint as a rent-boy. This novel captures the fundamental fakery of prostitution—how, for the Victorian gentleman who thinks the trousered youth giving him a blow-job is male, what he’s buying is as much fantasy as flesh.
4. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter.
The punningly named, 6-foot-2, winged heroine Fevvers flies her way through 1890s Europe. This almost indescribable 1984 novel by the late lamented Angela Carter takes historical realities—brothels, freak shows, circuses—and restages them with a whorish cackle. I usually avoid anything labeled postmodernism, but Carter makes it seem as fun as realism and ten times smarter.
5. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber.
I devoured this in hospital right after giving birth to our first child: now that’s what I call an engrossing novel. Sugar is a memorably tough and smart whoreoine, whose itchy, flaky skin actually contributes to her erotic allure. (Still can’t figure out how Faber pulls this off.) Her keeper’s unstable wife is the white petal to Sugar’s crimson, different but akin, and Faber structures a thrilling drama around this pairing, with an ending that will make you cheer.
And one extra: a novel I can’t recommend, exactly, because I don’t know its title or author and haven’t been able to track it down, for all my Googling. All I can tell you is that I found it underneath the bed of one of my four big sisters—where all the rude books in our house lived—some time in the 1970s or early 80s. It’s a lurid tale of little girls kidnapped (sometimes smuggled in coffins) and prostituted in Victorian London. At the climax, a keen brothel-goer, father of a stolen child, is ushered by a Madame into a bedroom to try out the new arrival—who turns out to be his own daughter. I still get the shudders when I recall that lost book. Pulp fiction, no doubt, but it horrified and gripped me more than almost any literary titles I read, and no doubt warped my tender mind so I ended up decades later writing whorestorical fiction myself.