Non-fiction November highlight: Review of The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold

It feels so strange posting on here after what seems like years. Since my last post in May I’ve been pretty uninspired to write but I have been having heaps of fun over on Bookstagram and making new friends over a shared love of reading, and it’s a love of a book that has brought me back on here to post — that and the fact that my review is too long for Booksta (no surprises there).

So, straight to it.

I have been wanting to read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Covent Garden Ladies for SO LONG. On my commutes to work almost a year and a half ago I’d been listening to a podcast called Hidden Histories presented by Helen Carr, and there was one episode where she was speaking about prostitution in Georgian era London with Hallie Rubenhold. This was when I first put The Covent Garden Ladies on my TBR, but I soon completely forgot about it — it was only when I’d simultaneously started reading The Five by Hallie Rubenhold and watching the TV show Harlots (inspired by The Covent Garden Ladies) earlier this year that I remembered the book existed! I then found out that a new cover was being released that matched the design of the one for The Five, so I pre-ordered it and waited impatiently, deciding I’d read it as part of ‘Non-Fiction November’.

The Covent Garden Ladies – Hallie Rubenhold
(London: Black Swan, 2020)

Synopsis from the blub:

In 1757, a down-and-out Irish poet, the head waiter at the Shakespear’s Head Tavern in Covent Garden, and a celebrated London courtesan became bound together by the publication of a little book: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. This salacious work — detailing the names and ‘specialities’ of the capital’s sex workers — became one of the eighteenth century’s most scandalous bestsellers.

Yet beyond its titillating pages lies a glimpse into the lives of those who lived and died by its profits — a tragicomic opera of the Georgian era, motivated by poverty, passionate love, aspiration and shame.

In this modern and visceral narrative, historian Hallie Rubenhold reveals the story behind Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, and the legion of ordinary women whose lives in the sex trade history has chosen to ignore.

Considering this book was originally released fifteen years ago now, it’s an incredible feat. As I realised when reading The Five, Rubenhold has a unique ability to develop the perfect blend between historical non-fiction and imagination. I’ve seen some negative reviews criticising the way Rubenhold writes about history, that she blindly ‘fills in the gaps’ with hyperbole or assumed truth when the facts are missing, but this is the magic of her narrative, in my opinion. If you only want the facts, read a textbook. Rubenhold realistically fleshes out the lives that history sometimes only offers us glimpses of; she helps us imagine the worlds of the various people she introduces us to, takes us on a journey and helps us smell, taste, and more importantly, feel. There is love, laughter and tragedy throughout The Covent Garden Ladies. There is danger, rivalry, and competition; suffering, hope, luck, ambition. You experience it all.

My only qualm is that the feminist undertone in The Covent Garden Ladies is just that: an undertone. The lives of the prostitutes are not explored in too much detail (with the exception of Charlotte Hayes) because the focus of this book was to explore the history of Jack Harris’ List itself — its origins, publication and legacy, and the three main people involved during its heyday. In this new 2020 edition of The Covent Garden Ladies, there is a foreword by Rubenhold who acknowledges this herself; she admits ‘I was not so attuned to the flippant tone taken by those telling these women’s stories; I am much more so now.’ Beyond the descriptions of Harris’s women (which are more often that not derogatory even when Sam Derrick is praising their talents), their nicknames, ages and places of residence, we still know very little about them. If The Covent Garden Ladies had been written more recently (like The Five), I have no doubt Rubenhold would offer a much more complex and critically feminist analysis of Harris’s List and an even deeper understanding of the hardships of those who had entered into the sex trade, be it through force (rape), the threat of poverty and famine, or otherwise.

However, in many ways, I don’t think we need an updated version of the book; it’s a product of its time, and since then, as I mentioned above, Harlots has been released. Rubenhold is credited as a writer on all twenty-four of its magnificent episodes (first aired in 2017). Of course, names have been changed to better fit the narrative and characterisation, and events dramatised, but Harlots really does give us what is perhaps lacking from Rubenhold’s original non-fiction. The show is all about the women and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s unapologetic in its profanity, sizzles with drama (I actually gasped out loud at one particular episode) and has so much heart, I cried my eyes out (but let’s face it, when don’t I).  If you’ve already seen Harlots, I’d still read The Covent Garden Ladies for its brilliant historical context and Rubenhold’s rich narrative. In a way, watching Harlots first made me appreciate The Covent Garden Ladies more because I knew how much research had gone into both the book and the creation of the show.

I’ve bestowed the highest ratings possible on The Five, Harlots and The Covent Garden Ladies, so I can’t wait to see what Rubenhold does next.

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