Reflections on the oldest profession.
It always thrilled me to go through that narrowing in the road, not because it was our turn at last, but because I believed, as soon as I was old enough to remember the inn's name, that the famous highwayman Dick Turpin had jumped from its upper window straight onto the back of his equally famous mare, Black Bess, to escape the arresting officers, and then rode straight to York without stopping. (The bar on the second floor of the inn is still called the Turpin Bar.) Soon after his arrival in York, in 1739, he was hanged, which was a bit of a shame because he was such a handsome gentleman, who was gallant and charming to ladies, and who robbed the rich only to succour the poor. I suppose I must have come by this knowledge somehow, yet it seemed to have communicated itself to me directly, without intermediary, via the atmosphere: at any rate, it was the kind of thing that everyone knew.
For forty years, I thought no further of Dick Turpin, but having accumulated rather more knowledge of human nature than I possessed then, and having through my work made the acquaintance of some hundreds of robbers, I was not really surprised to read in a newly published book, Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, (1) that he was not a gentleman at all, but a cruel, cowardly, unscrupulous, murderous villain, a career criminal, who thought nothing of the rape of the servants of the households he and his gang broke into, or of beating old people to extract from them the whereabouts of their money. He was without redeeming features, even physically, being heavily pockmarked by the smallpox. He never had a horse called Black Bess, and though he did indeed make his way to York, it was not in the dramatic fashion of the legend. As for the Spaniards Inn, it is unlikely that he was ever there, since the building, though of sixteenth century origin, was not used as an inn until after his death. There was nothing romantic about him in the least.
It turns out that my knowledge of Turpin (if one can be said to know something that is not true) was derived from a novel by Harrison Ainsworth, who was famous in the 1830s and 1840s, but is now almost forgotten except by specialists. In 1834, Ainsworth published a gothic novel called Rookwood, in which Turpin appeared in a sub-plot. This was the resurrection of the highwayman's reputation, who--though notorious in his own day--had been almost entirely forgotten in the meantime. It was Ainsworth, not history in Leopold yon Ranke's sense, that gave us Black Bess and the ride to York. My thrill was pure ersatz.
It is curious how a novel, not merely unread but quite unheard of, could have exerted such an effect upon me, and presumably on many others.
My early knowledge of burglars was derived from British comics, in which they always appeared as jolly coves dressed in black and white hooped jerseys, with a bag slung over their back marked "Swag," to help the rather dim officers of the law find them out. (Today's equivalent would be the minor drug dealers who have themselves tattooed all over with bright green cannabis leaves.) When finally caught, the burglars in the comics always said, with great good humor, "It's a fair cop, guv." We could laugh at them in those days, because there were so few of them, our houses were not broken into, and they were so endearing: for they were thieves with hearts of gold.
My other source of information about burglars and burglary was the work of E. W Hornung, possibly a distant ancestor of mine. He invented the character of A. J. Raffles, the gentleman-burglar. For Raffles, crime was a game, in the sense of the motto inscribed on a frieze outside Lord's Cricket Ground in St. John's Wood: Play up, play up, and play the game! When Raffles fails to relieve a vulgar South African diamond magnate of his diamond shirt studs, the failure does not upset him: it is the gallantry of the attempt that counts.
What mattered to Raffles was the outward form with which one did something, not its moral meaning. (The first Raffles book, The Amateur Cracksman, was published in 1899, and was a manifestation of fin de siecle aestheticism, transposed to crime literature. When Raffles's partner in crime, an old school chum called Bunny, objects that a theft is not necessary because they are still in funds, Raffles replies, "Necessity, my dear Bunny? ... You pain me, my dear chap. Art for art's sake is a vile catchword, but I confess it appeals to me. In this case my motives are absolutely pure ... if I don't have a try ... I shall never be able to hold up my head again.") The thrill and fun of burglary, not avarice or the vulgar desire for accumulation, were what impelled him. He was idle but clever, languid but energetic, nonchalant but aesthetically discriminating. He was effortlessly superior. His gentle birth gave him an entree into the highest society, and he was never at a loss as to what to say to a dowager duchess, though he could disguise himself in rags and pass himself off as a denizen of White-chapel in London's East End. Morality was for him a petit bourgeois prejudice, not at all comme il faut:
Raffles would plan a fresh enormity, or glory in the last, with the unmitigated enthusiasm of the artist. It was frankly impossible to imagine one throb or twitter of compunction beneath those frankly egoistic and infectious transports.
Being comme il faut was his highest, indeed his only, good.
Armed with this information about the life of burglars, derived from comics and E. W. Hornung, I met my first burglar. He was also a safe-breaker, but of no professional distinction. He was admitted to the hospital in which I was working as a junior doctor. Until then, it had never really occurred to me that someone might actually, in real life as against in fiction, live by stealing. He was a small man who struck me as pathetic and frightened rather than amoral and assured, like Raffles. It turned out that he was not without cunning, however (cunning is the intelligence of the stupid): there was nothing medically wrong with him, and he was using the hospital to hide from the police, such being the twentieth-century equivalent of sanctuary. He seemed to be possessed of a sixth sense, for no sooner had he left the hospital than the police showed up, desultorily searching for him.
He told me lugubriously that his last safe-breaking job had not been an outstanding success. He had been informed--misinformed, actually--that a safe of a kind easily broken into was stuffed with cash. He broke into the premises and found the safe all right, but the safe proved much harder to crack than he had anticipated. In fact, it took him several hours, and when finally it yielded to his wiles, he found an almost empty packet of Woodbines, a brand of cheap cigarette, in it, and nothing else. Oh well, you win some and you lose some: he sat down to smoke one of the two cigarettes, to console himself for his fruitless hours of labor. It was then that the police arrived. If you added the prison time to his hours of labor, he could by honest toil have earned a million Woodbines.
During his stay in the hospital, another patient on the ward announced that some money she had had in her locker had gone missing. The burglar and safe-breaker had the motive, the opportunity, and the necessary character. Moreover, he had an artificial leg, which would make a very convenient hiding place for the cash. Flushed with pride at my powers of deduction, I made the burglar take off his artificial leg, despite his ridiculous protestations of innocence, and I tipped it upside down, and shook it. No money fell out. I shook it again, because I was sure that it was there, but it wasn't. Obviously he had hidden it somewhere else, somewhere less obvious. Then the patient who said the money was missing announced that she had found it again, exactly where she had put it. The burglar enjoyed for once the pleasure of being in the right, and savored his triumph as I sheepishly apologized to him. Secretly, I still believed in his guilt: he had stolen the money, but had returned it when a hue and cry broke out on the ward. By such ad hoc subterfuges do we preserve ourselves from acknowledging our mistakes.
I learned from this experience not to jump too hastily to conclusions, even about inveterate wrongdoers. But I also learned what my subsequent experience, which includes an acquaintance with several hundred burglars at least, has confirmed, namely not to place too great a reliance on a haphazard knowledge of imaginative literature for an accurate picture of the world. For example, not one among the burglars I have known has ever echoed Rafftes's brief attempt, made purely en passant, to justify his activities, to the effect that the distribution of property of property in society is all wrong anyway, though it is true that I have known a few "ethical" burglars who claimed never to steal from the old or from children, and one who stole antiques from country houses on the grounds that the owners could easily afford their losses. Acquisitive crime has no grand motive or justification in the minds of those who commit it: burglary is not a conscious revenge on abstract economic injustice, but an attempt to acquire what it would otherwise take time and diligence to acquire.
My first acquaintance with prostitution was likewise literary. The bawds of Shakespeare were known to me before the facts of life; but I saw at once, without knowing exactly what was morally wrong with her, than an evening with Mistress Overdone would be far more fun than one with the righteous Isabella.
My first flail contact with a prostitute, though, was in Maupassant. Astonishing, indeed incredible, as it may now seem, considering that I am not yet perfectly ancient, but only into that personal epoch that my piano teacher, while helping himself to a second slice of cream sponge, called middle-age spread, Maupassant was considered in my childhood to be a rather dangerous and unreliable author, at least for the tender young mind. When the BBC televized dramatizations of some of his stories, parents were advised to ensure that their children were safely tucked up in bed: in those days, evidently, it was still possible to corrupt youth.
But I was educated at the time of the great instauration, when self-control became the queen of the pathogens. Maupassant was taught to me in school, I think, not only because he wrote French of such exemplary limpidity, but at least as much because he could be used to undermine the bourgeois moral certainties that appeared to the intellectuals of the time to have congealed as unattractively as mutton fat on a cold plate, and that impeded their access to immediate self-gratification.
Be that as it may, it was Boule de Suif and La Maison Tellier that I read. The lesson of these stories was that true virtue was not incompatible with easy virtue, that the externals of conventional morality often concealed a deep inner cynicism and amorality, and that goodness of heart and generosity of spirit were to be found in those whom the respectable of the world usually despised. These were lessons that were grateful to the ear of the age.
Boule de Suif takes place immediately after the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian War. A group of people travel in a coach from Rouen to Dieppe, in the hope of reaching Le Havre, which is still controlled by the French. Among them are a local aristocrat, an unscrupulous wine-dealer, and a cotton merchant, as well as their wives and two nuns. They are the respectable party. Then there is Boule de Suif (literally Ball of Tallow), a fat and jolly prostitute.
Their journey is in the middle of winter, and takes far longer than anticipated. Bottle de Suif is the only one who has had the foresight to bring provisions, which she shares with the other passengers, whose hunger overcomes their reluctance to enter into relations with such a fallen creature.
They reach an inn where they intend to stay the night, and where the local Prussian commander is billeted. Although they have prior authority from a Prussian general to continue their journey, the local officer refuses them that permission, unless Boule de Suif agrees to submit to his amorous advances. At first, and only very briefly, the respectable passengers are united with Boule de Suif in her outraged and patriotic refusal to comply, but after the elapse of a day, their attitude changes. They send the innkeeper to propose to the Prussian officer that they continue on their journey while Boule de Suif remains, but he rejects the proposal out of hand. Then they find arguments as to why Boule de Suif should submit: she is a prostitute anyway, so one more liaison won't matter much, and many famous women have sacrificed their virtue for their countries; the nuns find examples of saints who allowed themselves to be ravaged for God's sake.
In the end, Boule de Suif submits to the Prussian officer's demands, and the next day they are all able to continue on their journey. But having demanded this sacrifice of her, the respectable party now despises her, as a fallen woman, for having made it. The final insult is that they will not share their provisions, which they bought at the inn while she was buying their release with her body, with her.
It is all so brilliantly done--a triumphant vindication of Flaubert's intense tuition of Maupassant--that you cannot help but be outraged on Boule de Suif's behalf. Because of Maupassant's narrative technique, his refusal to comment in the authorial voice, and his use of unemotive language, you don't realize how the dice have been loaded and your feelings manipulated. Boule de Suif is the only character in the story with a good heart; she is jolly and generous, and is shamelessly exploited by the "respectable" passengers. Bourgeois morality is revealed as a veneer, a hypocritical pretense that is stripped away at the first intimation of inconvenience. Even the patriotism of the bourgeoisie is skin-deep and far less important to them than attachment to property (echoing Marx's dictum that capital has no homeland). Only the prostitute in the story, she who pursues an occupation despised by all right-thinking persons, has any real feeling for her country and fellow-citizens.
La Maison Tcllier is a small brothel in the Normandy port of Fecamp, patronized by the local bourgeoisie. One day, Madame Tellier's brother, who lives in the countryside, invites her to his daughter's first communion. (He hopes that Madame Tellier, a childless widow, will leave her property to her, an instance of the peasant acquisitiveness that is a theme of Maupassant's writing. Madame Tellier's brother is not in the slightest concerned by the moral origins of her comparative wealth: for him, money is money and a house is a house. If Maupassant excoriates the bourgeoisie, he has no illusions about the peasantry.)
Madame Tellier, having no deputy, has to take her staff of prostitutes with her to the communion. The villagers where it takes place are deeply impressed by their finery and sophistication, and during the service, the prostitutes, remembering the innocence of their own childhoods, experience an epiphany, and communicate their religious ecstasy by sobs and tears to the whole congregation. Towards the end of the service, the priest says:
"My dear brethren and sisters, and children, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You have just given me the greatest joy of my life. I felt that God was down among us in response to my call. He came, He was there, present, filling your souls, causing your tears to overflow. I am the oldest priest in the diocese, and today I am the happiest. A miracle has taken place among us, a true, a great, a sublime miracle. While Jesus Christ was entering the bodies of these little children for the first time, the Holy Spirit, the celestial bird, the breath of God descended upon you, possessed you, seized you, and bent you like reeds in the wind:"
The priest then turns to the prostitutes in particular:
"I especially thank you, my dear sisters, who have come from such a distance, and whose presence among us, whose evident faith and ardent piety have set such a salutary example to all. You have edified my parish; your emotion has warmed all hearts; without you, this great day would not ... have had this really divine character"
A lesser writer would have made the priest a figure of fun rather than of tragic misunderstanding. That a fleeting, if sincere, gust of religious emotion on the part of a group of hitherto insouciant prostitutes should have been for him the happiest moment of his life suggests that he has lived his entire life in a dream world of illusion, all the more poignant because he is so patently a good man. One doesn't laugh at his noble but uncomprehending speech: one is seized by an immense sorrow for him, and for all those who live in similar illusion. Goodness is not such a common commodity in the world that one wishes it to be the product of such illusion.
The religious exultation of the moment cannot last, of course, and Madame Tellier's brother makes a drunken pass at one of her prostitutes, to the uproarious delight of the others, after lunch. And when Madame Tellier and her girls return to Fecamp, their bourgeois clientele, who have missed them sorely, throw a party. All is gaiety; there is dancing and champagne; and sensuality, good fun, generosity of spirit, true goodness, and deep feeling are all revealed as being perfectly compatible, provided we are broadminded and morally sophisticated enough. Because we are virtuous, there shall be cakes and ale.
Tolstoy, during his mystico-puritanical phase, wrote an essay on Maupassant in which he recognized his immense literary talent but condemned what he thought was the cheap, meretricious, amoral Parisian cynicism to which he subscribed. I think this is a mistake: Maupassant is not an amoralist, but a believer in human goodness that is not, however, identical to the strict observation, at least outwardly, of moral conventions. But it is certainly true that such is the power of Maupassant's narrative, so great is its verisimilitude, that one easily succumbs to the idea that he is telling us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This is not so; but until my mid-twenties, my mental image of prostitutes and prostitution was derived entirely from him.
I met my first prostitute to speak of in real life in the same hospital as I met my first burglar, at about the same time. She was middle-aged, but still working--after a fashion. Her physical charms had faded, for which she tried to compensate by layers of make-up, and her teeth had dropped out; the price she commanded, therefore, was very small. When she needed a cigarette, which was often, she would find someone with a packet to take her behind the nearest rubbish tip. A far cry from la Maison Tellier.
She was married to an idler who had long acted as her pimp, and who used, in her salad days, to send her out to earn the price of his dinner and sorties to the pub. By one of those terrible tricks that Nature sometimes plays upon those whom she wishes to drive mad, the prostitute loved this worthless man to distraction, and with an abiding passion. One day while she was a patient in the hospital he received compensation for an accident in which he had been involved, a huge sum in his circumstances, and he went out at once and bought a mauve car with leopardskin seats; he started to wear those lizard-skin shoes much favored by the business associates of African dictators. Her share of the compensation money was a packet of cigarettes that he did not even bring to the ward, but left at the hospital gate for the porter to deliver.
She would spend several hours each day repeatedly screeching "Bill!" in an unearthly tone of inconsolable longing, desolation, and despair that you could hear far down the road outside the hospital. It sounded as if she were being tortured, and in a way I suppose she was. No treatment assisted her in the least.
She was the subject of more than one case conference, in which learned physicians discoursed with admirable dispassion on the possible part that her partially treated neurosyphilis (the condition from which Maupassant himself went mad, and from which he eventually died). Everyone was agreed that it was a privilege to have such a case in hospital, because you don't see neurosyphilis much these days; the older physicians among them remembered the pre-penicillin days as a golden age of gummata and tabetic crises. General Paralysis of the Insane, GPI: why, young doctors don't even recognize the acronym these days.
Penicillin didn't cure her, however; she still screeched "Bill! Bill! Bill!" every day for several hours.
One morning, she was found dead in her hospital bed. There was a rumor that she had been poisoned by injection by one of the nurses, who was unable to tolerate her screams any longer. If so, I couldn't find it in my heart to blame him or her: an eight-hour shift with her unearthly tortured screeching was enough to turn anyone's idea of true morality. More than a quarter of a century later, I can still conjure up in my mind's ear those wounded animal cries of "Bill! Bill! Bill!" and I shall be able to do so until the day I die.
I realized that Maupassant was not a wholly reliable guide to the phenomenon of prostitution. There was more to it than jollity, the popping of champagne corks, and impromptu dancing.
Since then, I have treated a lot of prostitutes as patients. One claimed to be a world-class dominatrix, who jetted round the world to whip the prominent men of many countries on several continents, but for the most part, they have been creatures who look as if they have emerged from the canvases of Otto Dix, razzled by drugs and disease, with crumbling bones and wrinkled skin, beaten into submission by pimps festooned with gold chains and mouths flail of redundant golden dentistry. A few have been of middle-class origin, attracted to the gutter by its antinomian glamour, but they have ended up in no better state than the rest.
There used to be prostitutes like that who solicited on the street where I live, until my next-door-neighbor-but-one organized a local campaign to drive them away. Perhaps it is a sign of my insufficient absorption of the lesson of Maupassant's stories, but until they were driven away I did not find the removal of used condoms from the bushes and the gutter outside my house a congenial task, and, in my heart of hearts, when I saw the municipal van doing its round to distribute free condoms to those whom we must now called sex workers (What are pimps? Sexual liaison co-ordinators?), all in the name of harm reduction, my feelings as a householder were stronger than those as a doctor, and I wished not that harm should be reduced, but that it should be maximized.
I do not regret my literary initiation into the world of crime and prostitution, and a world without literature would be, to me, an intolerable one, in which life would hardly be worth riving. But had my rife taken a different turn, had I not been able to test E. W. Hornung and de Maupassant against certain experienced realities, had I lived entirely through books, as I might easily have done, had I lived in a pleasing ivory tower, for example by being a university teacher (as my temperament might easily have inclined me to be), I think I should have had a much distorted and reduced, though no doubt much more comfortable, Weltanschauung, an altogether more pleasing view of life and the human condition.
(1.) Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, by James Sharpe; Profile Books, 276 page, 15.99 [pounds sterling].
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|Title Annotation:||robbery and prostitution in literature|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2004|
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