In Oscar Wilde’s poem “The Harlot’s House” (1881), he appears to dehumanize the subjects of his poem; he portrays prostitutes as “strange mechanical grotesques” who are just empty and artificial “shadows.” Their existence seems almost tenuous, drifting “like black leaves wheeling in the wind.” To Wilde, these prostitutes are just “horrible marionette[s]” that are hollow, emotionless imitations of real human beings. A prostitute cannot be alive — she can only be “like a live thing.” Unlike some of the other poems that Wilde wrote in a decadent, “l’Art pour l’Art” style, “The Harlot’s House” instead carries heavy moral undertones that indicate Wilde’s strong condemnation of prostitution.

Wilde’s views largely echoed, even amplified, the sentiments at the time. Though prostitution was widely frowned upon and referred to as the “Great Social Evil” in the mid-nineteenth century, it was also a taboo topic for which the “liberty of the subject [was] very jealously guarded in England,” according to Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. In fact, the subject was taboo to the point where even legislators refused and were unable to handle the issue: “the magistracy or the police [were not] allowed to enter improper or disorderly houses, unless to suppress disturbances” — they did not even have the capacity to make arrests of those distributing pornographic materials (Mayhew).

There was no well-defined legislation regarding the regulation or prohibition of prostitution, or even open discussion about such issues until 1858, when the “Chambers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice” met to discuss the issue and provide some outlines on how to manage “houses of entertainment” and the influx of foreign prostitutes into England (The Times, Friday Jan 15, 1858). Even after that, an editorial in The Times decreed that “we cannot import this offence as a crime into our Penal Code” (Thursday Feb 25, 1858). Mayhew wrote that “legislature, by refusing to interfere, ha[d] tacitly declared the existence of prostitutes to be a necessary evil” (212). Later attempts to penalize prostitution proved unsuccessful: 1766 lodgings (lodgings denoting places where prostitutes lived, not where they worked) were recorded to house prostitutes in 1857, while 1756 lodgings were recorded barely over a decade later, a very marginal decrease (Acton 7). However, the numbers are inconclusive when it comes to the prevalence of prostitution in Victorian London. Mayhew lists a range of earlier figures from 1792, half a decade before his book was published: the Bishop of Exeter claimed a figure of 80,000 in London, a police magistrate, Mr. Colquhoun concluded that there were 50,000, while the City Police put forth a figure of 7000-8000.

One doctor and writer who was particularly outspoken about the topic of prostitution was William Acton, in his book Prostitution: Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects. The book was controversial, primarily elucidating issues of morality and health regarding prostitution. Acton actually had a section dedicated to the type of brothel described by Wilde in “The Harlot’s House”: the dancing-room.

The visitor, on passing the doors, finds himself in a spacious room, the fittings of which are of the most costly description, while brilliant gas illuminations, reflected by numerous mirrors, impart a fairy-like aspect to the scene. The company is, of course, mixed. Many of the men resorting to such places seek no doubt the opportunity of indulging their vicious propensities; but the majority of the better class go merely to while away an idle hour. (Acton 19).

These were actually relatively well-decorated venues that were among the finest places to house prostitutes. Typically, sexual intercourse did not even take place at these sites. Instead, “the majority of the better class [went] merely to while away an idle hour�where, while chatting with friends, . . . [they could] hear good music and see pretty faces” (Acton 19). Though there were those that were there with “vicious propensities,” the majority went for reasons less explicit than sex.

Wilde describes the prostitutes in his poem as “horrible marionettes;” in contrast, Acton finds them to be “pretty and quietly, though expensively dressed.” Unlike Wilde’s descriptions of deathly-looking prostitutes, Acton finds the inhabitants of dancing-rooms to be “unaccompanied by the pallor of ill-health” — though he admits that much of it has to do with cosmetics. It is interesting that Acton remarks that the women who frequent dancing-rooms do not have the appearance of prostitutes, but look more like mistresses, suggesting that dancing-halls employed prostitutes of a higher class, beyond the common harlots shared by soldiers and sailors who had intercourse with up to 20 or 23 men in one night (5). Acton does agree somewhat with Wilde that there is little substance beyond the physical appearance of these women. They only behave quietly and have a little ability to play the piano or sing a “simple song” (19). None of the information that Acton provides seems to explain why Wilde is so adamantly in opposition to the existence of the prostitutes in dancing-hall.

This disdain for prostitutes is particularly ironic given that Wilde was later embroiled in a scandal involving male prostitutes and ultimately convicted of homosexual offenses — while married and the father of two children. The irony is striking; he berates the prostitutes “wheeling in the wind” with no loyalties in his poem, yet engaged in infidelities himself. Max Beerbohm, a widely popular writer and caricaturist who greatly respected Wilde, acknowledged later that Wilde’s fame and popularity went to his head: “ ‘as Oscar became more and more successful, he became . . .’ Max paused, as if he couldn't bear to say it, but he did say it. ‘He became arrogant. He felt himself omnipotent’” (Behrman). Perhaps the homosexuality scandal, which happened at the peak of his popularity, was closely tied to his fame — he felt himself beyond the constraints of society and even his own moral standards, and would be able to get away with acts of adultery and homosexuality. What better man to do that than one who wrote in a letter that he was “suffering . . . from a plethora of brilliancy?” (Shaw).

Related Material

Works Cited

Acton, William. Prostitution, Considered in Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects in London and Other Large Cities and Garrison Towns, with Proposals for the Control and Prevention of Its Attendant Evils. London: John Churchill and Sons, 1870. Print.

Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor: a Cyclopædia of the Condition and Earnings of Those That Will Work, Those That Cannot Work, and Those That Will Not Work. London: Griffin, Bohn, and Company, 1861. Print.

“The Great Social Evil,” The Times 22891 (Friday, Jan 15, 1858); 9.

The Times 22926 (Thursday, Feb 25, 1858): 6.

Last modified 19 May 2010