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The Sexual History Of London by Catharine…

The Sexual History Of London (2010)

by Catharine Arnold

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Mostly but not entirely a history of prostitution in London, but with forays into the pornography trade, gay culture, sex in literature, &c.

There's at least one crazy howler in here: Edward IV was most certainly not the son of Henry VI, and when I come across something like that on page 44, I confess that I'm somewhat put off for the rest of the book, because if a big fact like that isn't right, how can I trust the rest of what the author is telling me (particularly in cases like this, where there aren't very many source notes at all).

That said, the book makes for a reasonably lively read, and if you're keen to learn more about the history of prostitution in London, you might give it a go. Otherwise, probably safe to skip it. ( )
2 vote JBD1 | Feb 26, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I found this to be interesting and very readable but at times it felt repetitive. There was a lot of focus on prostitution and general sexual scandal through the ages and not really anything much on "mainstream" sex (or whatever passed for mainstream during the various historical ages Arnold covers). As an English major, I found the later chapters on Oscar Wilde's trial and the obscenity trial re. Lady Chatterley's Lover particularly interesting. ( )
  jcelrod | Mar 10, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Summary: For all that the Brits are supposed to be repressed and uptight, London's always had a bit of a reputation when it comes to sex. Arnold takes readers on a historical tour of sex in the city, from the slave girls brought in to service the Roman soldiers of Londinium to the the modern exploits of Belle Du Jour.

Review: While the topic of this book sounds fascinating, I was disappointed in its execution. This disappointment boils down to one thing: a misleading title, and a too-narrow focus. I feel like this book promises a broad overview of the history of sex, the attitudes surrounding sex, etc., but what it actually delivers is 90% just a history of one kind of sex, namely prostitution. There are occasional chapters dedicated to other topics, such as the Victorian interest in erotica, the Hellfire Club and other eighteenth century homosexual activities, and Oscar Wilde and the love that dare not speak its name, most of the book was about prostitution.

To be fair, Arnold covers the history of prostitution with remarkable thoroughness, going back some 2000 years, and covering every segment of society - from high-class courtesans and mistresses to poor women suffering on the street. I can also understand why she focuses on prostitution; it leaves a historical paper trail, in the form of legislation and court cases, in way that more private sex acts typically do not, so Arnold had much more source material to work from. However, after several hundred pages of reading about these laws and arrests, I was left with the impression that the more things change, the more they stay the same (and indeed Arnold's last chapter, on sex in the 21st century, is entitled "Plus Ça Change"). While that's a fine point to make, it did mean that I often felt like I was reading the same things over and over again; the life of a prostitute during the Restoration was not that different from the life of a prostitute during the Victorian era, and things started to feel repetitive after a while.

I was also not crazy about Arnold's style of presenting the information. She handles her primary sources nicely, incorporating plenty of quotes while still making it sound like she's got something of her own to say, and she manages to present the subject in such a way that walks a fine line between overly dry and overly vulgar. However, I didn't find her style of writing particularly lively - perhaps due to the amount of time spent describing repetitive arrests and court cases, as I mentioned above - and I kept wishing I could have seen this information as presented by someone like Mary Roach.

Overall, while there is plenty of interesting information in this book, I feel like the book described itself as the history of sex and then primarily discussed only sex that's been paid for, and I was left wanting something with a less narrow focus. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you're interested in a history of British prostitution, this book is your ticket, but if you're looking for a broader picture about the history of sex more generally, you'd be better served elsewhere. ( )
1 vote fyrefly98 | Feb 12, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Arnold's Sexual History of London boils down to a history of prostitution, pornography, and sexual scandal, with not much besides. Although she notes her sources, there are only about a half-dozen of these for each chapter, and this book really falls in the category of "entertaining non-fiction" rather than scholarship. It is happily full of thumbnail biographies of colorful characters, even if it does at times give the impression that sex is an activity reserved to prostitutes, their clients, and homosexuals.

Although the primary organization of the book is chronological, the author has a tendency to jump back and forth in her pursuit of selected subtopics, and her ostensible "medieval" chapter is loaded up with anecdotes from the Renaissance. Her later treatment of the Whitechapel murders of "Jack the Ripper" seemed to strike a reasonable tone, but I thought there was just far too much of it on its own terms, and not enough done to tie it back into the central topic of sex and sexuality.

Arnold's narrative voice is pleasant and easy to follow, although she has a recurring tendency to ape the diction of her sources, as when she references (without quotation marks) "base and filthy lucre" (87) and "actors ... whipped at the cart's arse" (89). The book shows sympathy for the historical individuals whom it covers. It reads quickly, but there is quite a lot of it, so it can make a pleasantly extensive reading project for someone looking to read it straight through. ( )
3 vote paradoxosalpha | Jan 26, 2012 |
This is really a history of prostitution in London, from Roman times to the early twenty-first century. There are excursions into literary history, and into homosexuality, but the main focus is on the prostitutes and their clients. This is a good, sound account. Well-told, well -researched. ( )
  Fledgist | Jan 14, 2012 |
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This book is dedicated to my husband, Mark Adams, and to my great friend Ronald Frame. Thank you for your love, understanding and patience.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312600348, Hardcover)

If Paris is the city of love, then London is the city of lust. From the bath houses of Roman Londinium to the sexual underground of the twentieth century and beyond, this is an entertaining, vibrant chronicle of London and sex through the ages.

For more than a thousand years, England’s capital has been associated with desire, avarice, and the sins of the flesh. Richard of Devises, a monk writing in 1180, warned that “every quarter abounds in great obscenities.” As early as the second century AD, London was notorious for its raucous festivities and disorderly houses, and throughout the centuries the bawdy side of life has taken easy root and flourished.

In The Sexual History of London, award-winning popular historian Catharine Arnold turns her gaze to London’s relationship with vice through the ages. London has always traded in the currency of sex. Whether pornographic publishers on Fleet Street, or courtesans parading in Haymarket, its streets have long been witness to colorful sexual behavior. In an accessible, entertaining style, Arnold takes us on a journey through the fleshpots of London from earliest times to present day. Here are buxom strumpets, louche aristocrats, popinjay politicians, and Victorian flagellants—all vying for their place in London’s league of licentiousness.

            From sexual exuberance to moral panic, the city has seen the pendulum swing from Puritanism to hedonism and back again. With latter chapters looking at Victorian London and the sexual underground of the twentieth century and beyond, this is a fascinating and vibrant chronicle of London at its most raw and ribald.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:15 -0400)

A chronicle of London's sexual history encompasses nearly two thousand years and provides accessible coverage of such topics as sexuality in politics, the licentiousness of Victorian London, and the sexual underground of the twentieth century.

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