Monday, February 08, 2016

Book Notes: Heaman on Poutanen on Montreal Prostitution

As part of our occasional series of book reviews contributed by friends of this blog, today we offer a notice by Elsbeth Heaman of McGill University on Mary-Anne Poutanen's recent study of prostitution in Montreal.  In appreciation (see how this might work?), we will shortly have a note on Professor Heaman's own Short History of the State in Canada. 

Mary Anne Poutanen, Beyond Brutal Passions: Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal 
(Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). Pp. xviii, 414. Cloth $100, ISBN 978077354533-5. Paper $34.95, ISBN 978077354534-2. 

Anyone who has visited the Musée d’Orsay lately must be struck by the binary. The museum proper displays what comes to seem a relentless onslaught of romanticized female flesh. The temporary exhibition, on prostitution, just as relentlessly deromanticizes it—a rebuke that was inaugurated and remains best represented by the centrepiece of the show: Edouard Manet’s wholly self-possessed “Olympia.” I found the exhibition a wonderful rejoinder to the rest of the museum (although next time I probably wouldn’t bring my children).

That tension between ideal and real women is fully on display in Mary Anne Poutanen’s new book on prostitution in early nineteenth century Montreal. The period saw a huge change in the status and experiences of women. Their world narrowed in many ways: they were being pushed out of work, out of ownership of land, out of public space, and out of political debates. Separate spheres was never fully enforced of course, but the change was huge nonetheless. Prostitution was at the centre of those changes: it breached public and private, street and household, work and non-work, and above all respectability and its opposite. Poutanen sees a huge paradox at the centre: women tended to take up prostitution because they were poor: widowed, abandoned, newly emigrated, etc. It was work (and relatively lucrative work at that) but it was deemed the opposite of work: legally it was classified as idleness and vagrancy, a breach of the peace. It kept households together, children with mothers, but was seen to destroy households because there was so much immoral sex involved. Nothing better conveys the contradictions of a Victorianizing Canada than the tortured ideas about and practices of prostitutes: they embodied (sorry) the impossibility of reconciling ideal and real worlds, moral and economic identities, loving and mercenary motives.  Poutanen brings enormous work and extraordinary detail to characterize what she describes as a “shift from a local moral economy to a more repressive local state apparatus” (317).

Poutanen teases through judicial and police records to find out what these women were doing, what they said they were doing, and how they did it. It begins with a discussion of space: the household versus the street as places of prostitution, embedded (sorry) in overlapping but still very different social relationships. She establishes very clearly that household prostitution was often a family affair. Prostitution on the streets was more associated with immigrants, increasingly Irish, who often worked in groups. Both had their dangers: violence, theft, exposure above all. Both had their moments of push-back against the very male world: violence, theft, and some wonderful examples of provocation of middle-class respectability. Subsequent chapters walk us through the legal framework, the policing, judging, and punishment of prostitutes. Police and prostitutes had particularly interesting relationships because they “shared a common workspace” (247). Bawdy houses were illegal, as a breach of the peace (on grounds of lewdness and idleness) but they paid higher rents so even a chief constable and a sheriff were caught investing in them.

The records convey much more than just prostitution because accusations of prostitution (“You whore!”) were and remain common coinage. We see prostitution but we also see sex-inflected disputes within households and among neighbours more generally. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the sex-worker from the insulted non-sex-worker. But mostly, a gritty reality, a grass-roots social history, rings through—as, for example, when Ann Connor accuses Samuel Stevens of committing a breach of the peace: “he knocked at the door of the widow Mary Robinson on Commissioner’s Street and shouted out, ‘let the sailors in to the whores.’” (197). If you like a gritty, grass-roots social history, you’ll like this book. 

Elsbeth Heaman teaches history at McGill University. Mary-Anne Poutanen teaches history at Concordia.
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