Sunday 26 June 2016

A ‘Modern’ Approach to Prostitution: George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession

You think that people are what they pretend to be: that the way you were taught at school and college to think right and proper is the way things really are. But it's not: it's all only a pretence, to keep the cowardly slavish common run of people quiet.

Mrs Warren’s assessment of Victorian society—that commonly-held morality is a pretence, a cover for the ‘way things really are’—is one shared by many 21st-century commentators on the period. The modern novels I’ve read as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series are obsessed with showing the depravity below the façade—child abuse, racism, pornography and, most frequently, prostitution, the subject of George Bernard Shaw’s 1893 and the eponymous Mrs Warren’s profession.

Felicity Kendal as Mrs Warren
The Victorians of our cultural imagination are table leg covering prudes or sex-crazed bodice rippers (most often, hypocritically, both), but, in our obsession with the lascivious and scandalous, are we missing the point? Shaw’s play, banned at the time for its subject matter, may also ascribe to this narrative of repression and duplicity, but for him the truth about prostitution is more based in economics, than eroticism.

This is what prostitution means to Mrs Warren:

It means a new dress every day; it means theatres and balls every night; it means having the pick of all the gentlemen in Europe at your feet; it means a lovely house and plenty of servants; it means the choicest of eating and drinking; it means everything you like, everything you want, everything you can think of. 

So far this seems like the standard seduction speech, as Mrs Warren lays out the contrast between the opulent way of life provided by sex work and her daughter Vivie’s existence now:

And what are you here? A mere drudge, toiling and moiling early and late for your bare living and two cheap dresses a year.

Yet, in the play’s last moments, the argument between the two women becomes something much more interesting than a confrontation between vice and virtue, riches and poverty. Mrs Warren tells Vivie that it isn’t just the money that attracts her (after all, she could have retired from this life long ago but continues to run a network of brothels):

I must have work and excitement, or I should go melancholy mad. And what else is there for me to do? The life suits me: I'm fit for it and not for anything else. If I didn't do it somebody else would; so I don't do any real harm by it. And then it brings in money; and I like making money.

Mrs Warren wants to work, and her claim that she is fit for no other profession is more of an assessment of the employment options open to women in the period than a commentary on her own moral character.

Vivie tells her mother that they are more alike than her mother imagines—that there is a point of similarity between the ‘modern’ Cambridge-educated girl and her mother, a bawd:

No: I am my mother's daughter. I am like you: I must have work, and must make more money than I spend.

And Vivie does not reject her mother on moral grounds. The decision to cut her off is purely pragmatic:

I don't think I'm more prejudiced or straitlaced than you: I think I'm less. I'm certain I'm less sentimental.

At the end of the play Vivie decides she will never marry, but will instead be an accountant. Her choice mirrors her mother’s almost exactly, except that Vivie’s profession a) will be sanctioned by society and b) won’t subject her to the possibility of motherhood (the cause of Mrs Warren’s sentimentality).

Shaw may share his subject matter with many of today’s neo-Victorian writers, but the difference is he doesn’t explore sex work in order to titillate. He uses prostitution as a lens through which to explore the selfishness of a capitalist system, painting a dark view of society, even as women’s employment options improve within it.

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