Book of the week: The Young H.G. Wells by Claire Tomalin

Tomalin’s ‘compulsively readable’ book shows how Wells became the ‘great prophet of the modern age’

H.G. Wells in 1939
H.G. Wells in 1939
(Image credit: Gisele Freund/Photo Researchers History/Getty Images)

Kate Lister’s 2020 book, A Curious History of Sex and her website Whores of Yore established her as an irreverent and outspoken authority on the subject, said Gerard DeGroot in The Times. Her new tome is “a more serious book about the history of sex for sale”.

Lister travels far and wide – from classical Greece to medieval London, from Renaissance Italy to Nazi Germany – and encounters “a few recurring and disturbing truths”. Sex has always been “a popular commodity, but one that provokes shame and censure”. And in their attempts to restrict or eradicate the sex trade, governments have invariably targeted sellers rather than customers.

Many of their punishments have been draconian (in medieval Bologna, prostitutes had their noses cut off), but none have ever worked: the demand to buy sex “never dies”, and “nor does poverty”, which motivates women to enter the trade. Punishment simply forces the practice underground, into places such as Codpiece Alley and Sluts’ Hole in 14th century London, or Ponte Delle Tette (the Bridge of Tits) in Renaissance Venice.

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Lister’s book is filled with lavish illustrations, said Kathryn Hughes in The Guardian. A Pompeii fresco of the god Priapus “carefully weighing his own penis” gets a full page. There’s a photo of Edward VII’s “Love Chair”, a contraption that allowed the king to manoeuvre his “walrus-like bulk” without squashing the woman (or women) beneath.

“Pleasurable” though the pictures are, they don’t always connect very obviously with what is ostensibly the book’s main theme: prostitution through the ages and its links with “poverty, disease and coercion”. Harlots, Whores and Hackabouts makes an amusing “smutty guidebook”, but it is “strangely unsatisfying” as a history of commodified sex.

Thames & Hudson 256pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Harlots book cover

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