Inside a dilapidated room in a grand house in Covent Garden. The light is dim and the sky outside is steel grey. Dust sheets cover everything, obscuring the furniture like hokey ghosts. A young woman is stood looking out a dirty window. There’s a maid lurking in the corner posted like a sentry, shrouded in the gloom. The woman at the window is sniffing furiously holding back tears, flexing her philtrum and dabbing the underneath of her eyes. The maid looks on, a bit pitying, a bit ambivalent. The sniveling is pathetic but acerbic; she mutters:
Fucking bastard. [She examines her fingernails and snivels, continuing to sniff violently]
There is a dead horse lying in a black space.
A man is kneeling. His face is cut beneath his nose by the frame. A stream of piss pours onto his face from outside of the frame across his open mouth.
Return to the House
[Still sniffing, mutters] I beg the uncharitable sisters spin out my thread no longer!
There’s a sharp knock at the door. Dorothea gasps and wipes her eyes, making quickly for the hallway, hoisting up her skirts to reveal her pale legs under the cloth. She bolts down a narrow stairwell and throws open the door. Mrs Cresswell is standing in the porch.1 She is attractive but her face is harsh and lined, marked by an impartial but cruel hand.
[With a sinister, leering grin] Good afternoon.
Dorothea’s agog expression is framed by the door. Mrs Cresswell barges past without any pause for an invitation and charges up the stairs. As she enters, we glimpse scarring from burns under the cloth of her shorter, more practical skirts. Dorothea looks aghast, although weirdly eager. She chases her up the stairs.
I see you’re pleased to see me.
[She has no idea who she is] Well certainly, madam, but –
[She cuts her off, moving briskly around the room, checking outside the window, moving back towards the table to pull a chair from under a dust sheet to sit] A little, or a great deal rather of chat is the life of women, the fifth element in which they live, no? So you must be terribly bored?
Yes madam, but you see –
[Gestures to the chair opposite her] Please, sit. [This is a bit off – it’s not her house. Dorothea obeys and pulls another chair from under the dust sheet.] So I see you’re here alone?
Yes – [Mrs Cresswell is not paying attention. She knows full well Dorothea is here with no one but the maid.]
Mrs Cresswell catches sight of the maid who’s still standing in her post. She looks her up and down.
Oh, good day madam. [She gestures towards a jug. She addresses the maid, not Dorothea.] May I? [The maid bows. Mrs Cresswell pours herself a glass of wine.] Hm. What a sorry state of affairs. Are you just stewing here drinking your father’s claret?
Where is he?
He has retired to the country.
Yes, he fought alongside the King, however, he now only casually receives some part of his son’s golden shower from under the cloth of his gown –
Indeed [sips the wine] – a man who enjoys the company of his dogs more than his ministers, and apparently their wet tongues more than his wife’s.
I can’t say that I –
[She sips the wine and smacks her lips, interrupting] However, I digress; I have come because I have a proposition for you.
Oh yes? [She looks excited]
[Sternly] Yes. [She slurps the wine] I want to offer you some assistance. Moreover, you’re much too pretty and I suspect too clever to have to endure such a condition: I am ready to afford you my best advice, and show you the fittest remedies for your distemper. It is perhaps one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall a young lady, to either be ignorant or to spend her tender years in melancholy and drowsy solitude. I would say it is to pervert the course of nature, to be industrious in procuring her own misery and ruin. Like how the covetous old miser has ever been condemned by the universal suffrage of all mankind, the young maid who conceals her wit and beauty is depriving the public.2
Mrs Cresswell is going on; meanwhile, Dorothea is on the edge of her seat, practically salivating at the prospect of breaking free from the dusty house.
Madam! If you know so well how to relieve me, please, persist no longer! There is no need to persuade me further!
Mrs Cresswell smirks and raises an eyebrow. She’s irked by Dorothea’s insolence, however, she admires her enthusiasm.
[Straightening her back.] My dear, I propose we expose your beauty to the town.
Dorothea cocks her head and blinks.
Rights are the first and greatest benefit of nature. The laws of the old world are circumscribed by priests and states who seek to abridge our freedoms. To be deprived then criminalised is to be oppressed; there are no bad women, just bad laws. You have been well instructed in the school of necessity, and believe you me, we are all exploited under society’s imperatives. Therefore, I propose this is the only remedy, under your present condition. Considering your circumstances I doubt you can sustain any mean or contemptible service, and in light of your extravagant desire for change, I would suggest this is the only solution. You shall not live under the iron rod of a cruel husband, and instead, have a multitude of lovers and idolaters.
I see. I have known necessity, indeed, but I fear I do not have the experience to bring my trade to a happy conclusion.
[Dismissing her doubts with a wave of her hand] Daughter, for so I must call you, it is the kindness I had for your person – even before I was acquainted with it – that compels me to see you in a higher sphere. During our first encounter, I have discovered extraordinary qualities and a bare frame of merits. Therefore, I am willing and able to instruct you in the necessary precepts.
In a few days discourse, I will illustrate unto you The Whore’s Rhetorick, in such a plain and easy method, that you may learn, remember, and apply to use my short but sufficient documents. Therefore, I must implore you to follow these directions exactly; I have arrived at remarkable perfection within my trade, nature’s handmaiden, a midwife to love, which has often proved abortive. It is now about 30 years since I began to serve the public in this charitable employment, and has still continued to do so, had not a malignant Jury dispossessed me of my lovely habitation3 – I had for many years kept in Moorfields under the cloth of the whole Amorous Republic.4
Under the Cloth
Ah! Madam! How cruel have you been in concealing your name, and hindering me from paying those respects that are due the fame and quality of the Lady Cresswell? These past few years I have frequently heard your name, the place of your abode, and the cruel severity you have of late undergone. Therefore, I will do everything I can to assist you, and in turn, lift myself from my poverty.
Clearly fortune has not deserted me entirely. Seeing you are so well prepared to receive my instruction, I will return tomorrow morning. [She stands]
Thank you, Mother [She curtsies low with a submissive look.]
For now I must meet some with some long-standing clients. Lord Mayors, lieutenants, sheriffs and the like all waiting patiently to be shrouded under the cloth of my company. Good night.
Mrs Cresswell leaves and marches down the stairs to the front door. Dorothea has scurried down to ask her own last question.
[Turns to look up] Yes?
Dorothea’s mood has shifted. Although initially swept up in Mrs Cresswell’s promises of riches and idolaters, she looks nervous and unsure.
[Looking down the stairs at Mrs Cresswell] Wha-a-at if…I am caught as you were?
[Cutting her off once again, but her face has softened] Whilst I live, I will ever be at your elbow, under the cloth of my teaching, securing you from danger. Therefore, if you diligently observe my precepts, you will have reason to bless the flesh and the bone of your old Mother. When you have ruined a million unhappy clients, that have thrust their cause into your hands, and got a mass of money; you shall then hide yourself under the cloth, and take a nap on the lazy bench. When you have acquired a plentiful fortune, by destroying many legions of wretched patients; it will then be a good time to leave off killing. Thus it’s likely at the end of your life you’ll have sufficient riches to retire to a country house. Now, good evening my dear.
Dorothea is comforted. She smiles weakly.
Goodnight, good mother, and remember I have given myself entirely up to your care.
Mrs Cresswell leaves and slams the door behind her.
Night has fallen
- Elizabeth Cresswell (c.1625 – c.1698) was one of the most successful and prominent sex workers and brothel keepers of the 17th century. She occupied a rare position in Stuart society as a woman of common birth whose substantial business enterprise gained her some independent wealth.
- Moreover, Mrs Cresswell is thought to have pointed political interests. Despite the fact that most of her most reliable clients were from the royal court, she financed the political career of her lover, the republican Thomas Player. Subsequently, Mrs Cresswell figures prominently in contemporaneous popular culture and conservative commentary as an emblem of vice, corruption, and the dangers of democracy.
- During November 1681 The Imperial Protestant Mercury reported that “The famous Madam Cresswell was on trial… at Westminster convicted after thirty above years practice of Bawdry.” The timing of this trial is liking to connected to Thomas Player’s vocal anti-Carolean position during the Exclusion Crisis. Player is recorded as saying the City of London “will raise no more to pay…for arbitrary government…the Crown is at the disposal of the Commons, not the King.” Her principal brothel was at Moorfields, on the site of Moorgate tube station.
- ‘Amorous Republic’ was a common turn of phrase describing the dangers of democracy. Drawing a tacit link between democracy and promiscuity, it implied that without the framework of class and inheritance society would disintegrate.