Book Review: City of Sin by Catharine Arnold

City of sinCatharine Arnold has written several books on London, generally looking at the darker side of London life. In Underworld London she looks at crime and punishment, Bedlam: London and its Mad looks at insanity and it’s treatment and Necropolis looks at the very dark subject of death in the city. In this volume Arnold turns to the naughtier side of the underworld and examines the history of sex in London, or more precisely the history of any kind sex regarded as illicit, now or in the past – adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, pornography.


A Victorian warning that prostitution did not often bring wealth and sexual freedom.

A Victorian warning that prostitution did not often bring wealth and sexual freedom.

This book has a lot going for it. It covers a huge swath of history beginning our story with Roman slave girls imported to Britain to entertain the troops stationed here to the age of confessional blogs from London call girls. It also has a wide reach in terms of the themes it covers and its tone. Arnold is a skilled writer managing to seamlessly move between harrowing tales of forced prostitution to amusing anecdotes of drunken unsuccessful would-be –philanderers. She doesn’t shy away from either the dark side of the sex industry or the amusing side and she is non-judgmental – we have stories of the Georgian working girls who climbed the ranks to become Duchesses along side the tales of those who committed suicide in poverty, disease and despair. It’s a very interesting subject and an interesting survey of changing attitudes – in the modern day we often feel attitudes to sex have steadily become more relaxed but this book shows that attitudes change in waves rather than as a steady movement, for example the harsh puritan times were followed by the rather debauched restoration period and then moralist Victorian values were rejected by many in the 20th century.

Did he have syphilis?  I believe there's significant doubt.

Did he have syphilis? I believe there’s significant doubt.

I very much enjoyed this book and can’t find much to criticise. I did spot a couple of historical errors, she says Edward IV succeeded his father Henry VI – the truth is Edward IV defeated his cousin Henry VI in battle during the Wars of the Roses. She also states as a fact that Henry VIII had syphilis, I was taught during my A-levels that there was considerable historical evidence to suggest this was not the case! Later she talks about the Duke of Clarence ‘younger son of Queen Victoria’ being a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case but my history tells me he was her grandson. Gosh, don’t I sound pedantic! But errors like this make me nervous that some of the unfamiliar stuff I’m reading might also be inaccurate.

Overall a very interesting and entertaining read. I recommend it only with a warning though – it is at times really very rude! I’m not sure what I was expecting from a book about the history of sex, but at times it really did make me blush – particularly some of the naughty Restoration Poetry! But if you’re not too easily shocked or upset it is certainly worth a read.

4.5/5 (half a point off for the little errors).

Hogarth charts the rise and fall of a 18th century prostitute in a series of famous illustrations called - A Harlot's Progress.

Hogarth charts the rise and fall of a 18th century prostitute in a series of famous illustrations called – A Harlot’s Progress.



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