Thursday, 11 March 2010


Times change; attitudes change, and thank God they do. As writers and social reformers, George Bernard Shaw and Charles Dickens, used their writings to demonstrate the injustices targeted at women. The attitudes to women; those who had “fallen”.

How women were judged, in Victorian England, was a concern of both writers. Shaw wrote a play. MRS WARREN’S PROFESSION in 1894. It was banned from performance for twenty seven years, until the Lord Chamberlain considered that the public were safe from corruption.

When it was performed in New York in 1905 the whole cast and crew were arrested.

Felicity Kendal, plays Mrs Warren in a new production of Shaw’s play. Here’s what Felicity says in a recent interview with Natalie Hale.

“Despite these increasingly irreverent times, Mrs Warren’s Profession still packs a punch.

Mrs Warren’s daughter, Vivie, has never really known much about her mother. A prim young woman, she has enjoyed a comfortable upbringing, a Cambridge education, a generous monthly allowance and now has ambitions to go into the Law.

Is it conceivable that all this privilege and respectability has been financed from the proceeds of the oldest profession?

How will Vivie react when she finds out the awful truth about her mother’s ill-gotten gains?

Shaw’s ultimate test of a mother-daughter relationship is one of his most witty and provocative plays, laying bare the rampant hypocrisy of Victorian society and its constrained morals.

“It’s a very political play actually, because Shaw was a very, very fierce socialist. Everything he wrote was influenced by his thinking.

“In a nutshell, he is arguing for equality for women and looking at why and how so many women in that period were forced into prostitution because of the society in which they lived.

“It’s also about the hypocrisy of how prostitution is very much accepted as a part of society but those involved in it are not accepted and are not respectable.

“It’s fascinating because we still have quite a few of those ideas about women. Certain things are still deemed respectable while other things are not.

“We judge people by what they do rather than who they are.

“It’s also about a relationship between a parent and a child. In this case it’s a mother, who’s a prostitute, and her daughter. But it could just well as be a drug dealer father and his son, and will the son accept how he has made his money.

“It’s a timeless piece actually with very contemporary arguments and questions being asked.”

The two strong women make a brief reconciliation when Mrs Warren explains her impoverished youth, which originally led her into prostitution. Vivie forgives her mother until learning that the highly profitable business remains in operation.
Shaw said he wrote the play "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."

In DOMBEY AND SON, Charles Dickens uses the character of Edith Granger, a beautiful young widow, to demonstrate the stark choices available to women. There were virtually no opportunities for women in Victorian England, to make their way in the world. They were stuck between two stifling lives; remaining single, or marriage. Edith is one of those women; her life has been devoted to attracting a suitable, preferably wealthy, husband.

In a bitter exchange between Edith and her mother. Edith states her case and reveals exactly where Dickens is coming from. Despite her alluring beauty, Edith has little self esteem and no self respect. From her childhood, she has been trained in the art of attracting a husband.

“The very voice was changed, as it addressed Edith, when they were alone again.
'Why don't you tell me,' it said sharply, 'that he (Mr Dombey) is coming here to-morrow by appointment?'

'Because you know it,' returned Edith, 'Mother.'

The mocking emphasis she laid on that one word!

'You know he has bought me,' she resumed. 'Or that he will, to-morrow. He has considered of his bargain; he has shown it to his friend; he is even rather proud of it; he thinks that it will suit him, and may be had sufficiently cheap; and he will buy to-morrow. God, that I have lived for this, and that I feel it!'

Compress into one handsome face the conscious self-abasement, and the burning indignation of a hundred women, strong in passion and in pride; and there it hid itself with two white shuddering arms.

'What do you mean?' returned the angry mother. 'Haven't you from a child - '

'A child!' said Edith, looking at her, 'when was I a child? What childhood did you ever leave to me? I was a woman - artful, designing, mercenary, laying snares for men - before I knew myself, or you, or even understood the base and wretched aim of every new display I learnt. You gave birth to a woman. Look upon her. She is in her pride tonight'

And as she spoke, she struck her hand upon her beautiful bosom, as though she would have beaten down herself.

'Look at me,' she said, 'who have never known what it is to have an honest heart, and love. Look at me, taught to scheme and plot when children play; and married in my youth - an old age of design - to one for whom I had no feeling but indifference. Look at me, whom he left a widow, dying before his inheritance descended to him - a judgment on you! well deserved! - and tell me what has been my life for ten years since.'

'We have been making every effort to endeavour to secure to you a good establishment,' rejoined her mother. 'That has been your life. And now you have got it.'“

Edith continues;

“'There is no slave in a market: there is no horse in a fair: so shown and offered and examined and paraded, Mother, as I have been, for ten shameful years,' cried Edith, with a burning brow, and the same bitter emphasis on the one word.

'Is it not so? Have I been made the bye-word of all kinds of men? Have fools, have profligates, have boys, have dotards, dangled after me, and one by one rejected me, and fallen off, because you were too plain with all your cunning: yes, and too true, with all those false pretences: until we have almost come to be notorious? The licence of look and touch,' she said, with flashing eyes, 'have I submitted to it, in half the places of resort upon the map of England? Have I been hawked and vended here and there, until the last grain of self-respect is dead within me, and I loathe myself? Has this been my late childhood? I had none before. Do not tell me that I had, tonight of all nights in my life!'

'You might have been well married,' said her mother, 'twenty times at least, Edith, if you had given encouragement enough.'

'No! Who takes me, refuse that I am, and as I well deserve to be,' she answered, raising her head, and trembling in her energy of shame and stormy pride, 'shall take me, as this man does, with no art of mine put forth to lure him. He sees me at the auction, and he thinks it well to buy me. Let him! When he came to view me - perhaps to bid - he required to see the roll of my accomplishments. I gave it to him. When he would have me show one of them, to justify his purchase to his men, I require of him to say which he demands, and I exhibit it. I will do no more. He makes the purchase of his own will, and with his own sense of its worth, and the power of his money; and I hope it may never disappoint him. I have not vaunted and pressed the bargain; neither have you, so far as I have been able to prevent you.’ “

So, as I said earlier, thank God attitudes have changed. Women do have choices. They can marry and have careers. They can have careers and have children. Or they can remain single. Whether the wonderful Billie Piper, as Belle du Jour, is a call girl, an escort or a prostitute; she celebrates herself. She still sells herself, but it is her choice. There will still be those who judge her; but the glorious Belle simply doesn’t care.


  1. Billie- thought provoking as ever!! Difficult for a man here I think.. A fantasy for me is to be treated as woman's property, slave, whatver you want to call it, so the idea of a woman paying to use me, to enjoy my body is a turn on and an aspiration rather than a cause for unhappiness!As with Belle De Jour (yes isn't Billie Piper wonderful!!!)its an issue of choice surely. If a human being wants to sell what they have, this should be a celebration of their appeal ang desires not a matter of reprimand or guilt. Again, givng yourself to someone body and soul makes you free in a way that cannot be denied. Or is that just me!!!!!! Alex XX

  2. Well yes, women do have more choices. But we are still limited - both at present and as we look at our future. As reported in 2007, women earn on average 78 cents for every dollar that men are paid for the same or similar word. The figures for women of color are even worse. And that 78 cents to the dollar is only 19 cents above what it was when the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963. To quote the website of NOW (National Organization for Women, the source of these figures) "This means it took 44 years for the wage gap to close just 19 cents -- a rate of less than half a penny a year. This narrowing of the gap has slowed down over the last six years, with women gaining a mere two cents since 2001."

    You can read more here:

    The irony of it is that it is men, more than women, who are losing their jobs in the current recession, while their wives are still working. As these guys stay home as unexpected house husbands or discouraged job seekers, how many, I wonder, are wishing they had paid more attention to issues of pay equity?

    Have an ill parent? It is the daughter who is expected to give up her career and her life, especially if she is unmarried. Get married? It is somehow unseemly if she manages to make more than her husband. Have kids? More often than not it is the mother's career that suffers. Get divorced, especially after her income was reduced by choices made for the marriage, for the man's career, and with the assumption that they would be together into old age? Now she's really screwed.

    Meanwhile, despite my relatively low mortgage payments, at 61 I can't afford my home without renting out a bedroom to a stranger. Do I think of using my sexual talents to supplement my income? Damn straight I do! At the very least, I'd be brilliant at phone sex. And if my sadistic Master wants me to amuse his friends with my body for his ultimate pleasure, wouldn't it be nice if they could each cough up $100 a pop? Or more? $700 a month would mean I could keep the dungeon bedroom for... Well, this is not the appropriate place to discuss my own habits.

    Sorry for the diatribe. But there really does remain a lot of work to be done.


  3. Thanks Alex -- always interesting to get a male perspective and OG, you've certainly given me a lot to think about. It certainly is shocking that in the 21st century, women's work is valued less than men's. And you're absolutely right -- an infirm parent, or a sick child. It's usually the woman in the relationship, who gives up her career, to be a carer.

    As for attitudes to prostitution. I think these are changing and for the better. A few years ago,(2006) just before Christmas, there were a series of murders of "working girls". I think 5 altogether.

    It's not surprising that prostitutes are targeted -- there's a long history of hatred and violence towards them.

    What surprised me, was the attitude of very middle class women. Possibly the grand daughters of the Victorian ladies, who preached hell and damnation -- these 21st century women, were on the side of the prostitutes.

    They wanted better working conditions for the girls. Legal brothels where the girls would be safe. One woman said to me that the girls should be freely given the heroin they were addicted to, so they wouldn't have to sell themselves.

    So, yes, laws change, but not fast enough. so do attitudes, very slowly.

  4. This is a really interesting post, Billie!

  5. Thanks Janine, OG and Alex.

    I forgot to mention in the post; Mrs Warren's Profession, has opened at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1. They are booking until 19th June 2110.

    I shall try and get there!

  6. Wonderful, sweetie! Great job!