Tuesday, April 20

The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey by the Review of Julia Laite – A Sex Worker in Edwardian London | Biography books


There is a moment in this study of Edwardian sex trafficking when the darkness of the story is parted with the sound of a voice. It is such a strikingly moving voice that the hidden is briefly visible. Lydia Harvey, arrested for bidding on the streets of London, explains to police why, months earlier, she had not solicited a client on her first night of work as a prostitute: “I was thinking too much at home,” she tells them. And there she is, long live the night a sad reality occurred to her: a girl too far from home to hope to be rescued.

Before being trafficked to London via Argentina in 1910, Harvey was an assistant photographer in Wellington, New Zealand. She came from a provincial home crowded with seven younger sisters and had already resigned from a position as a housekeeper. She was in search of a larger world. A roommate at her pension offered to introduce her to people who could help her travel. She was promised a “gentlemen’s watch” job and her glamorous new partners helped her compose a letter for her mother with news of her babysitting work abroad.

Six months later, when Harvey was arrested, sold to another pimp, she was penniless, had suffered rape and venereal disease, and was still anxious that her mother would never find out the truth. The account she gave to the police made her the key witness in a human trafficking trial, which is why any record of her ordeal survives. A century later, his legal declaration put Julia Laite on a journey to recover the rest of history.

The author extracts six characters involved in the case and with each one she complicates a common figure: Harvey herself, the victim; the Soho police detective; the young journalist who tells the story; the middle-class social worker to whose care Lydia is handed over after her arrest; the drug dealer Antonio Carvelli, whom Laite traces through numerous reinventions; and the woman who sold sex alongside Harvey and helped recruit her: Carvelli’s wife, Veronique.

The Carvellis arranged Harvey’s passage to Buenos Aires and paid for his maintenance there: when the 16-year-old tried to reject men she considered “old, dirty and very repulsive,” they reminded her of her debt. The city turned out to be less lucrative than expected, so they moved to Britain, arriving just as public outrage over the international trade in girls brought London police under scrutiny. Harvey’s testimony was valuable because he was the kind of victim a jury could accept: white, English-speaking, and plausibly “respectable” before he met Carvelli.

By recovering these six perspectives, Laite traces a whole phenomenon. It paints a picture of an increasingly connected world that offered countless opportunities, both legal and illegal, for the exploitation of women. If elements of Harvey’s trajectory sound depressingly familiar, it’s because, as Laite points out, our flawed modern approaches to migration and trafficking, women and sex, are rooted in turn-of-the-century biases, assumptions, and priorities. XX.

Despite all the hysteria surrounding the “white slave trade” (a term loaded with racialized priorities), few were willing to acknowledge, as some early feminists did, that prostitution was perhaps the only relatively well-paid job. independent available to the working class. woman. Migration provided employers with impoverished workers to fill sweatshops and break strikes. Unregulated employment agencies and steamboat companies collaborated to lure girls away from home to domestic service abroad. Trafficking fueled the kinds of transnational surveillance we know today, but convictions, like the ones Harvey helped secure, remained rare. Sensational stories of virgins drawn from home by dark-featured foreigners expressed deep unease with migration and the new mobility of women.

Laite is consciously outspoken about the challenges of tracking lives that leave few documentary records. There are huge gaps in what we can know about Harvey: no letters or diaries written by her survive. But this book shows how, with determination, sensitivity, and a careful dose of imagination, extraordinary recoveries are possible. She exposes her methodology from the beginning, detailing the parameters within which she has allowed her imagination, or what we might call a historian’s intuition, to roam. Facts and inferences drawn from newspapers, court records, memoirs, and even fiction are stitched into narrative (often novelistic) through the context of contemporary memoirs and even fiction, as well as the work of other historians. .

The structure of the book, taking each character in turn, runs the risk of repeating itself, but it also demonstrates the network of interconnected interests and tendencies behind the demise of its theme. To these various people, Harvey was little more than a money spinner or a useful witness, an exciting story or a moral tale. Laite has taken his thin archival footprint and enriched it immeasurably; she has reclaimed a woman’s life and restored a more complex reality to the record.

Sarah Watling’s Noble Savages: The Olivier Sisters is published by Jonathan Cape. The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: A True Story of Sex, Crime and the Meaning of Justice is a Profile post (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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