Part 09, Chapter 2 : Mrs. Warren's Profession
Part 09, Chapter 2
MRS. WARREN is engaged in a profession which has existed through all the ages. It was at home in Egypt, played an important role in Greece and Rome, formed one of the influential guilds in the Middle Ages, and has been one of the main sources of income for the Christian Church.
But it was left to modern times to make of Mrs. Warren's profession a tremendous social factor, ministering to the needs of man in every station of life, from the brownstone mansion to the hovel, from the highest official to the poorest drag.
Time was when the Mrs. Warrens were looked upon as possessed by the devil,-lewd, depraved creatures who would not, even if they had the choice, engage in any other profession, because they are vicious at heart, and should therefore be held up to condemnation and obloquy. And while we continue to drive them from pillar to post, while we still punish them as criminals and deny them the simplest humanities one gives even to the dumb beast, the light turned on this subject by men like George Bernard Shaw has helped to expose the lie of inherent evil tendencies and natural depravity. Instead we learn:
Mrs. Warren. Do you think I did what I did be cause I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn't rather have gone to college and been a lady if I'd had the chance? . . . Oh, it's easy to talk, very easy, isn't it? Here!-- Would you like to know what my circumstances were? D'you know what your gran' mother was? No, you don't. I do. She called herself a widow and had a fried-fish shop down by the Mint, and kept herself and four daughters out of it. Two of us were sisters: that was me and Liz; and we were both good looking and well made. I suppose our father was a well fedman: mother pretended he was a gentleman; but I don't know. The other two were only half sisters-under sized, ugly, starved, hard working, honest poor creatures: Liz and I would have half murdered them if mother hadn't half murdered us to keep our hands off them. They were the respectable ones. Well, what did they get by their respectability? I'll tell you. One of them worked in a whitelead factory twelve hours a day for nine shillings a week until she died of lead poisoning. She only expected to get her hands a little paralyzed; but she died. The other was always held up to us as a model because she married a Government laborer in the Deptford victualing yard, and kept his room and the three children neat and tidy on eighteen shillings a week--until he took to drink. That was worth being respectable for, wasn't it?
Vivie. Did you and your sister think so?
Mrs. Warren. Liz didn't, I can tell you; she had more spirit. We both went to a Church School--that was part of the lady-like airs we gave ourselves to be superior to the children that knew nothing and went no where--and we stayed there until Liz went out one night and never came back. I knew the schoolmistress thought I'd soon follow her example; for the clergyman was always warning me that Lizzie 'd end by jumping off Waterloo Bridge. Poor fool: that was all that he knew about it! But I was more afraid of the whitelead factory than I was of the river; and so would you have been in my place. That clergyman got me a situation as a scullery maid in a temperance restaurant where they sent out for anything you liked. Then I was waitress; and then I went to the bar at Waterloo Station-fourteen hours a day seeing drinks and washing glasses for four shillings a week and my board. That was considered a great promotion for me. Well, one cold, wretched night, when I was so tired I could hardly keep myself awake, who should come up for a half of Scotch but Lizzie, in a long fur cloak, elegant and comfortable, with a lot of sovereigns in her purse.
Vivie. My aunt Lizzie ?
Mrs. Warren. Yes.... She's living down at Winchester, now, dose to the cathedral, one of the most respectable ladies there--chaperons girls at the country ball, if you please. No river for Liz, thank you! You remind me of Liz a little: she was a first-rate business woman--saved money from the beginning--never let herself look too like what she was--never lost her head or threw away a chance. When she saw I'd grown up good-looking she said to me across the bar: "What are you doing there, you little fool ? Wearing out your health and your appearance for other people's profit!" Liz was saving money then to take a house for herself in Brussels: and she thought we two could save faster than one. So she lent me some money and gave me a start; and I saved steadily and first paid her back, and then went into business with her as her partner. Why shouldn't I have done it? The house in Brussels was real high class--a much better place for a woman to be in than the factory where Anne Jane got poisoned. None of our girls were ever treated as I was treated in the scullery of that temperance place, or at the Waterloo bar, or at home. Would you have had me stay in them and become a worn-out old drudge before I was forty? . . . Yes, saving money. But where can a woman get the money to save in any other business? Could you save out of four shillings a week and keep yourself dressed as well? Not you. Of course, if you're a plain woman and can't earn anything more: or if you have a turn for music, or the stage, or newspaper writing: that's different. But neither Liz nor I had any turn for such things: all we had was our appearance and our turn for pleasing men. Do you think we were such fools as to let other people trade in our good looks by employing us as shop-girls, or barmaids, or waitresses, when we could trade in them ourselves and get all the profits instead of starvation wages? Not likely.... Everybody dislikes having to work and make money; but they have to do it all the same. I'm sure I've often pitied a poor girl, tired out and in low spirits, having to try to please some man that she doesn't care two straws for--some half-drunken fool that thinks he's making himself agreeable when he's teasing and worrying and disgusting a woman so that hardly any money could pay her for putting up with it. But she has to bear with disagreeables and take the rough with the smooth, just like a nurse in a hospital or anyone else. It's not work that any woman would do for pleasure, goodness knows; though to hear the pious people talk you would suppose it was a bed of roses. Of course it's worth while to a poor girl, if she can resist temptation and is good looking and well-conducted and sensible It's far better than any other employment open to her. I always thought that oughtn't to be. It can't be right, Vivie, that there shouldn't be better opportunities for women. I stick to that: It's wrong. But it's so, right or wrong; and a girl must make the best of it. But, of course, it's not worth while for a lady. If you took to it you'd be a fool; but I should have been a fool if I'd taken to anything else.... Why am I independent and able to give my daughter a first-rate education, when other women that had just as good opportunities are in the gutter? Because I always knew how to respect myself and control myself. Why is Liz looked up to in a cathedral town? The same reason. Where would we be now if we'd minded the clergyman's foolishness? Scrubbing floors for one and sixpence a day and nothing to look forard to but the workhouse infirmary. Don't you be led astray by people who don't know the world, my girt The only way for a woman to provide for herself decently is for her to be good to some man that can afford to be good to her. If she's in his own station of life, let her make him marry her; but if she's far beneath him, she can't expect it--why should she? It wouldn't be for her own happiness. Ask any lady in London society that has daughters; and she'll tell you the same, except that I tell you straight and she'll tell you crooked. That's all the difference.... It's only good manners to be ashamed of it; it's expected from a woman. Women have to pretend a great deal that they don't feel. Liz used to be angry with me for plumping out the truth about it. She used to say that when every woman would learn enough from what was going on in the world before her eyes, there was no need to talk about it to her. But then Liz was such a perfect lady! She had the true instinct of it; while I was always a bit of a vulgarian. I used to be so pleased when you sent me your photographs to see that you were growing up like Liz; you've just her lady-like determined way. But I can't stand saying one thing when everyone knows I mean another. What's the use in such hypocrisy? If people arrange the world that way for women, there's no use pretending that it's arranged the other way. I never was a bit ashamed really. I consider that I had a right to be proud that we managed everything so respectably, and never had a word against us, and that the girls were so well taken care of. Some of them did very well: one of them married an ambassador. But of course now I daren't talk about such things: whatever would they think of us.
No, it is not respectable to talk about these things, because respectability cannot face the truth. Yet everybody knows that the majority of women, "if they wish to provide for themselves decently must be good to some man that can afford to be good to them." The only difference then between Sister Liz, the respectable girl, and Mrs. Warren, is hypocrisy and legal sanction. Sister Liz uses her money to buy back her reputation from the Church and Society. The respectable girl uses the sanction of the Church to buy a decent income legitimately, and Mrs. Warren plays her game without the sanction of either. Hence she is the greatest criminal in the eyes of the world. Yet Mrs. Warren is no less human than most other women. In fact, as far as her love for her daughter Vivian is concerned, she is a superior sort of mother. That her daughter may not have to face the same alternative as she, -- slave in a scullery for four shillings a week -- Mrs. Warren surrounds the girl with comfort and ease, gives her an education, and thereby establishes between her child and herself an abyss which nothing can bridge. Few respectable mothers would do as much for their daughters. However, Mrs. Warren remains the outcast, while all those who benefit by her profession, including even her daughter Vivian, move in the best circles.
Sir John Crofts, Mrs. Warren's business partner, who has invested 40,000 pounds in Mrs. Warren's house, drawing an income of 35 percent. out of it in the worst years, is a recognized pillar of society and an honored member of his class. Why not!
Crofts. The fact is, it's not what would be considered exactly a high-class business in my set--the county set, you know.... Not that there is any mystery about it: don't think that. Of course you know by your mother's being in it that it's perfectly straight and honest. I've known her for many years; and I can say of her that she'd cut off her hands sooner than touch anything that was not what it ought to be.... But you see you can't mention such things in society. Once let out the word hotel and everybody says you keep a public-house. You wouldn't like people to say that of your mother, would you? That's why we're so reserved about it.... Don't turn up your nose at business, Miss Vivie: where would your Newnhams and Girtons be without it? . . . You wouldn't refuse the acquaintance of my mother's cousin, the Duke of Belgravia, because some of the rents he gets are earned in queer ways. You wouldn't cut the Archbishop of Canterbury, I suppose, because the Ecclesiastical Commissioners have a few publicans and sinners among their tenants? Do you remember your Crofts scholarship at Newnham? Well, that was founded by my brother the M.P. He gets his 22 per cent. out of a factory with 600 girls in it, and not one of them getting wages enough to live on. How d' ye suppose most of them manage? Ask your mother. And do you expect me to turn my back on 35 per cent. when all the rest are pocketing what they can, like sensible men? No such fool! If you're going to pick and choose your acquaintances on moral principles, you'd better clear out of this country, unless you want to cut yourself out of all decent society.... The world isn't such a bad place as the croakers make out. So long as you don't fly openly in the face of society, society doesn't ask any inconvenient questions; and it makes precious short work of the cads who do. There are no secrets better kept than the secrets that everybody guesses. In the society I can introduce you to, no lady or gentleman would so far forget themselves as to discuss my business affairs or your mother's.
Indeed, no lady or gentleman would discuss the profession of Mrs. Warren and her confreres. But they partake of the dividends. When the. evil becomes too crying, they engage in vise crusades, and call down the wrath of the Lord and the brutality of the police upon the Mrs. Warrens and her victims. While the victimizers, the Crofts, the Canterburys, Rev. Gardner--Vivian's own father and pious mouthpiece of the Church--and the other patrons of Mrs. Warren's houses parade as the protectors of woman, the home and the family.
To-day no one of the least intelligence denies the cruelty, the injustice, the outrage of such a state of affairs, any more than it is being denied that the training of woman as a sex commodity has left her any other source of income except to sell herself to one man within marriage or to many men outside of marriage. Only bigots and inexperienced girls like Vivian can say that "everybody has some choice. The poorest girl alive may not be able to choose between being Queen of England or Principal of Newnham; but she can choose between rag-picking and flower-selling, according to her taste."
It is astonishing how little education and college degrees teach people. Had Vivian compelled to shift for herself, she would have discovered that neither rag-picking nor flower-selling brings enough to satisfy one's "taste." It is not a question of choice, but of necessity, which is the determining factor in most people's lives.
When Shaw flung Mrs. Warren into the smug midst of society, even the educated Vivians knew little of the compelling force which whips thousands of women into prostitution. As to the ignorant, their minds are a mental and spiritual desert. Naturally the play caused consternation. It still continues to serve as the red rag to the social bull. "Mrs. Warren's Profession" infuriates because it goes to the bottom of our evils; because it places the accusing finger upon the sorest and most damnable spot in our social fabric--SEX as woman's only commodity in the competitive market of life. "An immoral and heretical play," indeed, of very deep social sign significance.
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