|By Samuel Derrick [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
I am not sure of the scope of the term "prostitute" in her day. Mary, nobody's fool, would have been aware of the aristocrats' mistresses (predecessors of the pretty horse-breakers of Rotten Row), and . Dr Johnson's Scottish companion describes his lusty London encounters in his diaries -- "I got myself quite intoxicated, went to a Bawdy-house and past a whole night in the arms of a Whore. She indeed was a fine strong spirited Girl, a Whore worthy of Boswell if Boswell must have a whore". James was carousing in the streets and the decades when Mary was a young woman.
She, and others like her, would have had to exercise an effort to minimise her risk of being approached or addressed as a street tart. Whether this effort was conscious or not, women had to perform goodness, or "virtue" in the limited female sense: hair, clothes, body language, chastity of the eyes, pace, voice, deportment, all signalled "don't mess with me", as opposed to "might be worth a try". "If you want to stay safe, don't dress like a slut," said the policeman very recently. When so many women were reduced to opening their legs for a few pennies, and the sexual scale went up from there, all "good" women who did not want to participate in those transactions had to take action to distance themselves from the "bad" ones. This was especially true for girls, that is, unmarried women. "If you don't want to be approached, don't give a man any reason to approach you." For a young woman walking the streets of London without a male escort, as Mary did of necessity, every signal she sent out was subject to scrutiny.
The shameless behaviour of the prostitutes, who infest the streets of London, raising alternate emotions of pity and disgust, may serve to illustrate [the difference between bashfulness and modesty]. They trample on virgin bashfulness with a sort of bravado, and glorying in their shame, become more audaciously lewd than men... But these poor ignorant wretches never had any modesty to lose, when they consigned themselves to infamy; for modesty is a virtue not a quality. No, they were only bashful, shame-faced innocents; and losing their innocence, their shame-facedness was rudely brushed off; a virtue would have left some vestiges in the mind, had it been sacrificed to passion, to make us respect the grand ruin.
Those women who have most improved their reason must have the most modesty—though a dignified sedateness of deportment may have succeeded the playful, bewitching bashfulness of youth. To render chastity the virtue from which unsophisticated modesty will naturally flow, the attention should be called away from employments which only exercise the sensibility; and the heart made to beat time to humanity, rather than to throb with love. The woman who has dedicated a considerable portion of her time to pursuits purely intellectual, and whose affections have been exercised by humane plans of usefulness, must have more purity of mind, as a natural consequence, than the ignorant beings whose time and thoughts have been occupied by gay pleasures or schemes to conquer hearts.
The regulation of the behaviour is not modesty, though those who study rules of decorum are, in general, termed modest women. Make the heart clean, let it expand and feel for all that is human, instead of being narrowed by selfish passions; and let the mind frequently contemplate subjects that exercise the understanding, without heating the imagination, and artless modesty will give the finishing touches to the picture.
As a sex, women are more chaste than men, and as modesty is the effect of chastity, they may deserve to have this virtue ascribed to them in rather an appropriated sense; yet, I must be allowed to add an hesitating if:—for I doubt whether chastity will produce modesty, though it may propriety of conduct, when it is merely a respect for the opinion of the world, and when coquetry and the lovelorn tales of novelists employ the thoughts. Nay, from experience and reason, I should be led to expect to meet with more modesty amongst men than women, simply because men exercise their understandings more than women.
Also, it has not passed me by that this discussion of modesty bears some resemblance to the Muslim concept of hijab, too often understood only as dress restrictions for women, most specifically the headscarf, but in fact a statement of the necessity of modesty, applying equally to men and women. Again, something I may come back to, once Jane Austen and Lyndall Gordon and the Scandinavian traveller and all sorts of sculptural possibilities are out of the way.