To Beg I am Ashamed (1938) by Sheila Cousins

This book is subtitled The Autobiography of a London Prostitute, and was originally intended to be published by Routledge in 1938. The papers heard about it, and created a scandal. ‘A disgraceful Book: It Must Be Stopped’ was the Daily Mail headline. The police went round to the publishers and were persuasive enough to make them call a halt to publication plans. The book was then taken up by Jack Kehane of the Obelisk Press in Paris, and became one of his best-sellers. In 1953 it was republished in London with no official comeback. (I read a 1959 edition. Would it have been published in that year as a contribution to the debate on the Wolfenden report and the proposed Street Offences Act?)

Reading it today, it is not easy to see what the press uproar was about. There is nothing salacious or pornographic about the book. It treats prostitution in an unromantic, unglamourised way, as ‘a job much like any other, a way of keeping alive. It is neither much more nor much less secure than most women’s jobs.’ Perhaps it is this matter-of-fact attitude that disturbed the moralists.

The book begins:

Because I was born a lady and still look one, ‘How on earth do you come to be doing this?’ is the first question men ask me when they pick me up on the streets. I came to be a prostitute for many reasons, but in the end because I deliberately chose to be.

She is caustic about ‘The harsh pity of the Bishops and the Dames of the British Empire, whose God is graven in yellow soap and who would save me by putting a Bible into one hand and a scrubbing brush into the other.’

The author generalises: ‘The prostitute-to-be generally has some kind of insecurity in her family life,’ and this was certainly true in her own case. Sheila Cousins’s mother was the daughter of a widowed clergyman who died of drink. Alone in the world with a small income, the mother fell for a series of unreliable men. She married a dentist who had failed his exams, and who did not do well as an unlicensed practitioner. She left him for Tom, a ship’s quartermaster. When they were desperate for money, Tom had persuaded her to go on the streets for a while. Other unsatisfactory men followed, until she began living with a down-at-heel German watchmaker. Sheila and the watchmaker’s children got their fun by shoplifting together in the local chain store. Sheila was caught stealing a powder-puff.

It was the sort of offence that could just have resulted in a caution, but her mother made such a bad impression in court that she was sentenced to two and a half years in an industrial school. This was a grim institution where young criminals mixed with those whose parents couldn’t handle them and those who were sent there to be protected from their parents. The regime there mixed lessons with hard physical work, especially cleaning:

Soap and water, black-lead and floor-polish were the great gods of the school. [….] The children’s red and swollen hands were scarcely ever out of water; some of them became so chapped that great cracks appeared across their backs.

After school she is sent to a job, a pound a week as a filing clerk at a firm of Regent Street tailors; she lives in a hostel, and enjoys the freedom and the spending money. After several similar dead-end office jobs, she sees an advertisement for saleswomen, and goes door to door trying to sell water-softeners. Later, Sheila moves on to trying to sell furniture polish and vacuum-cleaners. , (Here the book explores much the same territory as Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger, with its picture of those making a shifty and precarious living selling vacuum-cleaners.) She meets some young men, and at one time falls for a Cambridge student, but nothing comes of this; she has to fend off men who want to take liberties, and generally paints a poor picture of the males she comes across. She remains a virgin, until she makes the mistake of accepting a lift from two strangers, East Enders who take her to an empty house and rape her.

After this she lets a couple of the more insistent men in her life take her to bed, because they want to so much. Throughout the book, she never expresses any pleasure in sex – it is always just complying with pressure from men.

She has an afair with a writer of film scrips, Alec, who introduces her into a Bohemian world of artists, which she enjoys. When Alec leaves, she finds she is pregnant. Her landlady doesn’t throw her out, and she has the baby there – but a few days later she contracts measles. Mother and baby are taken to the workhouse infirmary, a grim place, and the baby dies there.

It’s soon after this, at a financial low ebb, that she takes to the streets. She doesn’t like the work, but it is easy money, and seems less demoralising than selling vacuum cleaners. She is soon supporting her feckless mother, and also, for a while, a hopeless man. The book is informative on the subject of cheap hotels and flats where two women work together.

She meets Richard, who falls in love with ther and doesn’t seem to mind about her past. Eventually she marries him and goes with him to Malaya, where she lives the lonely life of a planter’s wife for a while. Her husband is often away, and when he is there seems to resent her. She eventually leaves, and goes back to the streets, and to her mother. She now seems stuck there, accepting that will be her life. What comes across throughout the book is her low self-esteem, which is matched by her low estimate of her customers:

I regret that I was born and came on the streets in the age when I did. There is a tag, I believe, about the prostitute defending the virtue of the middle-class man’s sister. That was true once, thirty years ago, and then were the high days of prostitution. The street-walker’s client was the normal man who had yet to persuade his friend’s sister that his intentions were honourable. Today, with honourable intentions at a discount everywhere, my pick-ups are the rejects, the neurotics, the cast-outs who, for all the general promiscuity, have been unable to find a real woman for themselves.

The book is labelled an autobiography, but it is not quite so simple as that. It is ghost-written (though that is not made explicit) so her experience is mediated by a man, or maybe two. There is some controversy about its authorship. Internet book-dealers tend to label it a joint production by Ronald Matthews and Graham Greene. You can see why they would want to link a saleable name like Greene’s to the book, but from what I can gather Matthews was the actual writer, although Greene encouraged the project, and may have advised on it. The blurb insists that all names have been changed, but Sheila has customers called Ronald and Graham, which may be an in-joke.

The account of prostitution is interesting, but what I felt mostly about this book was that it was taking us into places where most novelists of the thirties did not go – an exception being J. Maclaren-Ross. It shows us the lives of of the precariat, the unsteady and the failures who drift from job to job, making money where they can and using what resources they have to survive to the next week. Prostitution is only one of the humiliating jobs that Sheila Cousins takes on, and is probably not the most demeaning.

As I have said, there is very little lubricious or pornographic about the book, though its unconcern for conventional sexual morality was probably disturbing back in 1938. Even today, I think, it would be rare to find an account of the subject quite so unsentimental or unsensationalised.

Jack Kahane who published the book in Paris, has this to say about it in his entertaining autobiography Memoirs of a Booklegger (1939)

In the early summer I brought out my edition of To Beg I Am Ashamed by Sheila Cousins, the book that was withdrawn in such painful circumstances after being announced for publication by an old and respected firm, as a result of attacks, unprecedented in their virulence, by a couple of popular dailies temporarily short of head-line subjects. The book was a great success, and in consequence of the maladroit (but to me invaluable) publicity that the press attacks gave it, I got large orders for it from all over the world. This underlines the folly as well as the hypocrisy of such press campaigns. To Beg I Am Ashamed was a very great help. it has qualities that will keep it alive for a long time. One publisher’s poison is another publisher’s meat.

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