The Marginal and the Monstrous: The ‘Voices’ of Prostitutes and Traffickers in Modern History

Our second post in The Voices of the People symposium (full programme here) is by Julia Laite, Lecturer in British History at Birkbeck, University of London. Reflecting on her own work on prostitutes and traffickers in the early twentieth century, Julia addresses a number of themes that will recur frequently throughout this symposium: the value of the microhistorical approach and the capacity of digital technology to support the work of close contextualisation; the importance of self-reflecting on ‘history from below’ writing as a genre and methodology; and the ethics of recovering the ‘voices of the people’.      

Julia Laite

When Lydia Rhoda Harvey steamed away from the shores of New Zealand, enroute to Buenoes Aires where she would, according to her traffickers, ‘see gentlemen’, what did she think? What did she say? What did her traffickers, Antonio Adolfo Carvelli and Veronique White, say to her? To each other? Is it possible to guess, and if so, do I want to and should I?

'A collection of voiceless photographs from the Carvelli/Harvey trafficking case, London, The National Archives, MEPO 3/197

A collection of voiceless photographs from the Carvelli/Harvey trafficking case, London, The National Archives, MEPO 3/197

My new book project examines the story of Carvelli, White, Harvey and the other women who were trafficked alongside of her, as well as some of the police officers, campaigners, and social workers who were directly or indirectly involved in the case. The project didn’t start out as a global microhistory, but as I got further into my research on the subject of trafficking, I became increasingly convinced that examining it in this way would allow me to capture, more effectively than any other way, the complexity of trafficking as a historical subject. Debates rage in the historiography over whether trafficking is most meaningfully described as a form of migrant labour or as exploitation; scholars examine it either from a national or an international perspective; they examine either state action or philanthropic campaigning; they examine the formation of law or the way law looks in practice (though this is actually not very well covered). Histories of trafficking are methodologically transnational (by their very nature), but scholars are coming to realise that they are also very locally contingent. Trafficking also tells us a great deal about power: state power, patriarchal power, economic power; but it also reveals complex voices of people caught up in, facilitating, or fighting ‘the traffic in women’.

A microhistory is an excellent lens with which to capture this complexity; but while also focusing on these individual voices. And so I have spent some time thinking—at times agonizing—about what it means to capture the voices of ‘ordinary’ people in such an extraordinary case; people who were thought of as marginal and monstrous in equal measure: as abject victims, as despicable ruffians. I’ll share some of this thinking here, in the form of four interrelated questions that have been troubling and captivating me as I have gotten deeper into the project, and into my historical actor’s lives. The first is,

How can I listen?

In this case, there are no ‘voices’; my historical actors don’t (or very rarely) speak or write. There are only two extant documents that even come close to the actual ‘voice’ of the two people who I’m focusing on in this post, the ‘monstrous’ pimp, Antonio Carvelli; and the ‘marginal’ trafficking victim, Lydia Harvey. I have a letter written by Carvelli in 1927, begging the Australian Home Department, in very studied language, for readmission to Australia after he had been deported. I have two witness statements from Lydia Rhoda Harvey, dictated to a Metropolitan Police officer (SD Ernest Anderson), and signed by her. Both are far from unmediated voices of course, for reasons that about three decades of historical scholarship in social, cultural, and gender history have offered us.

And so I’m trying to think about voice and action, and voice and experience—how elucidating the actions and experiences of people can help me gain some insights into their thoughts, voice, and decisions. Here again, I believe a microhistorical approach can serve me well. By examining the voices of a handful of people, rather than ‘the people’, I am able to construct a rich and individual context around them, and examine their actions as potential forms of expression. Ships’ manifests tell me that Carvelli spent much of his life on steamships; that his wife, co-trafficker, and prostitute, Veronique White, rarely left his side. Newspapers inform me that he took deep pride in his moustache, going so far as to dye it different colours according to the colour of his suit. He was at the very least a professional, if not exceptional, performer: an opera singer, a tango dancer, a translator and language teacher. Lydia Harvey’s witness statements also tell me he was an exploiter, a rapist, and a fraud. Still more ships’ manifests, log books from a rescue home, and certificates of marriage and death give me a glimpse into Lydia Harvey herself: they tell me that her life kept moving after her experience, that she returned to domestic service, that she married well, that she died young. But are these voices? What are they telling me?

And do I want to listen?

The projects to resuscitate the voices of ‘the people’—the marginal people, forgotten by history—are almost always either explicitly or implicitly quests to find small heroes. Those people who, while not singlehandedly uniting Italy, held a rural Pietmontese family together; while not theorizing socialism, were campaigning on its front lines. It is difficult for me to write in the heroic genre. One of my main characters defrauded and raped a 17-year-old girl and imprisoned her, first in a gonorrhoea and syphilis-ridden Buenos Aires brothel, then in a cabin of a transatlantic steamer, and finally in a north London flat.

The antidote to the search for small heroes has frequently been the exposure of demons. In The Fox and the Flies, Charles Van Onselen tracks the life of Joseph Silver, a ‘grotesque master criminal’, and depicts him as truly and pathologically monstrous; virtually eating the souls of his sex-trafficking victims and turning them not just into marginalized women but into spiritual slaves. This mission to expose the demonic members of the underclass smacks of prurient fascination far more than noble social quest, but perhaps more importantly it also completely prevents us from actually understanding such people and the things they do and say. Pimps and traffickers have long been ‘no platformed’ by feminist scholarship on prostitution, and largely ignored by historians. As a result, we know virtually nothing—neither in history nor in the social sciences—about why they do what they do, what kind of backgrounds they have, how they operate and why women associate with them. Surely gaining this knowledge, in part through seeking the voices of pimps and traffickers, should be a goal shared by those who despise the monsters as well as those who wish to act as their apologists. I have uncovered the voice of a man—sometimes a bad man, but not a monster. Should we listen to the voices of assholes? To people we don’t like? Of course we should.

But do they want me to listen?

This is the question with which I am struggling the most. In the very limited example of Lydia Rhoda Harvey’s voice, she explicitly says that she wishes she could undo what had happened to her, that she wants to erase her experience of trafficking: ‘I wish I had never met them,’ her witness statements conclude. Setting aside the potential ‘performance’ of the deposition, I feel it is fairly safe to say that Harvey did sincerely wish to completely put her experience behind her. She keeps her pseudonym as she returns to New Zealand. It’s quite possible that even her husband never knew what had happened.

Meanwhile, here I come, ready to rescue her from the condescension of posterity.   Indeed, the word ‘rescue’, used so often in writing on finding ‘the voices of the people’, is particularly striking in the context of prostitution. I recently, rather jarringly, realised that I could be said to be part of the ‘rescue industry’, much maligned by prostitutes past and present, marching into a past I could never truly comprehend and pulling someone out of it, without ever asking her if she wanted to be saved. Through the story of Lydia Harvey, I’ve had to confront the storyteller’s role in rescuing the past, often against its will. But don’t worry: historians believe that it is for its own good.

My response to this problem has, I fear, been paltry. The first is the idea to use a pseudonym, but the file is open, her name is readable by everyone already. The dead do not require any ethical approval forms. And if they did—how far back would this stretch? Lydia Harvey’s been dead for almost 100 years, and I still feel like I’m invading her privacy. I am very struck by the unreciprocal intimacy of the archive[1] — I can scrutinize her, she can never to do the same for me — which has led me to ask:

Am I listening, or am I just listening in?

Early modernists and medievalists have been making use of these compelling methodologies more often and for longer: the relative paucity of these earlier archives, and their deafening silences, have pushed these historians to find creative ways to discuss the voices and experiences of ‘ordinary’ people. But of course the complete archive is a myth no matter what period in which one works, and it is always possible to know more, even as it is never possible to know all. The overwhelming information offered to modern historians by the nature of their sources and the source-generating societies upon which they work has only been made more dizzying by the advent of digital history and digital family history. The sheer amount of material one can find on individuals and upon historical events from the comfort of one’s own home office is incredible. Initially, and still, modernists have spoken about the potential for ‘big data’ offered by digitization. But I’m far more interested in digitization’s ability to give modernists small data.

We are seeing a growing and exciting new trend of what’s been called modern microhistory, intimate history, family history, total history. I think here, for instance, of some of the recent books that are connected both thematically and methodologically to my developing work: Deborah Cohen’s new work on Family Secrets (2013); Alison Light’s moving history of her own family in Common People (2014); Seth Koven’s intimate and interconnected account of the The Matchgirl and the Heiress (2015); Gaiutra Bahadur’s search for the traces of her great-grandmother’s experiences of indenture and family in India and Suriname, in her book Coolie Woman (2013).

I think these works—and hopefully my own—show that intimate history and microhistory allows us to start listening to everything, including things we did not expect or even necessarily want to find. Those who listen in only hear what they are looking for: they tap the past in order to find the subjects that relate to their topic. Those who listen, more holistically, find themselves caught up in a very often completely overwhelming chaos of voices, which tell us so many things at once, which rarely keep to one thread of argument, and which rarely sound representative of any discernible category of experience. There is very much a place in history for both of these methodologies. As Natalie Zemon Davis recently put it in an address on history and fiction in Cambridge, it is because so much of the ‘big picture’ work has been done, and done well, that allows her to start probing the smaller stories and the ways in which they confirm and disrupt the big ones.

Crucially for the work I hope to do, intimate history and microhistory helps us encounter people and their voices beyond a specifically defined moment of marginality or monstrosity. Even as I paid close attention to the voices and experiences of women who sold sex in my first book, they were very often still just illustrations and anecdotes: they were mobilized—trafficked, even—in the moment of their prostitution in order to confirm a generality, or illustrate an exception. They walked on and off my stage. Stage left: the start of the police file, court case, or home office correspondence in which I found them. Stage right: the file’s end. Digitization means that I can chase them off the archive’s page. It means that I can see Lydia Harvey, and her traffickers Antonio Carvelli and Veronique White, as something other than pimps and prostitutes. I have learned that my monstrous pimp was a linguist, a dancer, a singer, an investor, a husband. I have learned that Lydia Harvey was a domestic servant, a photographer’s assistant, a hospital orderly, the wife of a mariner. I know that she won a silver purse in a talent contest in her hometown of Oamaru when she was 16—I wonder if she, like her trafficker, was a singer? Either way, I will never actually hear her voice.

[1] The author would like to thank Seth Koven and Lynda Nead, whom she joined at a recent roundtable on Koven’s new book, for helping her develop some of these thoughts

15 thoughts on “The Marginal and the Monstrous: The ‘Voices’ of Prostitutes and Traffickers in Modern History

  1. What I really enjoyed about this was the vivid detail you pull out from the lives of the people you are studying, Julia.

    I have devil’s advocate questions about why these almost picaresque lives matter, and (apologies!) they are kind of recycled from something I asked Deborah Cohen at Modern British Studies 2015 about whether the intentions of the Anglo-Argentine families she discussed in her lecture really matter to what happens, to the big picture of ‘informal empire’ and British trade.

    So 1. Are you interested in the details of the lives of the pimps and the pimped because their experiences are important to recover in a purely descriptive sense, because we know so little about what people like this thought and felt? Should these experiences be construed as somehow typical (while still dramatic), or are readers to understand that their unusualness is what makes them revealing precisely about the usual (the Ginzburg normal exception argument)?

    Or 2. Do you think that we need to know them inside out because their intentions and motivations are causal explanations for bigger problems that historians seek to explore e.g. people trafficking, or global mobility.

    I wonder how much of a tension there is between micro approaches that deliberately remain small (Actor Network Theorists might say that there is nothing big… Everything happens at the small level) and those that (as in Tim Hitchcock’s post, or Deb Cohen’s lecture at MBS 2015) emphasise that the small tells us about the big.

    Perhaps that tension is more in my head than your excellent post, though!

    • Hi Will–you give voice to my current struggles. These questions are kind of at the heart of the whole book project. I think it’s a little of both.

      In terms of 1, I would say yes, but that it’s more to prove the impossibility of typicality. I jokingingly call it a history of chaos. But in a more serious sense, it is about highlighting the disruptive potential that focusing upon individual experience can have, in terms of how we configure ‘categories’, ‘causation’, and collective experience. That being said, in the book project I am actually zooming in and out, operating at difference registers. I’ve done quite a bit of work–and need to do more–that looks at collective experiences, quantitative data, etc, to get a sense of how typical/atypical my historical actors were. This is in order to carefully contextualize them, both in the spaces they inhabit and in the context of the phenomenon of sexual labour and exploitation writ large. I think responding to 1) is the easier bit. 2), and questions of causation, is a bit tougher. The book is actually not just going to look at the traffickers and ‘prostitutes’, but also at individual police officers, social workers, and campaigners who were caught up in the case with the intention of asking specific questions about the individual in history and how we conceive of causation. But I’m not there yet. I’m going to pick your brain when I get there, though, so be warned.

      So basically, yes, I think there is a tension, but it’s a productive one (as they say). And very few of these micro approaches remain small–my recent digression on the sexual politics of the globalizing mining frontier in my draft chapter on Antonio Carvelli being one example. This is getting out of hand!

  2. Fascinating stuff, Julie. I was particularly interested in your thoughts on tracking those who wanted to remain hidden through the archive, especially in terms of archival selection. Two of the archives I work with, the Liddle Collection and the manuscripts archive of the IWM, are built on articles solicited from individuals and their families to reflect a specific moment in their lives. One result has been to turn a particular 4-5 year period from a singular part of many longer, more complex lives into its defining moment. Now the Lives of the First World War project is using digitisation and crowd sourcing to place the archival material into the sort of wider context involved with ‘listening’. As a historian, this is hugely useful, but does it run counter to the intentions of the individuals and their families who donated their material originally? As I start to add medical records to the material available for contextualisation, this question of the consent of the dead is one that continues to trouble me (as we have discussed before).

    • That’s an excellent point Jessica. Not even when material is voluntarily donated can we assume that we have a carte blanche with them. So far my answer to all this agonizing has been to just get over it. I’m not happy with that though–and would love to talk about the ethics of the dead more with you some time.

  3. As a PGR just grappling with these sorts of issues for the first time, many thanks for your post – it’s brought out many helpful ethical, even emotional, points too. There can certainly be a sense of appropriating individual lives, about whom we know only pinpoints, but who were of course complex, contradictory lives with multiple, fluctuating identities just like us all.

    With that in mind, I do find myself thinking that if I can just find this one source, this one bit of data, fill in this one gap, my picture will be (more) complete. Obviously, that is always the exact bit of information that doesn’t exist. Given the paucity of traditional ‘voice’ in the archive, how do you deal with that frustration, or perhaps, how do you use that empty space productively or creatively? I’m thinking of the creative histories panel at the same conference Will mentioned – how far is too far in filling in the gaps? Back to the ethics as well – what liberty do we have to do so?

    • Hi Simon, I’m so glad you found the post helpful. You’ve given voice (ha!) to one of the key struggles I’m finding getting into the nominal record linkage stuff. Where do I stop? Should I go to the remote place, search through uncatalogued archives, troll through the thousand names on in the off chance that I’ll find that one little piece of information that will ‘complete’ my story (and therefore also make it somehow more ethical)? At what point do you just stop, knowing there is probably something else out there, but that it’s not going to make an enormous difference? So part of my challenge right now it to know that the silences are really silences and not just me giving up after getting eye-twitches while reading passenger lists. The other part it to do just what you say, to creatively use the silences and the empty spaces. For that, I’ll point you to Will Pooley’s next post in the series that will appear soon, because he does such a damned good job.

  4. Hi Julie,

    I wanted to thank you for a really excellent piece. What really chimed with me was your discussion of micro-history’s tendency to focus on the ‘small heroes’. As someone who also studies individuals who have committed pretty awful acts (in my case, women killers) I was particularly struck by your discussion of how to access such individuals without turning the study into prurience. Its something I’ve been grappling with, but so far as I can see the only really way to do so is to be clear in terms of the methodology and purpose with which such individuals are going to be analysed. Most important, I think, is the ‘so what?’ aspect to studying such individuals: yes people committed awful acts throughout history, why do we need to know? what can sources concerning these people tell us and how are they going to be used? I am also trying to be increasingly limited in the amount of violent detail that I include, treating it on a ‘need to know’ basis- but that can be tough as such details can really add interest to a piece of prose. Too much ‘look at this’ history can get really old really quickly, as I see in a lot of more prurient works on female killers.
    I also wonder what your thoughts are on how much the study of such individuals should include authorial comment- afterall, history is rarely made up of absolute heroes or villains, but undoubtedly some people did commit acts that caused more suffering than others- should that be included? On the one hand, there seems little historical benefit in total character assassination, but total empathy seems to imply that I think the acts that my subjects committed to be justified (you see that all the time with female killers in particular), which is not the case, or that the past was some sort of amoral anarchic universe where anything went and, as such, that modern emotional or moral reactions to such cases are entirely irrelevant. I often find when I’m presenting my research that I forget how shocking some of the material is, and get frustrated by an audience who I’ve improperly prepared for the material and who want to discuss the horror of the acts rather than get into the historical analysis right away. I think it is important to make clear that I do understand these acts are disturbing and that I’ve not become entirely numbed to these things, but a focus solely on ‘look wasn’t this awful’ seems to be creeping back into the ‘look at this, look at this’ kind of history. Its finding a way to empathise with the horrors of the past, and not deny that such horrors existed, but also find a way to treat them as material for analysis- a tough ask!

    Many thanks


    • Thanks so much for all this food for thought. You said it much better than I could. I particularly had to work through these issues while reading Onselen’s the Fox and the Flies, which is not only prurient in and of itself, but actually also turns to the Jack the Ripper narrative at the end–the ultimate example of the ‘let’s obsess over the prurient past’ phenomenon. I agree that part of our job is to manage the descriptions of abuse and violence so that we are neither denying that they happened–a trap I sometimes fall into, in my efforts to provide a counter-narrative to the ‘abject, miserable, unthinking, helpless victims’ narrative that dominates trafficking discourse even in the present day; but also so that we are not trafficking the violence itself for our own less-than-ethical aims. And I agree on the problem with preparing audiences–a good way to put it. Though with all your thoughtfulness here, it sounds to me like you’re striking precisely the right balance that histories of this kind desperately need. I look forward to seeing more on the research!

  5. Thanks for giving us such a great piece to think about, Julia. As the other commentators have said, the difficult ethics of this sort of microhistory is something you highlight very effectively.

    However I was struck by something else you said: the problem of getting at the ‘voices’ of people who barely ‘speak’ in the archive. Although you have more than many medievalists and early modernists (who would often kill to have letters and witness statements), you still don’t have much to go on. But I like the idea of blurring ‘voice and action, and voice and experience—how elucidating the actions and experiences of people can help me gain some insights into their thoughts, voice, and decisions.’ As you say, we can ‘examine their actions as potential forms of expression’. In many cases I suspect we can actually ‘hear’ more of the thoughts and feelings of our subjects when we ‘listen’ to their actions instead of focusing primarily on the mediated ‘voices’ captured in letters or depositions. Their choices about what to do could be even more important than what they say.

    I suppose this is something we all sometimes do already – we read ideas from actions rather than just from words – but the way you express it is very helpful. It reminds me a bit of Hirschman’s model of exit, voice and loyalty, where ‘voice’ can include violent protest as well as traditional complaints.

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