Sorry about Part 4. It was really dirty. I'm going to try to regain my dignity here in Part 5 by illustrating it with black-and-white period images and by saying that I discovered Skittles while doing research for my Bad Girls Project at the British Library in London. There's nothing quite like spending days and days and weeks and weeks wandering around a grand library in search of the lost secrets of history.
I'm currently reading The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson's bestselling history of the World Columbian about the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, where he combines the biographies of the fair's main architect and a local doctor who became a notorious serial killer. In his notes section, Larson says that he didn't conduct any primary research using the Internet. "I need physical contact with my sources," he writes, "and there's only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story. There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness."
With my discovery of Skittles, my match in the darkness was the glimpse I got in the library's Rare Book Room of what life in Victorian London must have really been like. The era's suffocating stuffiness was matched by the amoral decadence that all that repression inevitably created. When Skittles arrived in London in the late 1850s, its population numbered about 2 million people, approximately 100,000 of whom were prostitutes. The Industrial Revolution was well underway, and poor rural folk were crowding into city slums to work for the factory owners so despised by Dickens and Marx. Other thinkers, Darwin especially, were producing ideas that challenged the era’s stern religious values. Men were expected to be all-wise providers, and women to meekly obey their husbands. Etiquette was an elaborate art form unto itself, and doing one’s duty to God and family was an act of patriotism. In short, Victorian London was a place of terrible social rigidity, and people found ways to resist. Women sought the right to vote and other escapes from their over-furnished houses, while upstanding men prowled the nightly haunts of the demi-monde. All these factors produced an ideal climate where courtesans could flourish.
Oops. I've just started to bore myself as a storyteller. That stuff about factory owners and Darwin may be true, but it sounds like blah, blah, blah to me. I've spent my entire professional life as a journalist and editor seeking a distanced objectivity from my subject. I'm tired of it. Now I want to rip everything up and start from scratch. I want to talk about my personal relationship with Skittles. I want to say how I feel about her.
How did Skittles become a shining prize to Victorian gentlemen? She was very nice to look at, of course, but once a man started looking, she started talking with an engaging combination of street wit, little stories, sudden fancies and gossip about people they both knew. I can feel myself falling in love with her. She was light and fun, and all those words tumbling from the sweet mouth of a stylish girl made a man feel deliciously free. Oh, how I wish I could have met Skittles and heard her speak.
I admire Skittles for her passionate desire to get ahead in life. She was never vulgar in the early days of her London career, yet her bad manners and unschooled speech were apparent, and she knew it. But she was a great student of people and a quick learner, and within a few years she had smoothed over the roughest parts of her personality.
So there she is in the late 1850s, just starting out as a courtesan, and spending her nights at the Haymarket, the gaslight-illuminated center of London’s bawdier night life, with its French restaurants, oyster bars, Turkish dens and night spots like the Picadilly Saloon. Kate Hamilton’s, a subterranean club of plush and gilt, brings together high-end prostitutes and low-diving gentlemen in a swirl of noisy laughter and the hunt for pleasure. I imagine Skittles was right in the middle of it, enjoying herself.
She meets the owner of a livery stable near Berkeley Square, a man looking for a pretty prostitute to advertise his wares by driving his pony traps around town. Already, Skittles has kept up her riding skills with races at the Cremorne Gardens. Now, driving the liveryman’s hacks and open phaetons, she makes a name for herself among the high society people who ride in Hyde Park’s Rotten Row and Ladies’ Mile, at Ascot, and at Queen Victoria’s staghound meets.
Skittles became a popular London figure. Her photo appeared in shop windows, women copied the styles she created, and letters to newspapers commented on her public appearances. In July of 1862, a cheeky letter from a young man calling himself "H." appeared in The Times. It was a sly complaint about a Hyde Park roadway choked with fashionable carriages filled with snobs vying for a glimpse of a girl he calls "Anonyma." Clearly, Anonyma is Skittles.
"Last year," H. writes, "she avoided crowds, and affected unfrequented roads, where she could more freely exhibit her ponies’ marvelous action, and talk to her male acquaintances with becoming privacy. But as the fame of her beauty and her equipage spread, this privacy became impossible to her. The fashionable world eagerly migrated in search of her from the Ladies Mile to Kensington Road. The highest ladies in the land enlisted themselves as her disciples. Driving became the rage. If she wore a pork pie hat, they wore pork pie hats;
if her paletot was made by Poole, their paletots were made by Poole. If she reverted to more feminine attire, they reverted to it also. Where she drove, they followed; and I must confess none of them sit, dress, drive, or look as well as she does; nor can any of them procure for money such ponies as Anonyma contrives to get—-for love."
In Part 6, a very feeling part, we'll learn about the biggest love of Skittles' life and why he broke her heart.