At least, not in the way that we understand the word.
During my research for Oliver Twist, I came across something that gave me pause. To wit, that Nancy is often referred to in reviews and literary criticism as being a prostitute.
Thing is, though, I read the book several times. And I was buggered if I could find any actual evidence pointing that way. The passage in the book that usually gets quoted as proving this runs so:
“They wore a good deal of hair, not very neatly turned up behind, and were rather untidy about the shoes and stockings. They were not exactly pretty, perhaps; but they had a great deal of colour in their faces, and looked quite stout and healthy. Being remarkably free and easy with their manners, Oliver thought them to be very nice girls indeed. Which there is no doubt they were.”
Come on. Really? That single passage is the only evidence in the entire book? That, my friends, is a stretch.
In fact, there’s plenty of evidence against. Nancy says to Fagin “I thieved for you when I was a child not half as old as this! I have been in the same trade, and in the same service, for twelve years since.”
So she states quite clearly that her profession is thief. Not prostitute.
And yet everyone thinks she is. Why?
I managed to chase it down, in the end, to the introduction to the 1841 edition. Dickens himself says it. “That the boys are pickpockets, and the girl is a prostitute.”
So Dickens says that she’s a prostitute – and then puts no evidence for it in the book. The boys are shown picking pockets, Fagin being a fence, Sikes being a murderer, and yet Nancy’s purported profession is never shown or stated within the book.
Seems more than a little odd, doesn’t it?
The answer finally came from The London Underworld in the Victorian Period – a selection of contemporary writings on crime in Victorian times. And there it is on page 83, at the end of the section on prostitutes.
“The last head in our classification is ‘Cohabitant prostitutes’.”
The book then goes on to define a cohabitant prostitute. It’s someone who moves in with a man without being married to them. Someone who has sex before marriage – and continues to do so. A kept woman, as the old phrase has it.
As Nancy is.
A thief, yes. But not a prostitute in the way we would use the word. Nancy is just a woman who lives with her boyfriend, and is supported by him.
And is deeply, tragically, fatally in love.