In 1910, a sixteen year old New Zealander named Lydia Harvey boarded a steamship bound for Buenos Aires in the company of a husband and wife who promised her a life of glamor and ease. What resulted was a journey into the world of commercial sex that took her from South America to London, where she turned the tables on her traffickers and became a star witness in their criminal trial. Up until now, that witness testimony constituted Lydia Harvey’s lone moment in the historical spotlight. In the sweeping historical dramas of migration, crime, and sexual commerce, she was, at most, a bit player, who steps fleetingly out of the shadows, speaks her two or three lines, and then disappears.
In her new book The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, the historian Julia Laite places Harvey’s story centre stage. The book that results is a riveting narrative history that puts complex human faces on stories too often told through stock characters: histories of prostitution, of policing, of criminal justice and moral panics. It also is a meditation on the politics of storytelling and the ethics of historical “rescue”, of historians’ efforts to give voice to the voiceless and to spotlight the neglected and obscure.
In this episode of the History Workshop podcast, Julia Laite discusses her book with Marybeth Hamilton.
Julia Laite is Reader in Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. She is also the Birkbeck Director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre and a member of the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal. In addition to her new book on Lydia Harvey, she is the author of Wolfenden’s Women (2020) and Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens (2012) and is principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project Trafficking Past.