To Beg I Am Ashamed By Sheila Cousins , Aka Ronald Matthews, Graham Greene, or Jack Kahane
I came across an old soft-cover edition To Beg I am ashamed; An Autobiography of a Prostitute, by Sheila cousins in a used bookstore in Tel Aviv. In the front matter the blurb read: “This book is an autobiography, an untouched record of fact, and only in a few respects has the original draft been altered.” As the date of first publication was listed as 1953, a period of special interest for me, I purchased the book to learn more about the first- hand experience of the prostitute Sheila Cousins in Britain prior to the Wolfenden Committee.
Yet, approaching a text without a proper preparation has proven to be a reckless endeavor. First a glance at the text assured me that it could not have been written in the 1950s, as the twenty six years old prostitute was born in 1910. Indeed a quick internet search has affirmed that To Beg I Am Ashamed was due to be published in 1938 by Routledge, according to Time Magazine from June 6, 1938 “When the English publishers of To Beg I Am Ashamed sent advance copies to columnists of the London Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, they got an unpleasant surprise: before the book was released both papers appeared with quaint English headlines, such as "A Vile Book," "A Disgraceful Book," with vague stories about its sensationalism, forced its withdrawal.” Thus, the book was first published in Paris 1938 by Obelsik Press, the same English press which published the works of Henry miller, James Joyce, Larence Durrell and Anais Nin and in the United States by Vanguard. In England it finally appeared in 1953.
My ignorance regarding this text continued for several more pages; however, the “professional” literary style of the prose was impossible to ignore. Besides, together with the appreciation of the excellent style my suspicion arose as I felt that the text was actually written by a man. Compelled to resume my search, I was determined to find who was Sheila Cousins.
Since in the front matter of the book note admits that : “To avoid possible offence to persons perfectly innocently implicated in the story, every character in it, including that of the author, has been given a fictitious name while addresses and professions have been changed.” (1960), it was clear that Sheila Cousins does not actually exist. The Obelisk Press of To beg I Am Ashamed mentions another name that of Cecil Barr, yet in the Bodleian catalogue this name appears as a pseudonym of the publisher and novelist Jack Kahane () the owner of Obelisk Press. In the British Library Catalogue under the entry To beg I Am Ashamed, the authors listed are Ronald Matthews and Graham Greene. Yet, although the style of writing of To Beg is curiously similar to that of other works written by Greene at that time, such as England Made Me (1935), as far as I know, he never admitted to writing this book.
At the time this literary hoax “stirred up considerable controversy. It has been viciously attacked and highly praised” (1960). But throughout the years, with no author willing to own it, a To Beg I Am Ashamed, has remained a forgotten literary orphan; its autobiographical claim refuted, and its authenticity tainted. However, as this paper will argue, this work benefits from this cross-gender practice. Impersonating a bona fide a prostitute allows the writer to profess to knowledge based on first hand experience of areas in society which are normally concealed. To borrow Joan Scott’s words in “The Evidence of Experience”: “When the evidence offered is the evidence of ‘experience,’ the claim for referentiality is further buttressed – what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through?” (1991: 777) At the same time, I will demonstrate how the effectiveness of that “first-hand experience” is manipulated by the skills and insights of its professional writer in order to produce an organized social document depicting life at the margin of society in England in the 1930s.
The professional male voice coming through the female/authographer narrator is already illustrated in the title; “To Beg I Am Ashamed” could be read literally as a testimony of the difficult conditions in England at the time. Yet this quote from St Luke 16: 3, the Parable of the Unjust Steward presents some moral implications. In his reading of the parable Cardinal Newman stresses the free choice of the Steward, who after he was found out by his Master could have digged or could have begged, but he rejected those choices and went on to commit further dishonorable acts. If the reader tends to sympathize with the reality of why women went into prostitution, as it was seen as better than begging in the streets, the comparison to the Unjust Steward suggests moral judgement and a certain degree of condemnation toward that choice. Moreover, in using this title the writer removes himself from the prostitute thus perhaps giving the reader a first clue that what is presented before him is actually a work of fiction.
The issue of free choice which is introduced by the writer in the title is explicitly addressed in the opening of the novel: “Because I was born a lady and still look one “How on earth do you come to be doing this?’ is the first question most 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” (7).
This is a fairly straightforward statement and yet, as the “autography” unravels, this statement is undermined and the reader comes to realize that Sheila Cousins was never born a lady and she did not have a choice but was a victim of her background and her circumstances.