Enlightenment Erotica

David Nokes

  • Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America by Peter Wagner
    Secker, 498 pp, £30.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 436 56051 8
  • ’Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorised Sexuality during the Enlightenment edited by Robert Purks Maccubin
    Cambridge, 260 pp, £25.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 521 34539 1
  • The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown
    Methuen, 320 pp, £28.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 416 01631 6

Mary Fiddler, a fine blooming lass of 18, her – is like silk itself, and bubbles as white as snow; she is just in her prime, and fit for business, she is broke in this spring, by a well-known gentleman of the turf. Her movements are regular, her pace elegant, and her action is good: and when you mount her, she begins to f—k away to the tune of the ‘Dandy O’. Her price, 5s. ‘She riggles her a—e su’ cantily.’

The description of this prime young filly, taken from the Edinburgh publication A Genuine List of Sporting Ladies (c. 1770) is typical of many entries from whores’ directories included by Peter Wagner in Eros Revived. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, published regularly between 1760 and the early 1790s, prided itself on providing up-to-date information for the sporting gentlemen of London, including full details of starting prices and hot tips for favourites. Such lists, as Wagner observes, were published less as practical form-books than as a sub-species of erotica designed to stimulate the imagination. The true clientele for these directories were solitary masturbators eking out their lonely pleasures with fantasies of Eliza Booth who ‘when mounted ... causes her rider the most pleasing delirium’, much as one might add relish to a frozen dinner by leafing through an Egon Ronay guide.

What Wagner fails to acknowledge is the extent to which his own book is designed to stimulate similar vicarious thrills. In his opening chapter on ‘Medical and Para-Medical Literature’ he asserts that many pseudo-learned works, such as Aristotle’s Masterpiece, used science as a screen for titillation. ‘More often than not, science served as a veil and morality as a pretext for the discussion of topics that were otherwise taboo or even obscene.’ In much the same way, Eros Revived, with its copious footnotes and voluminous bibliography, lends an air of academic respectability to what is, in reality, a paean in praise of pornography. Lavishly illustrated, handsomely produced and bulging with four-letter fantasies and priapic pleasures, the book has the appeal of an antique Penthouse annual, in which the centrefolds burst forth from scanty period costumes. Wagner presents himself as a tireless researcher in the cause of sexual enlightenment, yet even he has to concede some tedium in the task. ‘No single person can possibly read the thousands of erotic books, pamphlets and broadsides’ published in ‘the Age of Enlightenment’. Indeed, what emerges most forcefully is the sheer volume of erotica in what he terms ‘this macho century’. He draws our attention to the ‘massive’ literature on masturbation, but mercifully spares us the ‘tedious and repetitive enterprise’ of recounting all the examples of lecherous persons in the satires of the period. Yet if, as one contemporary pornographer has affirmed, ‘the essential nature of pornography is repetition,’[*] Wagner is determinedly faithful to the spirit of his subject-matter. With the single-minded dedication of a Casanova or a Don Giovanni he records several hundred literary encounters of Dick and Fanny, Pego and Pussy, until exhaustiveness gives way to exhaustion.

What is most strikingly absent is any sustained attempt at scholarly analysis of the material he presents in such quantities. An interesting section is devoted to the mass of anti-aristocratic pornography which appeared in France in the years preceding the Revolution. ‘If the philosophes had an influence on the events that brought about the revolution, so had the writers of bawdy and obscene chroniques scandaleuses,’ Wagner asserts. Certainly a work like Bordel national sous les auspices de la reine (Paris, 1790) demonstrates a far from reverent attitude towards the French royal family. In one scene Lafayette is described having intercourse with Marie Antoinette while being simultaneously buggered by Bailly. Marie Antoinette declares that her only pleasure is to be foutue en con and wants to engage a whole regiment of soldiers as well as several monastic orders to satisfy her desires. But by allowing anger to vent itself in laughter satire may often be a substitute for, not a summons to, revolution. Rochester’s obscene ‘Satyr on Charles II’ was the work not of a puritan revolutionary but of a privileged fellow libertine, and Private Eye’s fascination with the alleged exploits of ‘Randy Andy’ hardly suggested that the British royal family was in danger from republican zealots. Wagner never attempts to examine the ideological relationship between pornography and politics. He speculates that the sexual atrocities committed against aristocrats during the Revolution ‘may have been inspired by sinister and malicious allegations from political pornography’ but elsewhere assures us that most French pornographers simply adopted the fashionable anti-royalist tone as a convenient pretext for their age-old trade.

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[*] Porn Gold by David Hebditch and Nick Anning (Faber, 401 pp., £14.95, 27 June, 0 571 14683 X).