A Joke Too Far

Colin Burrow

  • Sir John Harington and the Book as Gift by Jason Scott-Warren
    Oxford, 273 pp, £45.00, August 2001, ISBN 0 19 924445 6

Reader, where are you sitting? Perhaps sunk in a sunlounger by the pool, or perched on a joggling seat on the Tube. Should anyone be reading this on a hard, cold seat in the privy, then they ought to be profoundly grateful to Elizabeth I’s godson Sir John Harington, who in his extraordinary pamphlet The Metamorphosis of Ajax (or ‘A Jakes’ – get it?) invented the flushing water closet. The s-bend was beyond Harington’s technological reach (his privy discharged via a valve directly into a vault beneath), but in a treatise replete with meticulous diagrams and measurements, he describes how to make a sloping basin which could be flushed and refilled with six inches of clean water, insulating the privy from the stench beneath. The invention was presented as a means of avoiding piles, pox and plague. Harington’s great innovation in domestic hygiene was so successful that James I is supposed to have brought him in as a troubleshooter to deal with the privies at Theobalds and Hampton Court.

Harington was much more than a hygienist, however. Indeed, most of his works try to achieve rather too much at once. The Metamorphosis of Ajax is part DIY manual and part minor – and sometimes malodorous – comic masterpiece. Amid endless Rabelaisian jests about privies, it relates the entire history of the Roman sewerage system which Harington learnedly traces through Livy and Sallust. It pauses only when the tireless author gets to the word confornicari in one of his sources and has to call out: ‘Ho sirra bring hither the Dictionarie.’ Harington flips through two volumes – ‘forica, forma, fornicator, (now I think I am neare it), fornix, fornicor, aris, are. There, there’ – before he discovers that the word means ‘to vault or arch any thing. Well said, carrie away the bookes againe,’ rather than ‘to fornicate with’. The joke was probably worth the delay, which mimes its readers’ prurient flutter at the sexy-sounding word. Sterne may have picked up a few tips from Harington.

The main reason jovial, learned, scatological Harington isn’t better known is that he spread his energies so widely among diverse literary kinds. He is best known as a translator rather than an inventor. The story goes that he was ordered by Queen Elizabeth to translate the whole of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso as a penance for having circulated copies of the bawdy tale of Jocundo among the ladies of court. Since Jocundo’s tale is about the compulsive infidelity of women, giving out copies in the court of the Virgin Queen was either a foolish or a deliberately provocative act. Whether or not the anecdote is true (it isn’t recorded until the 18th century) Harington did print his version of Orlando Furioso in 1591; it remains the most vivid and rambunctious translation of this massive, funny, sprawling Italian verse romance. Harington’s Ariosto is stuffed with expensive engravings, including a portrait of Sir John himself with his beloved spaniel Bungey. It was the most sumptuously produced literary text of its era, and its author was not slow to give away copies – several of which were customised by manuscript additions – to the rich and famous.

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