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.

Wagner makes frequent references to the ‘need’ for pornography without ever seeking to define the nature of this need. At one point he gestures vaguely in the direction of a social analysis, by suggesting that the spread of pornography ‘served as a kind of “ersatz” for the less fortunate people who were ... hankering after the extra-marital liaisons of the rich and mighty which they could not afford to have. It is obvious that most members of the upper class had not as urgent a need as the lower echelons of society to be acquainted with the sexual adventures of people of their own status. For the former did every day what others were reading about.’ According to this ‘ersatz’ theory, anti-aristocratic pornography served an ‘alleviating function’. But alleviating what? And for whom? If Wagner is suggesting that the encouragement of masturbatory fantasies among the ‘lower echelons’ served to dissipate the sense of social or sexual injustice, why does he also argue that the works of the French pornographers had an important influence on the downfall of the Ancient Régime? ‘This is tricky ground,’ he tells us, and hurries on to his next set of full-frontal exposés.

In a work which deals extensively with the subject of flagellation, it is somewhat disturbing to read that ‘by 1720 Puritanism ... had almost been flogged to death.’ This is a favourite cliché, and we are later told that the themes both of clerical licentiousness and of extra-marital relations had likewise been ‘flogged to death’. Catholics, however, remained ‘the traditional whipping-boy’ of English satire.

Like many a later pornographer, Edmund Curll, whom Wagner dubs ‘the tsar of English pornography’, had a trick of dressing up his wares with lurid catchpenny titles. In this, too, Wagner has caught the true Grub Street flourish. His subtitle, ‘Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America’, which is no doubt intended to boost American sales, is frankly misleading. American erotica is relegated to a mere ten pages at the back of the book for the simple reason, as Wagner reluctantly concedes, that ‘no home-grown pornography was published in 18th-century America.’ In a land where the indigenous pornography industry now grosses several billion dollars per annum it is amusing to observe the earnest scholarly disputes to determine whether the humble doggerel ‘Upon a Fart’ was indeed the first authentic example of All-American smut.

There is a considerable overlap between the material presented in Eros Revived and that examined in ’Tis Nature’s Fault, a volume of scholarly essays on ‘Unauthorised Sexuality during the Enlightenment’. But the differences of approach between the two books further underline the academic limitations of Wagner’s glossy anthology. For Wagner, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a pseudo-medical piece of erotica whose main appeal lay in its descriptions of ‘the Organs of Generation in Women’ and of ‘the Use and Action of the Genitals’. This cursory description confirms Roy Porter’s argument in ’Tis Nature’s Fault that, although well-known, Aristotle’s Masterpiece has too often been dismissed as ‘a mere catchpenny pamphlet’. In a careful exegetical study Porter argues that ‘far from being a pot-pourri of remnants of sexual lore, it is an integrated and coherent work whose unifying theme is the subject of reproduction.’

Similarly, although Wagner’s discussion of Fanny Hill is among the more illuminating sections of his book, it falls short of the analytical subtlety of Peter Sabor’s essay in ’Tis Nature’s Fault. Commenting on the abridgement of the original Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure to the shorter and less explicit Memoirs of Fanny Hill, Wagner concentrates on the exclusion of a homosexual scene, while Sabor cleverly suggests how Cleland’s expurgated text actually makes fun of the business of censorship. ‘At times,’ he writes, ‘the bowdlerised text pruriently draws attention to deleted material in Sternian fashion, through a row of asterisks – such as those that replace the words “I felt his hand on the lower part of my naked thighs” in the original.’ Both Wagner and Sabor quote Fanny’s final ecstatic encounter with her beloved Charles: ‘My thighs, now obedient to the intimations of love and nature, gladly disclose, and with a ready submission resign up the lost gateway to the entrance of pleasure: I see! I feel! the delicious velvet tip! – he enters might and main with – oh! – my pen drops from me here in the ecstasy now present to my faithful memory!’ For Wagner, the euphemistic comedy of Cleland’s style here has a jarring effect. ‘The jaded modern reader, used to hard-core scenes in text and film ... cannot help smiling at Cleland’s “velvet tip”.’ Sabor, less jaded, points to the ingenious parody of Pamela’s writing-to-the-moment technique as the pen drops in homage to the penis.

Paul-Gabriel Boucé’s essay on ‘Chthonic and Pelagic Metaphorisation in Eighteenth-Century English Erotica’ is a virtuoso display of linguistic excarnation, turning the flesh into the word. For Boucé sex is lexis; a vagina is never merely a vagina, but a thesaurus of metaphors; a penis is not just a penis, but an encyclopedia of natural history. As he surveys the mass of Enlightenment erotica, he is stimulated not to sensual gratification but to observvations on ‘the development of such sciences as topography, cartography, geography, obstetrics and botany’. Yet there is surely something tongue-in-cheek about the erudition that can dignify bawdy ballads and smutty squibs in such terms as this: ‘a frequent rhetorical epiphenomenon of the nuclear chthonic metaphor is the use of a bellicose lexis to describe the inevitable “amorous combat”, especially that of poliorcetics.’

Most of the remaining essays in ’Tis Nature’s Fault are devoted to the subject of sodomy – ‘that utterly confusing category’, as Foucault called it. Reading through the counterpointing essays of Randolph Trumbach, G.S. Rousseau, Arend Huussen and Michael Rey is like eavesdropping on a seminar. Participants in the debate argue about who did what to whom, how often and for how much in a way that reinforces rather than removes the sense of confusion about categories. Exchanging rival sets of statistics, mainly based on criminal prosecutions, contributors discuss the differences between a homosexual network and a homosexual subculture, and dispute the significance of the French Police’s substitution of the term ‘pederasty’ for sodomy. For all of them, the sudden spate of prosecutions and executions in Holland between 1730-32 is a fact of major significance. Louis Crompton has referred to these ‘Dutch Massacres’ as the first genocide of homosexuals in Western civilisation, but the contributors to ’Tis Nature’s Fault adopt a more sober tone. Trumbach puts the number of those executed at 267; Rousseau estimates 200, while Huussen’s detailed table of statistics seems to point to a figure of 97. Amid all these calculations, Michael Rey’s perceptive essay on the life-styles of Parisian homosexuals, compiled from the police archives, is both illuminating and elegant. Like many a later police force, the Paris gendarmerie used agents provocateurs to entice homosexuals into illegal acts. Their detailed descriptions of pick-up methods and locations, together with their careful cultivation of gay slang, reveal a certain fascination with the rituals and codes of a sub-culture. One interesting fact which emerges from these studies is the reluctance of male homosexuals to admit to a taste for passive sodomy. Rey’s researches into the police files for 1723-4 indicate that while 35 men were recorded as active sodomites, only five offered themselves as passive partners.

Trumbach’s essay opens with the emphatic declaration that ‘the history of sodomy ... encapsulates the history of all society.’ Just as feminists have for twenty years been attempting to redefine history in terms of her story, so these essays represent a concerted endeavour to re-examine ‘Enlightenment’ values from a homosexual viewpoint. Rousseau’s essay sounds the most evangelical note in its attempt to enrol the champions of Augustan culture in the cause of Gay Liberation. He begins, modestly enough, with Addison and Steele, whom Pope once called ‘a couple of H – s’. But what of Pope himself, and his Scriblerian confederates? Why, Rousseau demands, are Ehrenpreis and Mack so reticent about the ‘frequently homoerotic correspondence’ between Pope and Swift? What of Gay, ‘who never married and whose psychological attachment to the older, if occasionally paternal, Pope merits more attention than it has received?’ Not for the first time Rousseau’s enthusiasm gets the better of his facts here: Gay was actually three years older than Pope. But was Gay then gay? These men, Rousseau opines, ‘were probably not homosexual (certainly there is no evidence of genital activity) but they were homosocial and homoerotic by any definition.’ Newton is enlisted into the gay fraternity, partly on the fictional evidence of John Barth’s Sot Weed Factor; Gray is ‘clearly homosexual’; Akenside is ‘exclusively homosexual’; and Handel is declared ‘more homosocial than the norm for the age’. As Rousseau extends his list to include Burke, Smollett, Cleland and Horace Walpole, his real target becomes clear. It is the ‘prudery and cowardice’ of Augustan scholars who have formed a conspiracy of silence about these matters. Time and again he repeats the charge of prudery and cowardice, each time with a more damning tone. ‘When Frank Manuel suggested that Newton may not have been primarily heterosexual, the Newtonian establishment attacked him as if he had uttered the unthinkable.’ Isaac Kramnick was ‘savaged’ for broaching the subject of Burke’s homosexuality. Wilmarth Lewis was cowardly ‘to pretend that [Horace] Walpole was heterosexual.’ As Rousseau warms to his theme, his essay takes on an imperial sweep. The Mutiny on the Bounty was inspired not, as Hollywood would have us believe, by the nubile females of Tahiti, but by sodomy and sexual sado-masochism; the Grand Tour was less a pursuit of foreign culture than of foreign boys, not palazzi but ragazzi even the loss of the American colonies was in part attributable to the fact, alleged by Rousseau, that the commander of the British forces was gay.

Although Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown diplomatically avoid so vivid a phrase as ‘prudery and cowardice’, their charges against the conservatism of the Augustan establishment are scarcely less severe. For them the taboo areas are not sexual but ideological. ‘Theory’ is the dirty word that has been banned from the vocabulary of 18th-century scholars. The workings of the Augustan establishment are presented as a perfect image of American business organisation. The Yale Boswell industry, for example, is described as an editorial project ‘on the model of American corporate enterprise’ funded by the Mellon banking fortunes. The American Society for 18th-Century Studies, with its regional subsidiaries, its journal and conferences, represents the institutionalisation of scholarship on business lines. Trading under the flag of liberal humanism, Eighteenth Century Inc. exists to promote a product as safe, reassuring and universally recognisable as Coca Cola or Levi jeans. Theory, they argue, represents a dangerous disruption of this cultural cartel, threatening to replace the familiar and prestigious trade-marks with a series of local community projects. They cite Howard Weinbrot’s remarks on the ‘balkanisation’ of literary studies: ‘As scholars take the time to learn about the history of women, popular culture, or the latest version of a derivative critical theory, they take less time to learn about literary texts themselves and the dominant culture that produced them. Consequently the periphery becomes the centre ... ’

The aim of The New Eighteenth Century is to reverse the terms of Weinbrot’s assumptions, and prove that the periphery is the centre. Nussbaum and Brown insist that the apparcnt order and confidence of Augustan culture is based upon the exploitation and marginalisation of such neglected groups as women, servants and slaves. The essays offer a rainbow coalition of scholarly activists, combining to displace, or at least de-stabilise, the notion of a ‘dominant culture’. ‘The most important work,’ the editors argue, ‘always insists on the relations between ideology, gender, race and class, and on the functions of the oppressed and excluded in texts and cultural formulations.’ Writing in the hortatory tones of a manifesto, they lay down strict guidelines for the new work that must be done to ‘re-formulate’ our view of the 18th century. ‘Such a reformulation will require rigorous collaborative efforts of fresh and inventive kinds; it will require reconstructing writing, research and teaching as truly collective activities.’

As in all manifestos, there is a good deal of stereotyping here. The editors represent ‘traditional’ scholars as perpetuating a myth of the 18th century as a ‘tranquil haven’ of political and cultural stability. But it is over seventy years since Saintsbury offered his Survey of 18th-Century Literature as ‘a place of Rest and Refreshment’. In more recent times, humanist critics like Pat Rogers and Claude Rawson have explored the unfrequented alleys of Grub Street and examined the Augustan ideal ‘under stress’. Indeed the word ‘new’ in the title of this book owes more to the Madison Avenue hype of corporate America than to serious literary scholarship. Many of the essays in this volume are interesting, but few are new in ideological terms. John Richetti offers a useful essay on the representation of the underclass of servants and proletarians in 18th-century fiction. Yet his conclusion, that the ‘lower orders’ are largely invisible in the novels of the period, except as comic servants, strongly recalls Orwell’s remarks on Charles Dickens in an essay written in 1939. Significantly, Richetti evidently regards E.P. Thompson’s historical studies of the period as ‘new’, arguing that Thompson’s ‘revisionist view of 18th-century English society emphasises that ruling-class hegemony was imperfect.’ But yesterday’s revisionism is today’s orthodoxy, and if ‘newness’ is to be the watchword, then surely we must take account of the latest revisionist theories of Jonathan Clark and others, which repudiate Thompson’s radicalism and re-assert the hegemony of the ruling class

Laura Brown’s essay on Oroonoko, ‘The Romance of Empire’, is a splendid example of the kind of study which this volume is designed to foster. Written by a woman – Aphra Behn – and dealing with the slave-trade, Oroonoko becomes ‘a theoretical test case for the necessary connections of race and gender – a model for the mutual interaction of the positions of the oppressed in the literary discourse of its own age’. Examining the ways in which both women and slaves become part of the commodity exchange of colonial capitalism, Brown makes a careful study of the noble Oroonoko’s feminised status, particularly in the attention given to exotic dress. Her lucid de-constructionist reading, as precisely formulated as an algebraic theorem, is a most satisfying piece of analysis.

Other essays in the volume make little attempt to seem ‘new’. Fredric Bogel has a fascinating study of ‘Johnson and the role of authority’ which could equally easily have found its way into the despised journal Eighteenth-Century Studies. It begins with two contrasting images. In the Dictionary Johnson defined tripod as ‘a seat with three feet, such as that from which the priestess of Apollo delivered oracles’. Yet Johnson’s own celebrated three-legged chair was a rickety, unstable thing that was only kept upright by Johnson’s ‘considerable dexterity’ and the support of a wall. Bogel’s sensitive exploration of Johnson’s sense of guilt in the assumption of roles of authority is a fine psychological study, and contains some particularly interesting observations on Johnson’s ghost-writing. Carole Fabricant offers an illuminating essay on the 18th-century heritage business showing how, as early as the 1750s, rival guidebooks to the stately homes of England competed in assuring their readers that a Sunday-afternoon trip to Blenheim or Stowe would add ‘a new relish to the day of rest’ and leave ‘the heart better disposed either for a religious thought or a benevolent action’. Her analysis of the political factors underlying the growth of tourism chimes in with Peter Wagner’s comments on the ‘alleviating’ function of pornography. Both Fabricant and Wagner seem to suggest that the relative stability of 18th-century English society in part resulted from a kind of voyeurism. The spirits of the ‘lower orders’ were raised from the miseries of everyday life by seductive glimpses of the obelisks and odalisques of the rich and powerful. It is a thesis which suggests that the land will still be safe for Thatcherism while the newsagents’ shelves are filled with copies of Country Life and Mayfair.

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