Julie Peakman, Mighty Lewd Books:The Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-century England. London: Palgrave Macmillan 2003. 296pp. £25 hardback. ISBN 1403915008
This work significantly develops our understanding of obscene and erotic literature and its development as a genre during the eighteenth century in Britain. It is particularly valuable to have the analysis of the production and distribution of obscene materials. Although mechanisms by which obscene literature circulated through the provinces are mentioned, the concentration of the trade in London means that the metropolis forms the chief focus. A number of persistent trends were already in place by the early eighteenth century. Peakman notes the connection between the production and marketing of risqué works and of informative manuals about sex which was to persist well into the twentieth century, as well as the persistent recycling and recirculation of material.
Peakman also analyses various themes and their relationship to popular and scientific understandings of the body and reproductive physiology of the period. The motif of the eroticised landscape and what one might call botanical or horticultural porn is particularly suggestive. Was this perhaps a uniquely British (nation of gardeners, pastoral trope already well-established in mainstream literature) phenomenon? A rather different resort to fruit and flowers encoded sexual information in later works of sex education, while 1920s Lawrentian sexualising of the landscape was satirised by Stella Gibbons’ 1932 Cold Comfort Farm, in Mr Mybug’s ‘God! Those buds had an urgent, phallic, look.’
Peakman indicates the associations of erotic literature with the foreign, specifically Italy and France, as well as with the more generally exotic. Many significant early texts were simply translations and adaptations of continental originals. If the significance of Italy as a site where anything might go looks back to Italy as the decadent site of bloody and perverse happenings in Renaissance drama, the increasing importance of France would result in French standing as a metonym for obscenity in early twentieth century ‘French postcards’ and advertisements for ‘French lessons’.
A particularly illuminating discovery is that the archetypal ‘vice anglais’, flagellation, did not appear as a particular motif in British erotic writing until fairly late in the eighteenth century: although there is some evidence for its existence as an erotic preference and speciality in literary texts and in the paraphernalia confiscated during raids on brothels. Peakman argues that its origins can be found in the flagellation scenes which were common within the salacious revelations of anti-Catholic polemic (derived from French anti-clerical literature, but given a specifically British twist). By the end of the eighteenth century highly formulaic ‘fladge’ texts, detached from this particular framework of lecherous priests, naive novices and conniving mothers superior and set instead within a stylised but recognisable secular British context, were being produced, deploying various tropes already made familiar in studies of Victorian pornography.
There is a subtextual suggestion of a move within pornographic texts from the relatively genial, if unthinkingly male in its preconceptions, bawdry of the early part of the century to increasing interest in relations of dominance and submission, abuse of power, and erotic pain. This therefore pushes Donald Thomas’s suggestion, in A Long Time Burning (1969), of a shift in Victorian pornography into scenarios of ‘greater... unreality’ and increased sadism, rather further back in time, to indicate that development was already well under way by the end of the eighteenth century.
This is one of several places where one might have liked a bit more contextualisation and engagement with other recent works on the development of sexual attitudes and behaviour during the eighteenth century, for example the suggestions of Randolph Trumbach, in Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume One: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London (1998) and Tim Hitchcock in English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (1997), concerning increased male anxiety and growing emphasis on penetrative heterosexual sex as the only permissible model. Sara Toulalan’s work on late seventeenth century erotica tends to push back the ‘origin story’ even earlier than Peakman claims. It would also have been intriguing to relate changing tropes within pornography, and its increasing production and dissemination, to the rise of exactly contemporary fears around onanism. What was the dialectical relationship between the insistence that solitary sex was dangerous, and the growing amount of ‘one-handed literature’?
In spite of these cavils, this is an extremely useful beginning exploration of a still under-investigated area: and, as Peakman makes clear, there are considerable problems of sources and methodology to be taken into account.
Lesley A Hall, Wellcome Library, London