Peakman collects eight previously published articles and book chapters, plus two new articles based on earlier shared material, in this new volume of her writings. The work, all produced in the last fifteen years, combines to paint a portrait of British sexual culture in the eighteenth century as various and shifting. “There was no one coherent attitude to sex in the eighteenth century,” Peakman argues (147). Old and new beliefs, the enlightened and the bawdy, the normative and the perverse coincided and competed.
Peakman’s focus on sexual culture leads her to explore a wide range of sources, which in turn substantiate her argument about the diversity of eighteenth-century attitudes. Individual chapters examine whores’ biographies, courtesans’ memoirs, erotic gardens, medical texts, manuscript letters, and pornography. Peakman describes her work as taking a “multidisciplinary approach,” although all the chapters fit comfortably within the framework of cultural history (xiii).
Despite the diversity of the chapters, certain themes recur through-out the text. Peakman is centrally concerned with the role of gender in [End Page 255] eighteenth-century sexual culture. Her analysis emphasizes the agency of eighteenth-century women. “Far from being meek inhabitants of an ideological straightjacket of gendered roles, eighteenth-century women did on occasion use opportunities to secure new forms of power and authority,” Peakman argues, concluding that women engaged in a form of “practical feminism” even in the absence of feminist rhetoric (51). This approach frequently leads her to counter arguments that diminish women’s power. She rejects those literary critics who have dismissed the genre of courtesans’ memoirs as written by men for men’s titillation, insisting instead that the works capture “the world of female sexuality as understood by the women themselves” (82). In another example, whereas Trumbach reads scenes of female tribadism in pornographic literature as instructional to readers at a time when no conception of lesbianism existed, Peakman argues that these narratives drew from readers’ extant knowledge of female same-sex sexual practices.1 While Peakman takes a broad view of women’s agency, she balances that approach with clear recognition of the misogyny of the era under study. Her chapter about women’s defloration, which discusses the period’s fetishism for bloody devirgination, makes for tough reading.
If the collection has a weakness, it is that the chapters seem a little cobbled together—unsurprisingly for a book that began as separately published articles and chapters. The book also contains some repetition and lacks a consistent voice. Nonetheless, it is a fun read that should have wide appeal. There’s great pleasure to be had from reading Peakman’s knowledgeable explorations of whores’ biographies, or her insights into the intimacies of Emma Hamilton and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples. This collection has appeal for lay readers and undergraduates, not just specialists.
1. Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution. I. Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment (Chicago, 1998).