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  • Sexual Positions: Men of Pleasure, Economy, and Dignity in Boswell’s London Journal
  • David M. Weed (bio)

The way that James Boswell represents the English metropolis in his London Journal 1762–1763 the morning after he consummates his affair with “Louisa” brings into sharp focus the perturbing connection between masculinity and sexuality that fre quently occupies the young journalist. As he “patrols up and down Fleet Street,” he imagines London as the capital of both national government and pleasure, especially, it seems, sexual pleasure. As the “seat of Parliament,” London stimulates his dreams o f attaining a future place in that legislative body as well as a more permanent residence in a city that affords him plentiful opportunities for sexual liaisons. 1 As the “seat of pleasure,” London provides him with ready access to sex with actresses such as Louisa, “women of fashion,” or any of the numerous prostitutes soliciting in the city. For Boswell, London becomes coterminous with sexual adventure, a place w here men in particular have the “advantages of indulging passion and whim and curiosity.” 2 Elated “after the luscious fatigues of the night” with Louisa, he sexualizes the city and concludes, “I surely may be styled a Man of Pleasure” (140).

Boswell’s elation, however, momentarily obscures the fact that his opinion of the character of the “Man of Pleasure” (whether he or other well-connected and high-ranking Scotsmen in London) conflicts with the model of the restrained, noble, “manly” aristo crat that Boswell desperately wants to establish as a stable and seamless identity, the “natural character” (258) that “God intended me and I myself [End Page 215] chose” (62). He associates this model with being “retenu,” 3 a highly proper and self-controlled “superior animal,” whose “polite reserved behavior, which is the only way to keep up dignity of character” has “always been my favourite idea in my best moments” (61). For Boswell, who is keenly sensitive to the notion that, despite his rank, his national origin places him in an inferior position to the English, 4 the superiority of the retenu is also connected to his perception of the most admirable qualities of English manliness. When Boswell speaks from the position of the retenu, he especially reproaches Scotsmen, including himself, who demean the mselves by engaging in “low” behaviors, from immoderate laughter to unrestricted sexual passion. He associates these low behaviors in particular with the character of the “man of pleasure,” which he giddily assumes at other moments in the text. The man of pleasure is also connected to the relationship between his Scots heritage and his attempt to obtain a position in the Guards. An appointment in the Guards would permit him to remain in London, at leisure to pursue pleasure and sexual adventures, in a rol e that I investigate through its historical associations with “Cavalier” masculinity. Except in one notable entry about “gallantry,” in which Boswell discovers a common ground that briefly connects the retenu to the man of pleasure, the retenu overwhelmingly disdains the “dissipation,” loss of “value,” reduction of superior masculine status, and—for Scotsmen—national inferiority that the man of pleasure represents.

I argue in this essay that this intractable division between the retenu and the Cavalier man of pleasure bespeaks not only the “radical instability” of Boswell’s self, which he perceives as “impossibly divided” in the London Journal, 5 but also demonstrates, through Boswell, the mid-eighteenth-century class and national conflicts between men’s passions and their status as men. 6 Although I concentrate on Boswell’s early journal, I also read his inner turmoil over his character as a guide to the significant changes in the social construction of masculinity in the period. The youthful Boswell is crucial to this project because his position at the nexus of several kinds of masculine identity provides a basis for understanding their pedigrees and their sharp differences from each other. The fluctuations in Boswell’s character, then, suggest the broader cultural tensions that emerge from these various formulations of masculinity. As a Scotsman in England, a member of a high-ranking family, and son to a father who pressures him to adopt a mix of Scots...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-315X
Print ISSN
0013-2586
Pages
pp. 215-234
Launched on MUSE
1998-01-01
Open Access
No
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