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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 476-478

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Book Review

Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England

The Whore's Story: Women, Pornography, and the British Novel, 1684-1830

Ian Frederick Moulton. Before Pornography: Erotic Writing in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Pp. xiii + 268. $45.00 cloth.

Bradford K. Mudge. The Whore's Story: Women, Pornography, and the British Novel, 1684-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Pp. xiv + 276. $35.00 cloth.

For a long time, the history of sexuality was not studied at all, or only in dark chambers and secret publications. Fortunately, the scholarship of Peter Wagner, Randolf Trumbach, Thomas Lacqueur, Lynn Hunt, and others has brought the subject to light, especially where it relates to the English seventeenth and eighteenth century. The books reviewed here add two illuminating case studies to the growing field studying the relationship between England and Italy with regard to erotic representation in the early modern period, and the separation of pornography from the novel in the long eighteenth century. Before that time, there were certainly sexually explicit erotic representations, but they were not considered a separate genre that needed to be condemned and policed in moral and literary terms. As both authors here agree, pornography is a historical category that has always been, and will always remain, contested terrain.

In The Whore's Story, Bradford Mudge argues that the eighteenth century witnessed a negotiation of the boundaries of legitimate pleasure combined with a separation of literature into "high" and "low" that relegated pornography to the latter category. Around 1700, Mudge writes, the discourses of the novel and pornography were not yet distinguished--as a matter of fact, he claims that "[b]efore 1750, . . . pornography simply did not exist as a recognizable generic category" (27f.). Women were still allowed to participate publicly in the definition of gender roles and women's writing such as Manley's New Atalantis was still able to show feminine sexuality unapologetically and at center stage. Manley and Behn explicitly recognized the importance of sexuality to human interaction and saw love as an economic and political, as well as emotional, exchange.

In contrast, authors as diverse as Defoe and Hogarth argued that art and women should not be commodities, but they simultaneously wavered between showing indignation over moral corruption and calling for its analysis and regulation. In Roxana and Moll Flanders, Defoe tried to separate "good" from "bad" desire, but failed because the pleasure of the narrative undermined his moral intent. As early as 1724, with Bishop Gibson's sermon on masquerades, most writers were condemning female desire by constructing a negative matrix of masquerades, fiction, and prostitution--all using deception and false advertising and all involving illegitimate versions of business and pleasure.

Later in the century, Richardson was more successful in separating "good" and "bad" femininity in Pamela in the opposition of his protagonist and Jewkes, but at the same time Cleland was acknowledging sexual pleasure in Fanny Hill. The cultural response to the inability to distinguish between types of women and fiction was to draw a boundary violently: prostitutes were condemned as evil, and novels such as Cleland's were consigned to the realm of pornography. The new separation gave "pornographic" literature a safe haven and it "grew . . . increasingly accustomed to [its] own marginal position in the cultural scheme of things" (251). [End Page 476]

Mudge's line of reasoning moves in analogy to the arguments of other recent critics who show how competing discourses emerged through rhetorical oppositions that were newly constructed within the primordial mass of early eighteenth-century prose. Just as James Thompson investigates the separation of the languages of political economy and the novel in Models of Value and as Robert Mayer examines the construction of the division between historical and literary prose in History and the Early English Novel, Mudge shows how the pornographic and the novel emerged from the same group of texts by defining themselves against each other--both establishing their...


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