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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.4 (2001) 491-521
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The Affective Revolution in 1790s Britain
Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob
In the year 1800, Gregory Watt received a remarkable set of scatological and anal erotic letters. 1 Gregory was the youngest son of the then-famous perfecter of the steam engine, James Watt, and his second wife, Annie. The twenty-three year old Gregory's naughty, irreverent exchange occurred with the engineer William Creighton, employed by Boulton and Watt since 1795. 2 Although young men have probably composed scatological and erotic ditties at many times and places throughout history, the correspondence between Watt and Creighton is exceptional in many respects. The letters are unusually explicit and even on occasion illustrated, the erotic and scatological content is interwoven with scientific and literary discussions, and the letter writers, in particular Watt, lead us into the heart of British romantic and radical circles. We will argue here that these letters afford a fascinating look at British male affect and sociability in the period of the French Revolution and they refocus the discussion of male sexuality and sensibility in unexpected ways. [End Page 491]
First, to the letters themselves. Creighton's letters to Watt--we have many more from Creighton to Watt than the reverse--opened with playful and fantastic salutations. Creighton addressed Watt as "Adorable Centaur," "Most gracious Satan," "Resplendent Hellflames," "Beneficent Demon," "Armipotent Chief," "Beautiful blooming Cherubocolos," "Most Enraged Saint," "Sawshawnis Leader, Knight of the Fourth hole," "Satanus Altissimus," and in reference to their geological interests, "Lord Satan, Wonderful Wonder Work, Steinweisenschaftkunstiger etc etc etc etc, Divine Chieftain," and "Most Gracious leader Prince of cubes." Creighton signed his missives only a little less colorfully: "I am thine in the Rocks Chrononhautonthologus," "Peregrinatora Properiwinculum," "Chrononhautonthologus Satanicus," "Kreaunewnheanthownthoughllogloss," and "Thy carbonaceous slave Chrono. . . ." 3
Parody, diablerie, and a kind of carnivalesque male bonding mix together in these greetings. Although it is impossible to track down every one of the possible allusions intended by the two letter writers, Creighton and Watt did speak of some shared literary tastes. In October 1800, Creighton reported toWatt that he had "bought les oeuvres de Rabelais and the Holy Bible at a shop--a most wicked compounding of articles." 4 Eight months later Creighton closed an especially salacious missive by asking Watt if he would like to receive any of Robert Burns's bawdy songs. 5 The fanciful appellations might derive even more directly from eighteenth-century English burlesque theater, for Henry Carey wrote a play titled Chrononhotonthologos that was first performed in 1734. Chrononhotonthologos is the king of Queerumania and his courtiers have such tongue-twisting names as Aldiborontiphoscophornio and Rigdum Funnidos. The plot is too bizarre to recount, but the play does include some lines that must have appealed to young men such as Creighton and Watt. In one expulsive scene, for example, the Captain of the Guards announces:
Th'Antipodean Pow'rs, from Realms below,
Have burst the solid Entrails of the Earth.
Gushing such Cataracts of Forces forth.
And in a scene even more typical of burlesque humor and its lowly associations, Aldiborontiphoscophornio tells the king that the queen is indisposed because
A sudden Diarrhoea's rapid Force,
So stimulates the Peristtaltic [sic] Motion
That all conclude her Royal Life in danger. 6
The burlesque and the traditionally carnivalesque came together in parodic celebration of all that was low, whether in the netherworlds of scripture, geology, or the human body. Above all else, the burlesque took as its targets the sententious and the pompous. We do not know if Creighton or Watt saw or read Carey's play, but it was published repeatedly throughout the eighteenth century. 7 We do know, however, that in the same decade the equally youthful poet Robert Southey and his friend Grosvenor Charles Bedford sent to their student companion, Charles Collins, playful verses that celebrated the gross and the bodily. 8 Southey would gravitate into the same political and intellectual circles habituated by the young Watt and, in precisely the period of Watt's naughty correspondence...