- Purchase/rental options available:
ELH 72.2 (2005) 471-493
[Access article in PDF]
Sex at Twickenham
In 1865 a pornographic novel called The New Epicurean was published anonymously (it is now thought to be by Edward Sellon) with a title page calling the text a "reprint" of an edition dated 1740. Historicism and anachronism are commonplaces in European pornography, but rarely is the periodization quite so explicit or so precise. The date conspicuously precedes Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749), the first pornographic novel in English, and invokes instead Pamela—like The New Epicurean, a collection of letters published anonymously in 1740. The Richardsonian pedigree is enhanced by a number of narrative details: the title, The New Epicurean: or, the Delights of Sex . . . in Graphic Letters echoes Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded, in a series of Familiar Letters; the protagonist is a man named Sir Charles, a Grandisonian landlord; and the orphaned girls whom he benevolently "saves" from penury are overseen by a Mrs. Jukes, a figure at once Mrs. Jewkes and Mrs. Jarvis, and by a Mrs. J, who resembles Clarissa's Mrs. Sinclair.
By invoking Richardson, Sellon self-consciously places himself within an anti-Pamelist tradition stemming from Fielding to Sade, one that insists upon an intimate connection between the sentimental and the pornographic novel and calls into question sentimental literature's claim to be something other—better—than pornography. Historians of the novel from Ian Watt to William Warner reiterate the anti-Pamelist emphasis on Richardson's exploitation of readerly desire and the conventions of amatory fiction. For Watt, Richardson's "verbosity" makes his erotic scenes "much more suggestive than Boccaccio's": we "know Richardson's characters, and his exhaustive treatment of their reactions to each incident makes us imagine that we are participating in every fascinating advance and retreat as it is reflected in Pamela's excited sensibility."1 Or, as Fielding's Parson Oliver puts it:
notwithstanding our Author's Professions of Modesty . . . I cannot agree that my Daughter should entertain herself with some of his Pictures; which I do not expect to be contemplated without Emotion, unless by one of my Age and Temper, who can see the Girl lie on her Back, with one Arm round Mrs. Jewkes and the other round the Squire, naked [End Page 471] in Bed, with his Hand on her Breasts, &c. with as much Indifference as I read any other Page in the whole Novel.2
Recent work on the history of pornography likewise gives Richardson pride of place in the development of the genre in its novelistic form: according to Bradford Mudge, Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and Memoirs of a Coxcomb "have to be considered as important 'anti-Pamelas,'" and Justine: or, Virtue Well-Chastized is "the most devastating" anti-Pamela of them all.3
Sellon's invocation of Richardson, then, is not surprising: allusions to Richardson seem to be a necessary feature of the pornographic novel from its inception. The answer to the question "Why 1740?" cannot, therefore, end with the observation that the date invokes Pamela and anti-Pamelism. I am interested in more subtle moments of eighteenth-centuriana in the text—in particular the fact that Sir Charles's estate is a "villa at Twickenham."4 The Twickenham context suggests a new literary genealogy for pornography; for while critics agree that Richardson's formal innovations "make possible the novel's role as a popular purveyor of vicarious sexual experience and adolescent wish-fulfillment," no one has thought to trace a line of inheritance from Pope to porn.5
There is, of course, the Essay on Woman. John Wilkes and Thomas Potter's satire on Pope's Essay on Man, and Wilkes's trial for obscenity and blasphemy, are important moments in the history of pornography in England.6 But Wilkes and Potter are not suggesting that there is something pornographic about the life and work of Alexander Pope. Indeed, what's amusing about the Essay on Woman is the presumed disparity between the original and its imitation: as Arthur Cash points...