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Reviewed by:
  • Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty, and License in the Eighteenth Century
  • James Grantham Turner
Libertine Enlightenment: Sex, Liberty, and License in the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Peter Cryle and Lisa O'Connell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. xii + 256. $65.00 (cloth).

This must have been a marvelous conference at the University of Queensland back in 2001, with French and Australian eighteenth-century experts gathering to discuss "sex, liberty, and license." Of the three entities triangulated in the subtitle, whose triadic relation actually constitutes libertinism or libertinage, sex gets the least attention in Libertine Enlightenment, which consists of thirteen essays based on papers given at that conference. (Hogarth's caricature of John Wilkes leers at us from under a Liberty bonnet on the dust jacket, but Wilkes's obscene Essay on Woman plays a fairly small part in the analysis [23–25].) It is a star-studded collection in the sense that it provides small but intense points of light, case studies rather than large definitions or broad syntheses. This review cannot do justice to all these fascinating and densely documented essays but will concentrate on some points that directly concern readers of this journal. [End Page 206]

Peter Otto, for example, offers a sympathetic account of the sex therapist James Graham, already well known as "Exhibit A" in Roy Porter's case for the sex-positive English Enlightenment. (That should read "British," since Graham was a Scot, like other uninhibited writers about sex in English.) Otto pulls out all the stops when describing Graham's stupendous electro-magnetic Celestial Bed with pipe organ, Cupids, and mirror ceiling, which for £50 per session revivified many respectable Londoners, including the Duchess of Devonshire and Catherine Macauley, but which went out of fashion and had to be sold off within a few years: I hope Liberace is now enjoying it in Heaven. Otto pursues interesting connections between Graham's rapturous sexology and the sublime—but, as often in this book, does so in isolation from previous accounts of the "libertine sublime" in Restoration and eighteenth-century writing. (Nor does the Orientalism of Graham's decor [209] inspire any comment.) Otto's term for Graham, "Spiritual Libertine," has a long history dating back to Calvin (quoted by Patrick Wald Lasowski on p. 237), but you would not gather this from his chapter, absorbing as it is.

One might say that the entire collection is limited by its concentration on a narrow chronological band and (in some cases) by narrow disciplinary specialization. Dix-huitièmistes seem unaware of seventeenth-century precedents, experts in France and Britain seem unfamiliar with each other's realm, and as a result, starting with the editors' overview in the introduction, claims are made for the emergence, freshness, or uniqueness of phenomena that have been thoroughly studied by scholars in adjacent fields (including, I must admit, myself). Thus the introduction calls James Graham "unfamiliar" (6), Mary de la Rivière Manley's scandal-novel Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of both Sexes, from the New Atalantis (1709) "neglect[ed]" (8), and accusations of sexual excess against free-thinkers "unexpected" (5); when the editors do reach back in time, they tell us that Théophile de Viau was "burnt at the stake for being libertine" (7). The new radical sexual philosophy of the 1790s is illustrated by a quotation that actually goes back to Rochester in the 1670s (195). Both in the introduction and in his essay on Casanova Peter Cryle introduces as something new the concept of "high libertinism" and its relationship to the bawdy underworld of popular print (3, 49). Cryle's book Geometry in the Boudoir dealt with sex writing from Aretino onward, often brilliantly, but his chronological grasp was sometimes shaky. His observations on Casanova and Crébillon are sharp, but there is no need to treat as a discovery of the mid-eighteenth century (for example) that the signs of arousal and ardor may be faked or mediated by fashion (52–53); this was exactly the dilemma dramatized by William Wycherley in The Country-Wife (1675). The only contribution with a properly dazzling historical range, in fact, is the flighty tail...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 206-210
Launched on MUSE
2006-01-26
Open Access
No
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