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Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006) 139-143

Reviewed by
Tim Hitchcock
University of Hertfordshire
Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture. By Karen Harvey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. 272. $80.00 (cloth).

In 1741 Thomas Stretser, writing under the pseudonym Roger Pheuquewell, wrote one of the oddest pieces of literature to emerge from a period famous [End Page 139] for its oddities: A New Description of Merryland. In it, using all the language of geography, biology, and science, he compared female anatomy to a foreign coastline and sex to a journey of discovery. In the same year he also published a detailed attack on and critique of his own work (Merryland Displayed) in which he explained the origin of the idea. He described how, while reading an article about Holland in a new "Geographical Grammar," he was struck by the similarities between the Dutch coastline and the form of female anatomy. "Ha! said he, the same could be said of a **** as well as of Holland; this whim having once entered his noddle, he resolved to pursue the hint, and try how far he could run the parallel" (176). The result was a wildly extended joke at the expense of geographers, explorers, and scientists in which the commonplace understandings of mid-eighteenth-century metropolitan men about women's and men's bodies are exposed for all to read. Karen Harvey's book is at heart an extended exposition on Thomas Stretser's noddle.

The early and mid-eighteenth century was the single most innovative period in the history of British publishing. The picaresque novel was regularized and domesticated and then turned to the service of pornography in the form of Fanny Hill. Serial productions from the Spectator to all the varied forms of the daily and weekly newspaper were created. Scientific publications were standardized and given their patina of authority, and in the background all the forms of ephemera, from tickets and ballads to flysheets and posters, rolled from the presses. The lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695 let upon the world a new cacophony of print. One genre that Karen Harvey argues emerged from this literary melee was "erotica." Harvey defines erotica as "material about sexual pleasure which depicted sex, bodies and desire through illusions of concealment and distance: bodies were represented through metaphor and suggestion, and depictions of sexual activity were characterized by deferral and silence" (20). In essence the object of study is a collection of perhaps fifty pamphlets published between the 1720s and the 1770s that deployed humor to arouse and amuse the reader while maintaining an appearance of respectability by always choosing a Latin word in preference to an Anglo-Saxon one and a metaphor in preference to a bald description. The titles Harvey analyzes include works about men's bodies, and in particular the penis, such as The Natural History of the Arbor Vitae; or, Tree of Life (1732) and The Electrical Eel; or, Gymnotus Electricus, and the Torpedo; a Poem (ca. 1777) and women's bodies and genitals such as A Voyage to Lethe (1756) and, of course, A New Description of Merryland (1741). Most were either pseudonymous or anonymous and were published under pretentious but suggestive names such as Philogynes Clitorides or the more prosaic "Paddy Strong Cock" and "Timothy Touchit." Produced by jobbing writers and publishers working in the bear pit of Grub Street, these pamphlets form a significant new genre created in a period and place that sometimes seems to have wholly invented the modern world of text and narrative. For this reason alone they deserve our attention. Using these [End Page 140] pamphlets, this book reconstructs both the interior world of the authors and the social and mental landscape of the readership, which Harvey argues was made up of literate, clubbable men with a metropolitan bias.

In Harvey's view these works were not meant to be "read with one hand" but...


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