- Excitable Imaginations: Eroticism and Reading in Britain, 1660–1760 by Kathleen Lubey
“Reader, if thou art of an amorous Hue, I advise thee to skip over the next Paragraph” (3). So commenced Henry Fielding’s warning as the tight stays and swelling bosom of Fanny Goodwill loomed in his novel Joseph Andrews. To modern eyes, this might seem a moral feint or a winking invitation to indulge prurient interests. Kathleen Lubey, however, explains authorial instructions such as this, so common in British literature of the era, as calculated to raise the reader’s self-consciousness. She identifies the trend as the product of a century-long set of philosophical and literary enquiries into the epistemological, aesthetic, and moral benefits of reading and the utility of sexual content therein. Excitable Imaginations productively parallels changing philosophical notions of the imagination’s role in acquiring knowledge with the progression of literary strategies for using erotica to train imaginations in ways edifying to the reader and beneficial to society. The commonality of sex in human experience, the connection between bodily sensation and mental reflection, and the excitement and curiosity that the possibility of sexual transgression raises made erotica the perfect medium, some eighteenth-century authors believed, for teaching self-command. As Lubey engagingly demonstrates, enlisting erotic excitement into the project of promoting self-knowledge and moral behavior involved much trial and error.
Whereas John Locke described rational minds transforming sensory perceptions into ideas through reflection, Lubey observes, other late seventeenth-century writers exposed the difficulty of moderating reading’s sensory pleasures with rational thought. Exemplary dangers of wayward imaginations abounded: Samuel Pepys’s infamous failure to be master of his domain while reading L’école des filles, purchased for his wife’s instruction, necessitating that he burn the book so as not to defile his library; poetic laments of ill-timed arousal and orgasm; and treatises on prostitution’s ills professing self-censorship and salutary cautions while trotting out images that could not but spark untoward sexual reactions. In the early [End Page 161] eighteenth century, Joseph Addison confronted the problem by representing the imagination as governable through cultivation of an aesthetic sense. Experiencing the sensory pleasure of beauty through the visual arts or literature heightens the curiosity and desire of a man of taste, opening him up to new perspectives and thereby exercising his rationality. Lubey argues that Eliza Heywood, unlike Addison, had confidence in the impressionable female reader’s capacity for receiving instruction and training, not exposure to dangerous passions, through amatory fiction. For Haywood, learning about the range of illicit and respectable permutations of love prepared readers to recognize and respond properly to morally perilous situations in real life. Experiencing such passions through fictional characters animated the imagination and educated readers on their own inner susceptibilities.
Lubey presents the varied responses to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela as an example of “the emergent genre working to wed a persuasive model of human consciousness with an epistemology of erotic experience as it labors at once to invoke and to ward off the possibility of sexual undoing.” She asserts: “The fusion of sex with self-consciousness is the eroticism of the early novel” (114). Pamela’s transformation from the victim of violent sexual threat into the sexually available bride of her assailant confounded readers. In response, alongside the absurdities of the characters’ dramatic moral rehabilitations, Fielding’s Shamela highlighted the possibilities for immoral responses arising from a reader’s lack of critical distance from the delectable heroine, producing the species of reading Addison had warned produced languor, not learning. Lubey also mines pictorial representations of scenes from the novel to illustrate the possibilities for variant readings. She finds Richardson’s technique less absurd, however, when viewed in the context of lesser-known works of the 1740s that fall into Robert Darnton’s category of “philosophical books,” which linked the acquisition of sexual experience with knowledge of the self and society. She compares this genre to George Cheyne’s narrative of gaining bodily health by learning...