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  • The No-Nose Club
  • Joseph Darlington (bio)
Itch, Clap, Pox: Venereal Disease in the Eighteenth-Century Imagination by Noelle Gallagher. Yale University Press, 2018. £55. ISBN 9 7803 0021 7056

English manners in the eighteenth century had undergone a revolution. With Puritanism defeated, the bawdy culture of the Restoration surfed in on a tidal wave of smut, scat, and scabies. For the next century, both coarseness and wit would be intertwined with a jaded cynicism and scepticism for all things radical. Markers of the new English liberty included the gin craze, the South Sea Bubble, and a spread of venereal disease rising to near-epidemic levels. [End Page 388]

Noelle Gallagher's new book, Itch, Clap, Pox: Venereal Disease in the Eighteenth-Century Imagination, is a surprising and gripping study of this dark century, both its humour and its discontents. Its focus, venereal disease, is a common enough subject among writers and satirists, but never has it been so perceptively interrogated as in Gallagher's study. By focusing on the 'imagination' – meaning novels, drama, poetry, and satires both written and visual – Gallagher moves beyond the typical medical humanities approach that seeks to unearth the empirical truth of infection, and instead embraces the many raucous and contradictory social attitudes that underwrite the depiction of VD, and particularly syphilis, during the period.

Gallagher takes a thematic approach to analysis, moving freely through a hundred years of material the better to draw out overarching tendencies. The treatment of the subject varies very little, she explains in her introduction, and in fact the study might have been extended back through the seventeenth and forward though the nineteenth century without much alteration. Venereal disease may have appeared more often in eighteenthcentury literature and drama, but its signification changed very little prior to the rise of twentieth-century treatments that offered guaranteed cures. Gallagher splits her analysis into four parts, each building upon the previous one. It begins with the association of aristocratic libertines and soldiers with venereal disease, before moving on to describe its moral link to prostitution. Foreigners are analysed in the third chapter, with an emphasis on the French and Scottish as primary carriers in the public imagination. Finally, the study provides us with 'a chapter of noses', the better to engage with Tristram Shandy – a key text – and the vast amount of nose-based humour and innuendo that followed in the wake of its success.

By engaging with a broad range of material, Gallagher depicts a society with an ambiguous relationship to its own sicknesses. Infection is indeed always paired with moral failings. However, for the soldier and the libertine, such 'war wounds' are to be worn with pride. The infected member becomes a 'curry'd and spiced sausage' that 'peppers' (p. 11) those it touches. Marks of the pox, even to the extent of disfigurement and deformity, could symbolise a valiant commitment to the art of swiving unto death. The Earl of Rochester's 'The Disabled Debauchee' (1680) is a case in point, with its pock-marked speaker celebrating his incapacity as a form of honourable battle injury:

Nor shall the sight of honourable Scars,Which my too forward valor did produce,Frighten new-listed Soldiers from the Wars;Past joyes have more than pay'd what I endure.

(quoted p. 22) [End Page 389]

For women, by contrast, infection can be at one moment a fitting punishment for immorality (see Hogarth's Harlot's Progress), a cruelty inflicted by a philandering suitor (as in Roderick Random), or even a kind of superhuman power: prostitutes carry the disease, infecting men while themselves remaining unaffected. Against the easy reading of these texts as misogynist, Gallagher finds both sympathy and blame expressed for the poor Corinnas and Molls of the satirists' scenes.

The threat of venereal disease is, Gallagher argues, implicitly tied up with patriarchal power. Men are commonly perceived as the active infectors while women, particularly innocent wives, are their infected victims. 'The association of venereal disease with male infidelity', she points out, 'might seem a rare application of the sexual double standard in women's favour' (p. 33). It is up to men, as the less sexually impulsive and more...


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