A Tom Jones tour of the past

Lascivious Bodies
February 18, 2005

This is a book written with a shrewd eye for the market, deliberately trailed as written by a pupil of Roy Porter's. It will almost certainly achieve its goals of attracting the audience for crossover history books and being suitable for undergraduate audiences needing a readable introduction to the literature on the history of sexuality, especially as it includes a good historiographical discussion at the end.

However, the aim of accessibility diffuses its focus and leaves some useful themes underexplored, which academic historians will regret. They might also question the book's perpetuation of the Tom Jones stereotype of 18th-century Britain as a cheerful sexual romp with a guilt-free attitude to sexual experimentation, when it might be more accurate to say that because of the commercialisation of print we simply have more recorded evidence of its sexual culture, innovative or not.

For instance, the chapter on the courtesans Peg Plunkett, Harriette Wilson and Julia Johnstone efficiently summarises their memoirs, but it is not sufficiently critical about their nature as texts. The valuable insight that their melodramatic content was part of a new type of bestseller is unfortunately left unexplored, since it raises vital questions about the partial reliability of these life stories as a type of "faction".

That said, there are useful things about this book for those new to the idea that sexuality can have a history. The first chapter deftly sets the scene in metropolitan London, and the second summarises well what we know about courtship norms and debates on marriage.

There are gestures toward the grimmer facts of sexual life - the pervasive absence of hygiene, the incidence of venereal disease and the economic realities determining prostitution. But Julie Peakman would prefer that other pens dwell on guilt and misery and asserts a strangely Whiggish teleology that "lascivious bodies would continue to have their way".

The chapter on homosexuality also looks forward Whiggishly to the advent of modern gay porn and offers accounts of pederasty and court trials for sodomy with little comment on the problematic nature of evidence filtered through court reports. To cover cross-dressing, Peakman offers summaries of the memoirs of the Abbé de Chosiy and the Chevalier d'Eon, but these excursions into French aristocratic eccentrics deflect the focus from 18th-century London social mores.

To illustrate female friendships, the general reader is introduced to the Ladies of Llangollen and Anne Lister, but Prussian and Italian examples again weaken the focus and are inadequately contextualised. A more successful chapter - on female cross-dressers - shows that this was tolerated providing that neither sex nor fraud was involved. Equally useful is the chapter on the libertine male culture of the Monks of Medmenham.

It is possible to read the social history of the century as the achievement of new norms of sexual primness and sentimentalisation of the family - of Victorianism before Victoria. It was a century of recurrently vital religious culture, from the anti-vice proclamations of William III and the lay religious revival of Queen Anne, to Methodism, to the culture of sensibility that was its secular equivalent and to the Evangelical awakening.

Secular, sceptical and materialist trends and philosophies certainly existed but, while for Porter himself these were of paramount significance, this reviewer - also a student of his - would be inclined to emphasise a more complex and conflicted century in which different attitudes and sexual mores fascinatingly coexisted, and religious frameworks remained pervasive and dominant.

Clarissa Campbell Orr is senior lecturer in history, Anglia Polytechnic University.

Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century

Author - Julie Peakman
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 348pp
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 84354 156 4

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