Julie Peakman, Amatory Pleasures: Explorations in Eighteenth-Century Sexual Culture (London: Bloomsbury 2016) 240 pp. £21.99 Pb. ISBN: 9781474226448
Amatory Pleasures is a collection of articles written by Julie Peakman, which seeks to investigate how sex and the sexualised body were constructed in the eighteenth-century imagination. Using samples of the written word (as well as illustration and landscape architecture) produced by both men and women from a range of social classes, the author shows how both genders responded to the mutating cultural impulses of the period through pornography and erotica. Happily, although the essays which make up this volume are drawn from disparate sources published during the past twenty years of Peakman's career, they work together to produce a textured portrait of sexuality during the eighteenth century. Divided into three sections, the first is concerned with ‘norms and anomalies’, looking at ‘normal’ sexual practices (ie the heterosexual relations between married couples) and variations on the same. While the parts of the first chapter which describe eighteenth-century sexual practices in Continental Europe, East Asia, and the British colonies feel somewhat out of place, as the bulk of the book is almost exclusively concerned with sexuality in England, the final discussions of prostitution and homosexuality during this period help to place the chapters that follow.
From Chapter Two we enter the meat of the book: the relationship between sex and the body in eighteenth-century English society, with a particular focus on types of sex regarded as abnormal or even perverse. Perverse sexual practices, we learn, included buggery, bestiality, and cross-dressing, and were considered such because procreation was not possible within these acts. Conversely, pre- or extramarital sex (with whores, courtesans, or mistresses), as well as the consumption of pornographic material, could be regarded as debauched or sinful but not automatically perverse, as there was not necessarily an avoidance of the procreative act. The various pornographic subjects discussed in the second and third chapters reoccur across the volume. Of particular note is the English fascination with the sexual activities of nuns and novices: in erotic literature, Catholicism was situated as seductive for the body as well as the soul. ‘Le vice anglais,’ flagellation, also appears as a prominent interest for eighteenth-century readers. Examining both of these ‘perversions’ reveals a common narrative within erotica: first, the initiation of a young woman into sex by an older woman (often a nun or fellow novice); second, her defloration by a man; finally, the flagellation. We are also introduced to the idea that notions of ‘normal’ versus ‘perverse’ sexual practices were increasingly influenced by new developments in the scientific and medical fields, although religious and community pressures continued to play a role.
The second section of the book is concerned with erotic writing by and about women. The fourth chapter investigates whore biographies, often written by men, while the fifth analyses three courtesan autobiographies. Here, Peakman deconstructs each one to demonstrate that each woman uses the same self-characterisations to reveal to the reader the ‘characteristics necessary for the life and survival of the courtesan’: character ‘types’ that include the Wronged Daughter, the Educated Hostess, the Fallen Woman, the Coquette, and the Vengeful Whore (85). Chapter Six focuses on Cleveland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in order to conduct a more thorough analysis of the aforementioned narrative of lesbian initiation, defloration, and flagellation commonly found in erotica. Particularly enlightening is Chapter Seven, which discusses and analyses the friendship between Emma Hamilton and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples during the former's time stationed with her husband in Italy. Although this chapter deals less explicitly with the actualities of sexuality and the body, Lady Hamilton is revealed as a woman who employed chance and strategy to operate at the heart of military activity overseas. By focusing on her representation as a national heroine in England alongside her sexual and romantic relationships with her husband and with Nelson, Peakman demonstrates the opportunities that amatory adventures offered Emma Hamilton.
The final section of the book turns from writing about prostitution to examine alternative forms of pornographic material, focusing on medicine, topography, and botany in relation to erotica. In Chapter Eight, Peakman discusses anxieties about bodily secretions in both scientific and erotic literature. In Chapter Nine she focuses on scientific textbooks, which began as volumes for serious instruction before astute publishers realised that there was a market for these works among readers with more prurient interests. Scientific writing frequently utilised botanical metaphors and enabled authors to write about sex and sexualised bodies without resorting to obscenity. The final chapter, an analysis of eighteenth-century erotic gardens, such as that constructed by Sir John Dashwood, proposes that such projects enabled sexualised bodies to be brought under men's control. Referring to the cultural changes that occurred in England during the eighteenth century, including the popularity of foreign travel, the neoclassical revival, and Carl Linnaeus's system of botanical classification, Peakman shows how upper-class men took advantage of these developments to pursue their own erotic pleasures.
There are some minor typographical errors throughout the volume, as well as a misleading reading of the Mary Ashford case in 1817, in which a man was tried for the rape and murder of a young woman he was walking home after a dance. In discussing the pamphlets published at the time of the murder, which emphasised Ashford's sexual innocence prior to the evening of her death, Peakman writes: ‘Her respectability and sexual morality was of vital importance to the prosecutor in seeking a conviction – if she had not been a virgin, it would have been more difficult to convict’ (56). This sentence implies that the prosecutor was successful, when in fact the reverse was true: Thornton, the accused, was acquitted of both rape and murder. When Ashford's brother appealed and Thornton was rearrested, the prisoner famously invoked an unrepealed medieval law entitling him to defend his not-guilty plea through judicial combat. The Ashford family surrendered their appeal and Thornton was released, never having been convicted. Nevertheless, it is true that the pamphlets likely did their job among the general readership (Thornton's acquittal caused widespread outrage), and thus Peakman's point still stands: eighteenth-century authors utilised even the most tragic news stories as vehicles for offering salacious sexual details to their readers, as well as providing moral hints as to the correct behaviour of respectable young ladies.
Peakman has published widely on many of the subjects that arise in this collection of essays, and they serve as an excellent introductory text to those wishing to know more about English erotica in the eighteenth century. Although the time-period discussed is long-ranging, the reader is ultimately furnished with a good understanding of the key issues in questions, as well as some knowledge of material for further reading. Peakman's work here is a testament to the complex and often contradictory attitudes that both men and women had towards sexuality in the eighteenth century.
Máire MacNeill, Royal Holloway, University of London