Mighty Lewd Books, by Julie Peakman

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Nov 072011
 

Peakman, Julie Mighty lewd books: the development of pornography in eighteenth-century England Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 Gbooks

As in just about any discussion of pornography, this book addresses the problem of definition. Peakman “place[s] pornography as one genre within a superfluity of other types of erotica, erotica being used as an overarching description for all books on sex… either overtly or in a ‘hidden’ form; for example, through metaphor, innuendo or implication.” (pg. 7) She defines pornography based on carrying the intention to sexually stimulate. I don’t consider that an adequate definition, as texts that are not pornographic or even erotic (in Peakman’s usage) can be read pornographically. This is particularly relevant in discussing anti-Catholic propaganda/”Convent Tale” pornography. Peakman introduced me to the useful term of metalepsis, “layer upon layer of figurative terms (particularly metaphors) distancing the real subject (sex) under discussion…. It also reveals the multiplicity of images and understandings of men’s and women’s bodies which were current, many of them conflicting, some of them constant.” (Pg.9)

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Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890. Julie Peakman, ed.

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Nov 052011
 

Peakman, Julie (ed.) Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890 Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 Gbooks

Julie Peakman starts off with an interesting question: whether you accept Foucault’s theory about power and discourse or not, how to we explain one person’s choice of sexual acts and object over all the other possibilities?

It is the question of why a person might decide on any particular act which fascinates the historian. Why did some of these activities diminish over time (bestiality diminished when rural activities shifted to urban living), or expand (auto asphyxiation has become more widespread today as the word passed around of its link to sexual stimulation) – this is what really broadens our understanding about sex.

Pg. 8

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin mantelpiece screen

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Sep 062011
 

Here’s an image cribbed from Reynold’s Mightier than the Sword (previously discussed), which shows a mantelpiece screen depicting a black man, brandishing a whip, standing over a black woman, who is half-naked. Another man observes from the background.

A lot of elements in this issue undercut its value as shock propaganda and add the erotic value. The woman is young and shapely, and positioned and dressed so that her breast just peeps from under her arm, and her upper body and arms are nearly uncovered. Her facial expression is hardly fearful or agonized, and seems to be one of ambivalent anticipation. Her dark skin depicted with subtle shading, giving a sense of the shape and texture of her body.

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David S. Reynolds’ “Mightier than the Sword”

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Aug 302011
 

It started with a vision of torture.

According to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the genesis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, arguably one of the most influential books in history, came in Feburary 1851 when she attended communion service. After taking the bread and wine and thinking of the Last Supper and the Passion, a vision hit her, “blown into her mind as by the rushing of a mighty wind.”

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May 262011
 

Gatrell, Vic. City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London Walker & Company, 2006 Pg. 331-44

Two women, one lounging with a birch whip, the other pushing a small boy towards the first

Lady Termagant Flaybum

 

The fill title of the above print, published by William Holland’s shop in 1786 by James Gillray (at the time an up-and-comer in his field), is Lady Termagant Flaybum Going to Give her Step Son a Taste of her Desert after Dinner, A Scene Performed Every Day near Grosvenor Square, to the Annoyance of the Neighbourhood. For a print commissioned as a particularly nasty bit of character assassination and slander, it’s a very well-done work. The faces are uncaricatured and finely detailed.

As Gatrell puts it, “The print carried its own pornographic shadow.” William Holland shared shop space with a publisher of flagellation literature, George Peacock. Peacock published works like Sublime of Flagellation: or Letters from Lady Termagant Flaybum to Lady Harriet Tickletail, of Bumfiddle Hall (c.1777-85) and Exhibition of Female Flagellants in the Modest and Incontinent World (1777). The latter claimed that women engaged in the pleasures of flagellation of their own and others’ children, as much as men. (I.e. projecting fantasies of sadism onto women.) Flagellation themes frequently appeared in Gillray’s work.

The “Lady Termagant Flaybum” name was already known, at least among the wealthier men who could afford such prints, before it was attached to Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800). Born to great wealth and raised to be an educated and freethinking (and somewhat irreligious) woman, Bowes (later Lady Strathmore) was the partial basis for Thackeray’s novel Bary Lyndon. Her main character flaw was rotten taste in men (or maybe the pickings were just slim.) In 1777, she fell for and married all-around scoundrel Andrew Robinson Stoney, “the libertine adventurer incarnate,” as Gatrell puts it.

Stoney managed to get control of Bowes’ estates and used it fund his profligacy, while verbally and physically abusing her. (This came out in the divorce trial a decade later.) He coerced her into writing her own Confessions, a quasi-pornographic work detailing her own flirtations and adulteries, her attempt to get an abortion and her irreligion. When Bowes finally had enough, separated from him and started legal proceedings, his abuse shaded into revenge, stalking her and attacking her character.

Gatrell describes commissioning the Lady Flaybum print as “a resort to image magic against his wife in a culture highly respectful of the image’s power.” Gillray may have been incoherently instructed, as Bowes allegedly had an “unnatural dislike” of her eldest son (not her step-son), and there’s no evidnce she had anything to do with flagellation other than Stoney’s claims. Other Gillray prints picked up on Bowes’ supposed preference to cats over her own children by depicting her nursing cats at her breasts while her son cries, not to mention drinking with and sleeping with servants.

A few months after the publication of the Flaybum print, Stoney actually kidnpapped Bowes with the help of armed thugs and a bribed constable, and fled into the wilds with her, pursued by constables and angry locals. (Life was imitating a Gothic novel.) At last, she was freed and Bowes was stopped in a country field. She went back to London.

The legal battles continued while Stoney was in prison, with Stoney using his wife’s extorted Confessions against her. They were openly published in 1793.

You could see this sordid affair as a collision between the old idea of libertinism and the idea of equal desire between the sexes, and the nascent cult of motherhood that would come to full fruition in the Victorian era. Bowes was as much of a female libertine as it was realistically possible to be, and Stoney’s principal attack on her character was that she was an abusive mother. She had no character to salvage, no way to turn public opinion to her side.

The two semi-pornographic works Stoney commissioned (so to speak) were used to control and to damage his wife via her public reputation (and sad to say, few people cared much about her situation.) What interests me is that these works may have been read as pornography by people who didn’t know or care about the real person they refer to. Furthermore, these images and texts may have hung around and been read by people long after Stoney and Bowes faded from public knowledge or been relevant. I can imagine people in later generations seeing the Flaybum print as inspiration for masochistic erotic fantasy. The two women in the print are depicted as beautiful, not grotesque caricatures as common in such prints.

Gillray was an interesting artist of this period. Whereas Rowlandson was erotic but light and fluffy and never without a humorous or satiric point, Gillray tended towards the blunt and the direct. The rule in high art was to show the moment before violence, but Gillray showed the event itself or its immediately and bloody aftermath. This is not to say that Gillray couldn’t be subtle and witty when he wanted, even about sexual matters.

James Gillray's 'Fashionable Contrasts' (1792), showing male and female feet in shoes, indicating their wearers are in the act of missionary intercourse.

As another example of fetishistic or perverse (mis)reading, this image could be also read as fodder for foot fetish fantasies.

Oct 202010
 

The latest Overthinking It podcast (start at the 30 minutes mark) tangentially ties into the history of BDSM when they discuss the Jackass 3D movie and its relationship to the tradition of mortification of the flesh, which also mentions the Mondo sub-genre of exploitation film and the idea that what we see in the Jackass franchise is really only a pale, watered down of what you can see in the real modern primitive/body modification/shock carnival culture.

This struck me as a parallel to the idea that you can see lots of BDSM/fetish influences in fashion, music videos and so forth, but it’s still toned down and made acceptable to the mainstream. It means there’s still such a thing as alternative culture. (I was made aware of this when I was told that, during my former tenure as communications coordinator for a local BDSM organization, I chose poster designs that were too edgy for our avowed purpose of outreach to new people.)

Mar 292010
 

The Voice in the Corner spanking blog had a post on “the Markham Project.” “Miss Markham” seems to have been a retroactive creation, a shared name used in various femsub spanking writings by various hands over a considerable period of time. Some go as far back as the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine of the 1870s.

The Markham Project was apparently instigated by a professional governess and educationalist, Miss Elisabeth Markham between the 1880s and the early part of the 20th century.

Her aims were to encourage best practice in the training of governesses and the education of young women. She apparently advocated corporal punishment of young women over the age of 16 and unmarried ladies “up to a late age.” Her philosophy was to show that women were not frail creatures and that spanking, caning, birching and other “robust forms of punishment” were essential for discipline and the well-being of “females of all social conditions wishing to better themselves.”

I think a lot of spanking/flagellation erotica of the period imitated the debates over corporal punishment in school and domestic settings, both as protective imitation and as tongue-in-cheek parody. I very much doubt their ever were these flagellation-obsessed schools you read about.

Jan 272010
 

A new book, Why a Saint? by Monsignor Slawomir Oder, alleges that Pope John Paul II practiced self-flagellation.

… even when he was not ill [with cancer and Parkinson’s disease], he inflicted pain on himself, known in Christianity as mortification, so as to feel closer to God.

“In Krakow as in the Vatican, Karol Wojtyla flagellated himself,” Oder writes in the book, citing testimony from people in the late pope’s close entourage while he was bishop in his native Poland and after he was elected pope in 1978.

“In his closet, among his vestments, there was hung on a clothes hanger a particular kind of belt for pants, which he used as a whip,” Oder writes.

When he was bishop in Poland, he often slept on the bare floor so he could practice self-denial and asceticism, Oder writes.

According to Slate’s Explainer column:

The Catholic Church does not officially sanction self-flagellation. But some Popes have spoken favorably of it, and passages of the New Testament have been interpreted as approving of the practice. “[S]hall not we be moved by God’s grace to impose on ourselves some voluntary sufferings and deprivations?” wrote Pope John XXIII in a 1962 encyclical. Some of the earliest references to mortification, as the practice is sometimes called, are in the letters of the apostle Paul, who wrote in the book of Romans, “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye live through the Spirit to mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” And in Colossians, he wrote: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.” Devout Catholics have practiced mild self-flagellation for centuries, often with a simple belt but sometimes using the cattailed whip known as a “discipline.” Some still do. But the practice has become rare since the Vatican II reforms in the 1960s, and it’s rarely discussed in public.

Aug 212009
 

The Grumpy Old Bookman explores the possibility that the classic of Victorian flagellant literature, The Mysteries of Verbena House, was at least in part written by George Augustus Sala, and that the name of the flagellation school in based on a real world flagellation brothel in London’s St. John’s Wood, patronized by Algernon Swinburne.

Sala was certainly known to perhaps the most famous poet of the late nineteenth century, Algernon Swinburne, and Swinburne is said to have admired him greatly. And Swinburne was yet another Victorian who, as a result of his experience at Eton, was totally obsessed by flagellation. Though in his case his interest was masochist rather than sadistic; his sole sexual interest was in being the slave of a beautiful, violent woman.

We know for certain that, in the late 1860s, Swinburne was a regular visitor to a flagellant brothel in St John’s Wood. Here he was able to act out his fantasies. According to Edmund Gosse, writing in 1919, ten years after Swinburne’s death, the brothel was staffed by ‘two golden-haired and rouge-cheeked ladies’; there was also an older woman, who welcomed the guests and took the money.

During the course of a discussion about whether to include such sordid details in an official biography, Gosse wrote to various interested parties and asked them what should be included and what left out. And it is in the course of this correspondence that the poet A.E. Housman is said to have ‘let slip’ that the name of the brothel was Verbena Lodge. The correspondence between Gosse and the others is stored in the British Museum, and one scholar says that few people have been privileged to see it.

I’d really like to see Verbena House, which must have lapsed into public domain long ago, but I can’t find a copy, so far.

The above quote comes from part three of his exploration of Victorian pornography. Parts one and two are also worth checking out.