Mar 232009

The UK newspaper The Daily Mail provides a window into the private life of 18th century English writer Dr Samuel Johnson, specifically his masochistic relationship with another man’s wife, named Hester:

A sunny weekday afternoon in a well-appointed house in Streatham, South London. A generous lunch has been served, and the dining room has echoed with laughter and conversation.

A distinguished male house guest is left alone with his younger and much more attractive hostess. He murmurs something. She flushes and assents. They retire to a private room and lock the door behind them.

She sits on a chair and slips off her shoes. He kneels before her and takes her foot on his lap. He fondles it in his big hands, then stoops to kiss it.

Soon, at his urging, she has bound him hand and foot with padlock and chains, and he – suffused with shame and delight – is submitting to be whipped.

In one 1773 letter – written in elaborately formal French so that, if intercepted by servants, it could not be understood – he begged her [Hester]: ‘I wish, my protector, that your authority will always be clear to me, and that you will keep me in that form of slavery which you know so well how to make blissful.’

But there are signs that Hester – initially compliant – was an increasingly reluctant dominatrix. ‘I will detain you no longer,’ she wrote in reply, ‘so farewell and be good; and do not quarrel with your Governess for not using the rod enough.’

Even so, power play was an integral part of their relationship. In 1779 Johnson told Hester: ‘A woman has such power between the ages of 25 and 45 that she may tye a man to a post and whip him if she will.’

Hester later wrote: ‘This he knew of himself was literally and strictly true I am sure.’

And in a diary entry about her relationship with Johnson – whom she called ‘my slave’ – Hester wrote: ‘The fetters and padlocks will tell posterity the truth.’

This is an instance of the use of Master-slave terminology in an erotic sense, decades before the Munby-Cullwick relationship, which may not have been quite as unique as I thought.

The book is Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers Link

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