Wednesday, June 2, 2010

recommendation: "The Golden Age of Erotica" (1965 book)

The Golden Age of Erotica by Bernhardt J. Hurwood (1965; though I am here using and quoting from the 1969 paperback reprint by Tandem) is still my favourite sourcebook for the rowdy and raunchy side of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries*--though I suppose it is considered rather dated (to which I say pshaw). From the back:

Painstakingly culled from yellowed manuscripts and the vaults of collectors, the erotic excerpts presented in this unique volume reveal a ribald, bawdy and lusty era that connoisseurs of more up-to-date erotic literature will relish. THE GOLDEN AGE OF EROTICA so vividly brought to light by this book includes the 17th and 18th centuries--the age of FANNY HILL,** TOM JONES, rakish monks and dissolute royalty. In England, France and the new world of America, sin, corruption and immorality ran rampant, making this period one of the most delightfully garish, joyously gaudy and outrageously sexual epochs in history.***

Hurwood tackles this vast subject (and as he notes in his preface, "[p]aradoxically, there was so much erotica produced between the 1660s and the 1890s, that most of it passed into obscurity") from both historical and literary perspectives. He examines a wide variety of erotic art--novels, poetry, drama, paintings--and real-life sexual practices like flagellation and the fad (really) of adultery. He begins with "Poets, Pranksters and Rakehells," which is, I feel, the way one could approach anything and have it immediately become ten times better. Here are some choice quotations from the following chapters (I will not quote from the sources directly, to spare your blushes).

On satire: the infamous Lord Rochester's play Sodom, or, The Quintessence of Debauchery--"[I]n its own peculiar way Sodom contains a reverse morality-in-profanity, for it illustrates with sickening clarity the consequences of perversion, anarchy, and unbridled licentiousness" (p. 23).

On periodicals: the notorious Rambler--"Interested parties could find informative do-it-yourself articles on sexual techniques, health, and flagellation, as well as intimate memoirs, the latest, hottest, Crim. Con. [adultery] cases, and spicy fiction galore" (p. 61).

On flagellation: "Indeed, [though] there is much to be said for those who assert that de Sade's influence accelerated the growth of flagellant literature ... it is beyond doubt that the predilection for flogging long ante-dated the arch-sadist of letters. ... [And] there is no question that the greatest quantity of this specialized erotica is peculiar to the English language ... Perhaps it was the cold climate which originally aroused in Englishmen a desire for whipping" (p. 105).

On hermaphroditism (a subject I'm very interested in): "It greatly appealed to jaded individuals who were uncertain about their own sexual inclinations. By delving into the recondite lore of the hermaphrodite, these indecisive fence-straddlers found all the erotic stimulation they desired without any conflict at all. It simply became unnecessary for them to worry about which sex they found more appealing. Both were embodied in a single entity, thus eliminating the need for troublesome decisions" (pp. 159-60).

On female same-sex relationships: "Women with a fondness for their own sex were either not recognized as sexual deviates, or merely regarded as indulging in a passing fancy. Egotistical males invariably looked upon lesbianism as a second-rate substitute activity practiced by man-starved females" (p. 160).

On aphrodisiacs: "One popular seventeenth century formula included ants, wine, and cinnamon. Others not only included ants, but woodlice, bees, semen, blood, not to mention the genitals of every creature from the rooster to the stag" (p. 185).

Hurwood's tone is always this frank and playful; his discussion never shies prudishly away. He describes this lush and dirty fare from start to finish (ha [sorry]) with a coy tongue in his cheek, nicely shooing away those with incompatible moralities. From the preface:
"Most of the books, plays, anecdotes, and bawdy songs quoted here have been attacked at one time or another as 'indecent,' 'blasphemous,' and worse. In all probability there are still those among us who would delight in pinning similar labels on these works today ... [but] to read excerpts from them is a memorable experience. ... Lurid, fantastic, and wild are the best terms to use in describing these clandestine books of an earlier era. One thing is certain. The word dull can never be applied to them."
Wink-wink-nudge-nudge, indeed. I cannot recommend The Golden Age of Erotica enough, whether you're researching the period--erotica was such a huge part (ha [I'm so sorry]) of the period that in all conscience (look! I worked conscience into this!) you can't ignore it, and Hurwood provides a thorough bibliography--or just fascinated by its sexier angles.

* That is, their best side!
** One of my favourite novels. According to Wikipedia, it's "one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history." I'll give it its own post, trust.
*** Is this final sentence not pure blazing glory?+
+  I was born so far out of my time.

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