James Grantham Turner. Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London: Sexuality, Politics, and Literary Culture, 1630-1685.
Sex is everywhere, innit? But few admit it. So, at the outset, a debt of gratitude has to be acknowledged to James Turner for assembling a new version of seventeenth-century literary history, from the literature of sexual badinage on the eve of the Civil War, through the sexual satires of the Civil War decade, to the festive sexual culture of the Restoration, the sexuality of its political literature, Aretino's profound influence, and, finally of course, the language and culture of the libertines in the "age of Rochester." The writing is racy and polished, leaping from anecdote to text to archive, and back again. This is especially so in the last chapter, which must surely become required reading for any student of Restoration literature.
The key scholarly move in this book is to recover the "discourse of prostitution," a literary phenomenon continuous with social practice, but scarcely visible except in a liminal way from the vantage point of the major literary canon, or the welter of religious and political writing that belabored this age. Even the English were short of words to explain whoredom positively or equivocally; so one part of the English literature of prostitution is constituted by translation, very largely from the Italian. This shortfall in native writing presents Turner with a significant problem: he can only articulate English libertinism by importing terms from the ancient and continental literary traditions. And at first this feels a little odd--"the faux-Renaissance term pornographia ... The abject porne and the sublime cortegiana honesta or royal mistress"--but the approach convinces as it brings together in our minds striking words and phrases in familiar places with which hitherto we could do little, such as Milton's "vagabond lust." One further example will have to suffice: "carnelevation," "a hybrid of carnival and erection," and noted by Edmund Gayton in 1654 as male street language that was at once "priapic display, ritualized entertainment, and anti-establishment protest."
The placing of sexual economics (congress by contract, but outside marriage) at the heart of the book's argument enables Turner to make a second valuable explanatory move. So much misogynistic literature of the period, not a little of it written by political radicals (i.e., republicans), is a registering of and a resistance to the rise of the female author--who would from mid-century onwards seize the opportunities that the printing press offered. It is thus telling that some of the most pertinent comments, negative and positive, on pornographia come from those women authors most acutely aware of their predicament in the literary marketplace: Margaret Cavendish and Jane Barker.
For all its continental apercus, Libertines and Radicals is a very English book. There is a case for a European-wide consideration of pornographic literature, with detailed comparisons of different cultural practices and languages. It is inadvertently assumed here that all sexual cultures are more or less the same, an impression that is of course undermined even on an intra-English level by a play like The Country Wife, which is given a substantial reading in the last chapter. Although masculinity is a theme in this study, there is little probing into the matter of sex between men, arguably a trickier matter of interpretation, but which Paul Hammond treats admirably in Figuring Sex (Oxford UP, 2002). Turner's is very much a straight book.
Hammond plunders the OED and Gordon Williams' Dictionary of Sexual Language in Renaissance literature for definitions and innuendoes whereas Turner gives us masses of words but without pushing their history back into a longer historical frame of etymological reference--all those moments in dim memory when words meet on the plain of sexual encounter. This is a work dedicated to the haeccitas of the Restoration. And this limit parallels another one, which is sex in high politics and religion. There is a fine section where Turner reads Hobbes in defense, as it were, of the prostitute and the woman author. But the accusations of sexual impropriety, one of the means by which Reformation and post-Reformation theologians traded licks, are not considered. This makes the treatment of mid-century radicals substantially less exciting than it should be, the bibliography in this respect surprisingly incomplete, quite unlike Turner's earlier study, One Flesh (1987). And this despite the careful consideration of the women's petitions, and even when contemporaries thought there was a continuity between radicalism and libertinism. What about the punishing rape by sword and by fiery consumption of the courtly puttana in the late Ranter tract Divine Fireworks (1656)?
It is also worth a cavil in respect of the persistent use of class terms of analysis. The transgressive crossing of boundaries between high and low is, Turner argues, one of the mechanisms by which pornographia works. But I wonder if this is not anachronistic, a view projected from the differently differentiated eighteenth century. Might it not be the case that the social order of early modern England, and the special powers conferred on royal courts, permitted precisely the kinds of connections between different orders of the social hierarchy, and the consequent erotic economy that this study documents so well, and that more prudent, succeeding ages (or contemporary Puritans and republicans) sought to deny or forget? As for Milton sharing the libertines' "sexual mockery of authority" by imagining Charles I copulating with his mother: well, I thought the source was Suetonius. Here come the "Sons of Belial" storming down Cheapside bearing their Loeb copies of the Lives of the Emperors. I could also find no single instance in the notes, except perhaps one, where Turner has actually consulted a real archive (as opposed to a scholarly library): the mind-numbing business of going through legal records provides quick assurance that most early modern life was not a sexual farrago, however pervasive its sexual paradigms were in shaping experience.
But these really are mere quibbles. Libertines and Radicals is exquisite and often wonderful: a genital epic for our ancestors.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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