Category The Origins of Sex

Liberty and equality

I have concentrated on the English case; but similar trends can be traced after 1800, at least in outline, in other western European and English-speaking societies. Conversely, one way of characterizing what has happened in the western world since the 1960s would be to say that the Victorian compromise has increasingly broken down. The social importance of marriage has declined spectacularly. Divorce rates have soared. Casual sex is now more commonplace than ever. The mass use of artificial contraception has divorced sex and pleasure more completely than ever before from pregnancy and procreation. As we have seen, the ultimate origins of this greater liberty lay in the social and intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment. So the other important theme in nineteenth – and twentieth-century attitudes was the gradual expansion of sexual freedom, in theory and in practice. The experience of the last fifty years should be seen not as a sharp break with the past, but as an acceleration of these on-going trends, and their increasing expansion into the mainstream of sexual culture.1

Male libertine culture continued to flourish and develop through­out the Regency period and the Victorian and Edwardian ages. Modern city life provided heterosexual men with endless opportun­ities for casual sex; prostitution expanded further all through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. By 1900, easily accessible homosexual subcultures had likewise spread to every port and city across the westernized world. (As Graham Robb puts it, ‘Tchaikov­sky could travel all over Europe and always be sure of finding someone to have sex with’.) As for women, from the 1920s onwards contem­poraries were in no doubt (and subsequent historians have tended to agree) that they were living through the beginnings of a new era, in which urban lifestyles were increasingly associated with liberty for both sexes. The birth of the ‘new woman’ in the early twentieth cen­tury was the point at which mainstream feminism, and norms of femininity more generally, began to develop gradually away from their traditional fixation upon strict pre-marital chastity.2

This slow but steady decline in the sexual double standard was but one symptom of a larger intellectual shift between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries: the steady rise, and eventual triumph, of equal­ity as the guiding principle in ethical and political affairs. One of the foundations of the Victorian compromise had been that rights and norms should differentiate between social groups (whether by race, class, sex, or sexual orientation), for their own good and that of the wider community. Already in the nineteenth century this presumption had been challenged by feminists, socialists, and other progressives, but it was only in the course of the last century that it was seriously weak­ened, and ultimately overturned, by the opposite principle: that, legally and morally, all human beings deserve equal respect. Nowadays we have come to take this idea utterly for granted. So far has it advanced in recent decades that the sexual rights of individuals are now com­monly presumed to be more tangible, and ultimately perhaps even more important, than any notion of public morality or the public good. Even fifty years ago such a consensus would have been unthinkable.

Equally important in bringing about these changes has been the ongoing evolution of ideas about the public and the private. As this book has shown, it was in the eighteenth century that this distinction took on a key role in defining the sphere of sexual freedom. In general terms, ‘private’ behaviour was by definition beyond the scope of legal and communal sanction. On the other hand, whenever actions were perceived to be unnatural, or detrimental to others or to the commu­nity, they remained a matter of legitimate public concern, even if carried out in secret. Thus the boundary between the two was never fixed, but dependent upon the balance of power, opinion, and circum­stance. In essence, the rights of women and of homosexuals to sexual privacy were but weakly asserted in the eighteenth century; advanced somewhat in practice in the nineteenth century; but only became widely accepted and legally established in the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The history of this development contains a remarkable irony. As we have seen, the idea of the right to sexual privacy originally developed out of arguments for the inviolability of religious conscience. Yet nowadays it has expanded so far that trad­itionalist Christians have been reduced to arguing that their religious freedom is being infringed by the equal rights accorded to homosexual men and women, or by the provision of contraception and abortion. In the modern world, the right to express one’s sexual instincts has come to be seen as more important even than spiritual conscience.3

Yet sex is not just more private than ever before: it is also more public. The gradual expansion of the sphere of sexual privacy has taken place alongside a continued and growing interest in the public discussion of sex. The media revolution that began in the eighteenth century did not stop in 1800: the scope and speed of public commu­nication, and its fascination with sexual affairs, continued to develop. Since the 1960s, once again, these trends have further accelerated. Especially notable have been the continued falling away of censorship and personal inhibition, and the recent rise of the internet, which together have further complicated the relationship between the public and the private. Indeed, the great paradox of our times seems to be that, as a culture, we increasingly assert the essential privateness of sex and sexuality as far as the public realm of the state and the law are concerned, yet simultaneously seem to have a growing desire to expose the most intimate details of our lives to the broadest possible public gaze. This is a considerably different balance between the pri­vate and the public than the Victorians upheld, and it has shattered one of the key components of their compromise. The essential ten­sion, as we have seen, goes back to the Enlightenment.

How far, then, have we really come? We like to think of social change in terms of linear progress: that, too, is a legacy of the Enlight­enment. Yet this predisposes us to historical short-sightedness – we easily forget how contingent our present state is, that the past is lit­tered with alternative paths not taken, that even within the last few generations the boundaries of the right to sexual privacy have been continually challenged and redrawn. Both in law and in social prac­tice, the widespread acceptance of sexual freedom for women and for unmarried persons is a comparatively novel development. Even today, across the English-speaking world, the provision of contraception and of abortion remains highly contested, as does the issue of prostitution.

Though it is is variably defined, and often extends to relationships that are not obviously harmful, incest between consenting adults is permitted in some states but elsewhere remains a crime. Divergence of opinion about the limits of sexual freedom remains one of the most contentious cultural issues of our time.

Above all, despite the growing intellectual purchase of ideas of privacy and equality, the extension of homosexual freedom has proved persistently contentious. After homosexual sex in private for men over twenty-one was legalized in Britain in 1967, there was a sharp rise in prosecutions for ‘public’ homosexual cruising: it was not the principle of gay sex, but its confinement out of sight, that the enforce­ment of the new law was intended to promote. As recently as the later 1980s, the United States Supreme Court affirmed that even private, consensual sex between men was intrinsically immoral and punish­able, whilst the government of the United Kingdom made it illegal for any local authority to do anything that might ‘promote homosexual­ity’ or the teaching in schools of ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ – laws which in both cases were not finally overturned until 2003.4 Despite numerous and ongoing challenges, discrimination against same-sex relations persists, not just in respect of marriage, but equally when it comes to the criminaliza­tion of unacceptable forms of behaviour. In the United Kingdom it is now legal for a man to brand his wife on the buttocks with a red-hot iron during sex, but not for men, privately and willingly, to engage in equivalent kinds of sadomasochist ritual – a judgement upheld both by the House of Lords and by the European Court of Human Rights.5 Small wonder that many academics and activists nowadays dismiss the distinction between public and private acts as an ideological con­struct that obscures the broader hegemony throughout society of particular, mainly ‘heteronormative’, presumptions and policies.6

Over the past fifty years the balance between liberty and repression, equality and inequity, individual rights and communal morality, has therefore been constantly shifting. Though their form keeps evolving, questions of sexual morality, private and public, constantly recur: right now, in various ways, they threaten a crisis within the world­wide Catholic church, are tearing apart the global community of Anglican churches, and continue to stir up great passions in American politics. Yet all these disagreements have taken shape within essen­tially new parameters, based on the modern ways of living and thinking that first emerged in the eighteenth century. What is more, the ideals of the Enlightenment are ever more firmly entrenched: the basic idea that sex between consenting adults, irrespective of their sex, sexual orientation, or marital status, is protected by a constitu­tional right to privacy is now, though still controversial, enshrined in the fundamental law of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the United States.7

The ultimate legacy of the Enlightenment has thus been far from straightforward, and its consequences are still unfolding. Yet in retro­spect it is easy to see that it marked the point at which the sexual culture of the west diverged onto a completely new trajectory. If any­thing, the characteristics of that culture – its individualism, its explicitness, its permissiveness, the equal status claimed by women and by homosexuals – have become more distinctive in recent dec­ades, even as the world has grown smaller. They have also been widely influential: just as western feminism has had an impact across the globe, so too have western concepts of sexual freedom.8

In some parts of the world sexual ideals and practices reminiscent of pre-modern Europe nevertheless continue to be upheld. Men and (especially) women remain at risk of public prosecution for having sex outside marriage. Often, the word of God is supposed to justify this. As Ayatollah Khomeini famously affirmed in 1979, the execution of prostitutes, adulterers, and homosexuals was as justified in a moral society as the amputation of gangrenous flesh. In several Islamic coun­tries, imprisonment, flogging, and execution by hanging or even by stoning continue to be imposed on men and women convicted of extra-marital or homosexual relations.9 Even more widespread and deep-rooted is the extra-legal persecution of men and women for such matters. These are the same practices that sustained western culture for most of its history. They rest on very similar foundations – the theocratic authority of holy texts and holy men, intolerance of reli­gious and social pluralism, fear of sexual freedom, the belief that men alone should govern. How they help maintain patriarchal social order is obvious: so too is their cost to human happiness. How durable they will prove to be in the rest of the world remains to be seen.

Liberty and equality

Plate і. Edward Rigby striking an unrepentant pose in 1702. This print was produced just a few
months after his release from prison for attempted sodomy
(see Chapter 2, ‘Thinking the Unthinkable’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 2. The sacrifice of young woman to the lechery of a seasoned debauchee: melodramatic
prints on this subject became immensely popular in the later eighteenth century
(see Chapter 3, ‘Rakes and Harlots’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 3. Pamela fainting, having discovered Mr B hiding in her bedroom to ravish her. In the
background is his accomplice, Mrs Jewkes. From a set of popular illustrations to Samuel
Richardson’s sensational and deeply influential best-seller Pamela (1740)

(see Chapter 3, ‘Novel Attitudes’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 4. William Blake’s life-long fascination with multiple marriage is illustrated by his 1795
print of Lamech, the first polygamist mentioned in the Bible: on the left are his two wives, Adah
and Zillah (Genesis 4.19) (see Chapter 4, ‘Polygamy and Population’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 5. Clarissa Harlowe, her dress already ripped open by the heartless rapist Lovelace,
begs in vain for mercy. A later eighteenth-century illustration to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa
(1747-8), with captions in French as well as English for the benefit of the novel’s innumerable
continental readers (see Chapter 3, ‘Novel Attitudes’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 6. William Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode (1745), opening scene. On the left is the syphilitic
Viscount Squanderfield — ignoring his bride-to-be, who is already intriguing with one of the
lawyers, Mr Silvertongue. On the right their fathers haggle over the marriage contract, interested
only in the material aspects of the match.

Liberty and equality

Plate 7. Marriage a la Mode (1745), final scene. The miserable countess has poisoned herself
upon learning of her lover’s execution. As her crippled, syphilitic baby grips her lifeless face, her
unfeeling, avaricious father strips the rings off her fingers (see Chapter 4, ‘Marriage and Money’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 8. The patriarchal philanthropist: Robert Dingley, merchant and founder of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. On his knee, in the frontispiece to the charity’s published Account (1761), rests one of the penitents (see Chapter 5, ‘Self-interest and Sexual Interest’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 9. The octagonal chapel of the London Magdalen Hospital in Blackfriars Road, which
opened in 1772 and could seat 500 visitors. In the centre of the gallery, visible behind the gauze
screen, are the penitents themselves (see Chapter 5, ‘Self-interest and Sexual Interest’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 10. The dining hall of the Lambeth Asylum for poor orphan girls (founded in 1758), the
inmates in their uniforms apparently being visited by the middle-class family shown at the centre

(see Chapter 5, ‘Chastity and Class’).

Liberty and equality
Plate її. One of the countless consumer objects based on Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress
(1732): an expensive, hand-painted porcelain plate with an image of scene 2, produced at the
Meissen porcelain works in eastern Germany around 1740 (see Chapter 6, ‘The Growth of

Mass Culture’).

Plate 12. Emily Warren, a renowned courtesan, portrayed by Joshua Reynolds in 1781 as Thai’s,
Alexander the Great’s favourite prostitute (see Chapter 6, ‘Sexual Celebrity’).


Liberty and equality

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Liberty and equality

Plate 13. Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth: one of Charles II’s most powerful mistresses, and the object of ceaseless public interest (see Chapter 6, ‘Sexual Celebrity’).

Plate 14. Nell Gwyn, whose rivalry with the Duchess of Portsmouth fascinated
contemporary observers (see Chapter 6, ‘Sexual Celebrity’).


Liberty and equality

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Plate 15. James Gillray’s lurid pun on the name and role of Dorothy Jordan, longtime mistress to
the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV (see Chapter 6, ‘Sexual Celebrity’).


Liberty and equalityPlate 16. One of Joshua Reynolds’s best-known and most – copied paintings of Kitty Fisher (1759): as Cleopatra, dissolving a priceless pearl in wine to impress Marc Antony (see Chapter 6, ‘Self­promotion and Exploitation’).

Liberty and equalityPlate 17. One of the engravings that Reynolds and Fisher commissioned immediately after the portrait’s completion, to bring the image to mass public attention (see Chapter 6, ‘Self­promotion and Exploitation’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 18. Another of the many pictures that Kitty Fisher commissioned to enhance her celebrity
(1765). As well as providing a pun on her name, the goldfish bowl reflects a crowd of people
peering through the window to catch a glimpse of the famous courtesan
(see Chapter 6, ‘Self-promotion and Exploitation’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 19. William Heath, Which is the Dirtiest (1820): the estranged Queen Caroline and King
George IV, flinging filth at one another – it sticks to him, but not to her
(see Chapter 6, ‘Self-promotion and Exploitation’).

Liberty and equality

Plate 20. A smiling Mary Anne Clarke and her printer and publisher rejoice in their enormous
pay-offs, as the relieved Prince of Wales and other noblemen destroy the damning evidence of
corruption and immorality that her memoirs had threatened to uncover
(see Chapter 6, ‘Self-promotion and Exploitation’).


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Liberty and equality

Plate 21. An 1825 satire on Harriette Wilson’s practice of writing blackmailing letters to her
former lovers, offering them the opportunity to buy themselves out of her memoirs
(see Chapter 6, ‘Self-promotion and Exploitation’).

Plate 22. The central ritual object of the ‘Beggar’s Benison’ sex club: the platter upon which its
members collectively ejaculated (see Chapter 6, ‘Celebrating Sex’).

Liberty and equality

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* Though not the early Stuart MP Sir Sydney Montagu, who was fond of saying ‘that he that doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it upon his head’: The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews, 11 vols (1970-83), i. 261.

f His strong views on this subject are equally evident in his anonymous translation of Ovid, composed at exactly the time that his relationship with Mary Daniel was devel­oping. In recommending flattery and deceit, the poet had advised men that ‘if a girl insists upon a promise of marriage, give it her, and bind it by many oaths: for no indictment lies for this sort of perjury’. To these lines Fielding, who nowhere else criticizes the work’s morality, appended an urgent footnote: ‘This is the most excep­tionable passage in the whole work . . . we cannot help expressing our detestation of

49. This documentary print by Paul Sandby shows a family of
ballad-sellers in 1760 hawking copies of other (now lost) publications
about Kitty Fisher. To attract attention, and in tribute to her name,
the man is carrying them around attached to the end of a fishing rod:
‘Come, who’ll fish in my fishpond?’, he cries.

[1] 25 Henry VIII c. 6; 18 Elizabeth c. 3. The latter law was probably intended to apply only where the bastard child was likely to require financial support from the parish. When the legislation was updated in 1610 the new statute made this explicit: hence­forth the mothers of bastards who were a charge on the parish were to be imprisoned at hard labour for a year (7 James I c. 4). They were often also whipped.

[2] The deliberately distorted Latin phrase means something like ‘you will collect fre­quently: you will rise up’.

[3] The churchwardens of St Mary Whitechapel and St Botolph Bishopsgate subse­quently appealed against these orders, and the children were passed back again – such brutal shipping of children and adults back and forth whilst parish officers wrangled about their legal place of settlement was not uncommon under the poor law: London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/047/LJ/13/1700 (City Sessions Papers, Dec. 1700).

[4] Cf. 1 Peter 2.11: ‘abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul’.

[5] To avoid this fate she escaped from prison disguised as a man, ran away to Paris and, when the High Commission pursued her even there, converted to Catholicism and entered a nunnery (though before long she fell out with the nuns and departed again).

[6] In 1683 the Quaker leaders George Whitehead and William Crouch complained to the Archbishop of Canterbury ‘about the great sufferings of our Friends by inform­ers. . . telling him what wicked persons they were, and that many of them had for­sworn themselves, and deserved to be indicted for perjury: and what a dishonour it was to their Church, to employ such agents to force people to a conformity by perse­cution. . . To excuse them, his answer was, There must be some crooked timber used in building a ship’. The Christian Progress of… George Whitehead (1725), 500.

[7] Though not entirely: see below, pp. 89-90.

! ‘Set the nation free’, orders the king of Sodom, in which the proclamation of bug­gery stands satirically for Charles Il’s Declaration of Indulgence (1672), ‘Let con­science have its force of liberty’: The Works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. Harold Love (1999), 305.

[8] See below, Chapter 4, ‘Polygamy and Population’.

[9] The sectarian practice of private marriage also led to predictable charges of adultery and fornication: see e. g. Truth Cleared from Reproaches (1654), 1-6; Laur[ence] Claxton [i. e. Clarkson], The Lost Sheep Found (1660), 15-17; Adrian Davies, The Quakers in English Society 1655-1725 (2000), 39-40.

[10] That all humans had an intrinsic attraction to chastity, reasoned Hutcheson, was proved by the fact that libertines seduced modest women despite the availability of prostitutes: ‘Chastity it self has a powerful charm in the eyes of the dissolute, even when they are attempting to destroy it’ (An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725), 235; the same argument can be found in the anonymous popular pamphlet A Conference about Whoring (1725), 26).

[11] Monmouth himself lived, and died, by the same principles. When, at his execution in 1685, the two bishops present on the scaffold badgered him to repent his adulterous life, even refusing him communion, he replied angrily that he cared much more for his mistress than his wife, and had been faithful to her: ODNB.

[12] Though staunch upholders of conventional morality were apt to dismiss such evi­dence as fanciful. ‘Meeting with a celebrated book, a volume of Captain Cook’s voy­ages,’ recorded John Wesley in his diary on 17 December 1773, ‘I sat down to read it with huge expectation. But how was I disappointed. I observed, 1. Things absolutely incredible: A nation. . . without any sense of shame! Men and women coupling

together in the face of the sun, and in the sight of scores of people! . . . Hume or Vol­

taire might believe this: but I cannot.’

[15] ‘When I hear a fine gentleman talking much about his honour before women,’ observed a mid-eighteenth-century author, ‘it gives me the same impression as if I heard him say, Ladies, you may very safely grant my request, and let me lie with you; for I assure you, I am a man of honour, and never boast of those favours’. An Essay on Modern Gallantry [c. 1750], 9.

[16] Though critics of sexual toleration were quick to point out that even common pros­titutes were ‘wives and daughters’, whose families were affected by their actions: [George Bluet?], An Enquiry whether a General Practice of Virtue tends to the Wealth or Poverty, Benefit or Disadvantage of a People? (1725), 141-6.

[17] Between them, notes Barbara Taylor, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and her sister in the 1780s and 1790s chalked up ‘two marriages, seven affairs (including two probable lesbian ones on the part of the Duchess, one of them a menage a trois involv­ing her husband), and nine children, three of them illegitimate’: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination (2003), 200.

[18] Though in one later unpublished fragment of a memoir, looking back on her life, she was bitterly to attack what she had by then come to regard as a masculine tyranny: ‘the worshippers of free love not only preyed upon one another, but preyed equally upon their own individual selves, turning their existence into a perfect hell. . . The selfishness, the treachery, and meanness, and the cruelty practised by the opponents of marriage and the misery these same opponents induced. . . exceeded any amount of the same results produced by marriage’: printed in Daisy Hay, Young Romantics (2OIo), 307-9.

[19] Or, as the libertine poet and politician Sir Charles Hanbury Williams put it, in a private, humorous ode to the young, beautiful Horatio Townshend (inspired by Horace, Ode IV): ‘Come to my Breast, my Lovely Boy! / Thou Source of Greek and Roman Joy! / And let my Arms entwine ’ye; / Behold my strong erected Tarse [i. e. Cock], / Display your plump, and milk-white Arse, / Young, blooming, Ligurine!’: Yale Lewis Walpole Library, MS CHW 69, fol. 19 (1740).

[20] The next time he dared visit, the barber deposed, ‘as soon as he came into the room, the Warden said to him, How dost do, my dear barber? It’s fine weather, my dear bar­ber. How does thy cock do, my dear barber? Let me feel it; and then went to kiss him’: A Faithful Narrative of the Proceedings in a late Affair between the Rev. Mr. John Swinton and Mr. George Baker (1739), 18.

[21] ‘Evidence of participation not altogether wanting, though certainly not absolutely conclusive’ was Bentham’s ultimate verdict on the last point (Bentham MSS, clxi. 339). ‘Would probably be prosecuted, if published to-day,’ noted the UCL cataloguer when he came across these papers in the 1930s.

[22] When drafting some of his earliest statements on the decriminalization of sodomy, in the 1770s, Bentham envisaged them as part of a larger volume on penal law, intend­ing that these passages should be printed in Latin and inserted only in ‘some copies’ of the work. Towards the end of his life, he conceived of publishing his arguments for sexual toleration at much greater length, and anonymously, as a two-part work to be called Not Paul, but Jesus. In 1817 he drew up a prospectus of it, addressed to the fabulously rich bisexual writer and art collector William Beckford. The first part, which he eventually published under this title in 1823, using the pseudonym ‘Gamaliel Smith’, was intended to undermine the authority and doctrines of St Paul as the basis of conventional, ascetic Christian morality. The second part, ‘not proposed to be pub­lished till some time after the first’, which was to uphold ‘the liberty of [sexual] taste’ on utilitarian grounds, remained unfinished and unpublished.33

[23] ‘Those unfortunate women who live by prostitution’, concurred Adam Smith in 1776, were ‘the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions’: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skin­ner and W. B. Todd (1976), I. xi. b. 41.

[24] ‘ For an historian’, by contrast, ‘great abilities. . . are not requisite’, noted Samuel Johnson, ‘for in historical composition, all the greatest powers of the human mind are quiescent’ – ‘no writer has a more easy task than the historian’: Boswell’s Life of John­son, ed. George Birkbeck Hill and L. F. Powell, 6 vols (1934-50), i. 424-5.

[25] concerned was Richardson to drive home the reality of such scen­arios that, of all the 173 letters in the volume, to this one alone he appended a postscript stressing its absolute truth: ‘N. B. This shocking story is taken from the mouth of the young woman herself, who so narrowly escaped the snare of the vile procuress; and is fact in every circumstance.’4

In his novels, the same facts come vividly to life. His heroines are all virgins who are pursued, abducted, and under constant threat from

[26] Indeed he was a useless seducer, complained one male critic: ‘how sheepishly does he act, and what blunders does he not commit?’ If he’d acted with more guile and confidence ‘he would have met with less and less resistance, till at last he might have accomplished his desires, before Miss Pamela had certainly known what he would be at’: Critical Remarks on Sir Charles Grandison (1754), 22-3.

[27] It was ridiculous how obsessed everyone was with the ‘fictitious merit’ of female chastity, complained Shelley in 1812: in truth, seduction was a term which ‘could have no meaning, in a rational society’. The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. Frederick L. Jones, 2 vols (1964), i. 323.

[28] In the first letter she ever wrote to Richardson, in the midst of reading Clarissa, she had already (anonymously) confessed ‘though I shall blush. . . that if I was to die for it, I cannot help being fond of Lovelace’, and fantasized about his redemption: ‘a fault­less husband have I made him, even without danger of a relapse’ (The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, ed. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, 6 vols (1804), iv. 180-81).

[29] The same point was to be made by John Stuart Mill in 1826: ‘Good treatment of women. . . is one of the surest marks of high civilization. But it seems to be very little considered, in what good treatment of women consists. It does not consist in treating them as idols to be worshipped, or as trinkets to be worn for display; any more than in shutting them up like jewels in a case, removed from the light of the sun and the sight of men. In both cases, this treatment is a proof that they are valued; else why are so much pains taken about them? But in both cases they are valued exactly like beau­tiful trinkets; the value set upon them is quite compatible with perfect indifference to their happiness or misery.’ The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. J. M. Robson et al., 33 vols (1963-91), xx. 45-6.

this sentiment, which appears shocking even in a heathen writer’: [Henry Fielding], Ovid’s Art of Love Paraphrased (1747), 71.

[31] The philosopher Francis Hutcheson thought he had an even better idea – adulterers should be divorced, but forbidden to marry ‘the partner of their guilt’; instead they would be compelled ‘to marriages with persons formerly infamous, and of sufficient lust for them, to prevent their corrupting others’: Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, 2 vols (1755), ii. 181.

[32] Though Delany, unsurprisingly, robustly affirmed orthodox arguments against poly­gamy, it is perhaps not irrelevant to his interest in the subject that his own marriage to a rich widow a few years earlier had been entirely prudential – he was already in love with none other than Mary Pendarves (whom we met earlier in this chapter), and she with him. When his first wife died in 1742, Delany quickly travelled to England, pro­posed, and finally was married to Mary Pendarves, more than a decade after they had first met. She was to become one of Richardson’s favourite correspondents and advis­ers.

[33] For Dr Johnson’s characteristically ambiguous views on the subject (bigamy was wrong; but he himself had often fantasized about keeping a seraglio), see Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill and L. F. Powell, 6 vols (1934-50), v. 216-17.

[34] Malthus, characteristically, was to argue both that polygamy, like whoring, was less productive, and that, in certain circumstances, it led to overpopulation and misery: T. R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population [edns of 1803-26], ed. Patricia James, 2 vols (1989), i. 28, 32-4, 55, 88, 92, 111; and ibid., i. 80, 90-92.

[35] See above, Chapter 1, ‘God’s Revolution’.

[36] There was a similar hardening of racial attitudes. Across the British Empire, white colonial distaste for the supposedly lax mores of other races was increasingly promin­ent. At home, in 1782 the governors of the Lambeth Asylum decreed that it should admit ‘no negro or mulatto girl’; the following year, the Magdalen Hospital likewise barred all ‘black women’. An Account of the Institution and Proceedings of the Guardians of the Asylum (1782), 17; H. F. B. Compston, The Magdalen Hospital (1917), 200; Philippa Levene (ed.), Gender and Empire (2004), ch. 6.

[37] Although the high-minded Lord Hardwicke liked to tell the story of how, con­fronted with a nude double-portrait of Fanny Murray and Kitty Fisher, he had, to its owner’s astonishment, been able to express ‘his perfect ignorance’ of who the subjects were: Richard Cooksey, Essay on the Life and Character of John Lord Somers (Wor­cester, 1791), 102-3.

[38] At some point such names, like those of famous fictional characters, even came to be given to pet dogs, such as the favourite Jack Russell terriers of the High Court judge Sir Christopher French QC (1925-2003), who were called Lucy Lockett, Polly Pea – chum, Roderick Random, Matthew Bramble, and Kitty Fisher: The Daily Telegraph, 27 March 2003.

[39] Not to be outdone, his rival John Fielding exploited his powers as a magistrate to publicize his own scheme. First he instigated a series of raids on brothels; then, in the manner of a press conference, he interrogated each arrested prostitute in front of a large, invited audience, and had the results published in the papers – ‘in order to shew the public in general, and the worthy subscribers to the Asylum or House of Refuge for deserted girls in particular, the great necessity of such a provision, and the great good this charity may produce’.15

[40] As the feminist sexual reformer Janet Chance put it in 1931, ‘In spite of all the talk about sex experience, in spite of all the apparent equality of outlook amongst the younger generation, passion in England remains a lopsided affair. The men, more or less, for their part, know what can be. The women, for their part, often do not’: The Cost of English Morals (1931), 36.

[41] At an earlier trial of another purportedly obscene novel, he had asked the jurors if they’d be willing at Christmas to distribute the book ‘as presents to the girls in the office – and if not, why not?’

[42] This was the state of affairs that the impeccably patrician Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (1894-1986), grew up taking for granted, and whose apparent breakdown from the 1960s onwards left him bewildered. As he recalled at the very end of his life, ‘in the old days you could be absolutely sure that you could go to a restaurant with your wife and not see a man that you knew having lunch with a tart. It was all kept separate, but this does not seem to happen these days’: Alastair Horne, Macmillan i957-19s6 (i989h 495.


To explore their development after 1800 in detail would require a comprehensive description of the whole period: for, as was the case in preceding centuries, the evolution of sexual attitudes reflected the changing characteristics of the culture in general. My aim here is more modest. Histories of modern sexuality rarely consider the world before 1800, whilst their characterizations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries vary widely – one authoritative recent account of Victorian mores argues for the sensuality of nineteenth-century pri­vate life, whilst another stresses its general ‘anti-sensualism’. 1 The intention of these concluding pages is simply to explain how some of the most obvious characteristics and contradictions of the modern sexual world grew out of the developments described in this book.

At a basic level, attitudes after 1800 evolved in two contrasting ways. On the one hand we can trace continued, or even tightened, social control over various forms of sexual behaviour. Though the machinery of public punishment had been largely abandoned, its ideals were not. In part, as we have seen, this was inherent in new, enlightened ways of thinking, which did not discard the distinction between permissible and impermissible sex, but merely redefined it. In the eighteenth century, the growth of ‘natural’ sexual freedom for middle – and upper-class heterosexual men went hand in hand with the sharper proscription of what was defined as ‘unnatural’ or socially objectionable behaviour. In the nineteenth century, as scientific ways of describing sexuality took on new-found authority, they were like­wise mainly used to argue for the undesirability of female lust, same-sex behaviour, or sexual licence amongst the lower classes. Simi­lar ideals of ‘social purity’ were central to feminist and other progressive ideologies long into the twentieth century. Modern ways of thinking did not necessarily lead to greater liberty, at least not for everyone.

In any case, not everyone believed in them equally. The decades around 1800 also saw a fierce backlash against the perceived excesses of Enlightenment principles and practices. There were many reasons for this, which went much deeper than a simple distaste of permissive­ness. The most obvious cause was the ongoing political crisis of the age, which began with the loss of Britain’s North American colonies, continued through the terrifying cataclysm of the French Revolution, and culminated in the British ancien regime’s desperate wars for sur­vival against the forces of radicalism, both at home and abroad. Equally unsettling were the unprecedented demographic and eco­nomic changes of the period: a further colossal surge in the population (from about five million in 1700 to almost twenty million by the 1850s), and a huge expansion of the industrial and commercial econ­omy, of urban living, and of mass poverty.

Against this backdrop of apparent national decline and social upheaval, the importance of religious faith and of social conservatism came to be widely reaffirmed: only by going back to basics would the nation find its way again. This outlook was part of the inspiration for the great religious revivals that swept the period, both in England and in North America, and for the intellectual Counter-Enlightenment. Christian and conservative observers often saw the spread of sexual freedom as the central manifestation of a broader cultural malaise, and the reassertion of moral discipline as the most urgent task in national regeneration. ‘It is impossible to find a more apt description of a corrupt, profligate, and vicious age’, urged the loyalist writer John Bowles in 1800, than one which palliated sex outside marriage: but ‘such a description is unfortunately applicable to the present times; and a stronger proof cannot exist of extreme and general depravity’. Amongst the common people, warned the panic-mongering Anti-Jacobin Review around the same time,

this species of profligacy, so detestable in itself, and so pernicious in its con­sequences, both to the individuals, and to the community at large, has increased of late years, especially in the metropolis, to an extent that is almost incredible. Adultery and concubinage in the lower classes of society are unhappily most prevalent, and culprits of this description so rarely attend worship, and so seldom become objects of legal punishment, that little hopes of reformation remain. – Yet how can we expect a nation to flourish where the people are so abandoned!2

Already in the middle of the eighteenth century such views had ani­mated the early Methodist movement: its founder, John Wesley, was one of the chief supporters of the revived London Society for Refor­mation of Manners in the 1750s and 1760s. From the 1780s onwards, as the evangelical revival took hold within the Church of England itself, it inspired a much more powerful, broadly based, and long- lasting campaign for national moral reform. Along with the abolition of the slave trade, this was the life-long mission of its great leader, Wil­liam Wilberforce, a campaign to which he felt he had been called by divine providence. ‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners,’ he recorded in his diary in 1787, soon after his spiritual awakening: he set to work immediately, and never looked back. Out of this tide of reaction were born philanthropic efforts to re-educate the lower orders, such as the Sunday school movement (which began in the 1780s), more punitive initiatives such as the Society for the Suppres­sion of Vice (1802), and unceasing attacks on the prevalence of upper-class debauchery. Underpinning it all was a flood of propa­ganda reasserting orthodox Christian values and propriety, such as the enormous quantities of edifying penny-pamphlets produced for the Religious Tract Society by the movement’s chief publicist, Hannah More.3

Have you looked at Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? Horace Walpole mischievously asked Mrs More in 1792. Certainly not, she replied: ‘there is something fantastic and absurd in the very title’. But when she did read Wollstonecraft’s post­humous novel, Maria (1798), she exploded in anger at its message that contemporary marriage laws were unjust and ‘that adultery is justifiable’. ‘Let us take comfort,’ she advised her readers, ‘these atro­cious principles are not yet adopted into common practice . . . Clear and strongly marked distinctions between right and wrong still sub­sist’ – it was everybody’s duty to uphold them. This was the context that spawned the deeply conservative and massively influential writ­ings on population of the clergyman Robert Malthus. In the eyes of most orthodox and governmental observers his theories seemed to provide scientific, incontrovertible proof that without ‘moral restraint’ (i. e. the confining of sex within marriage) demographic catastrophe and national decline would inevitably ensue.

The cumulative effect of all these currents can be clearly seen in the changing moral tone of late eighteenth – and nineteenth-century Anglo-American society. By the 1820s, most commentators agreed that public manners had become more decorous in recent decades, and sexual vice more restrained (though they disagreed on whether it had been merely pushed underground, or really reduced). In 1837, Queen Victoria’s ascent and example were seen as confirming this trend, rather than inaugurating a new age. And many historians would now concur that this ‘Victorian’ avowal of strict boundaries on sexual freedom, and the repression of various forms of sensuality, lasted well beyond 1901 – indeed, that it was a dominant feature of western sexual culture until the 1960s. So pervasive did this outlook become that it gradually affected sexual relations even within mar­riage. Between 1800 and 1920, for example, rates of childbirth in most western countries plummeted by fifty per cent or more. This was a permanent change, and it appears to have been brought about not principally by any innovation in birth control, but by the mass adoption of techniques of sexual restraint within settled relation­ships – abstinence, limits on intercourse, the use of coitus interruptus. (It was only towards the middle of the twentieth century that the bal­ance began to shift towards the artificial methods of contraception that are now the norm, and which have allowed for greater sexual freedom without a revival of the birth rate.)4

A vital component in this re-emphasis on discipline was the relative desexualization of women. This book has tried to explain the eighteenth-century origins of this remarkable trend: but it reached its fullest development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For women of all classes, sexual ignorance and passivity came increas­ingly to be valued as essential components of respectable femininity and heterosexual love. This was not just a male ideal: most women themselves deeply internalized it, and policed it in others. Nor did it apply only to virgins. As is vividly apparent from recent oral histories of twentieth-century sex, it remained the norm even when women became sexually active within marriage – and this, too, was a pattern that persisted well into the later twentieth century. Men, by contrast, were expected to take the initiative, to be sexually knowledgeable, and to understand that nice women would not necessarily enjoy sex very much.5 [40] Publicly, this double standard was expressed every­where, in the most blatant terms. It was not until 1991 that English law formally recognized the concept of rape within marriage.

Just as important, especially in the English context, was the further development of social double standards. Regulating, controlling, and forcibly improving the sexual mores of the working classes became in the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, an immense fixation for many middle – and upper-class politicians, commentators, and social reformers. Like gender (and, especially in colonial contexts, race), class became a crucial marker of sexual otherness, which could be powerfully attractive as well as repellent. We can see this effect in countless private lives. It fuelled the fascination of innumerable prop­ertied men and women with the lives and characters of prostitutes; it informed the sexual voyeurism of Victorian and Edwardian social investigators more generally; and it pervaded the everyday interactions of women and men throughout urban life. In one of the best – documented London examples, the gentleman civil servant Arthur Munby (1828-1910) spent his life sexually obsessing over, and docu­menting, the tension between the conventional feminine i deals of his day and the bodies of the strong, dirty, disfigured, working-class women who populated the city. He endlessly watched, interviewed, sketched, photographed, described, and catalogued them, titillated by the contrast between his power and their degradation. For decades he courted one particular menial servant, Hannah Culwick; eventually they were married secretly. But until her death in 1909 she lived with him, and without him, as his servant, as a working woman – acting out for him, and for the world, over and over again, their private and public rituals of female, lower-class, submission, innocence, and bod­ily objectification.6

The same fascinations, and cross-class dynamics of wealth and power, fuelled same-sex affairs between men. Whether cruising in a crowded shopping street or in the privacy of a Turkish bath, for many better-off men the thrill of a clandestine liaison with some ‘rough trade’ was clearly heightened by the frisson of social transgression. In 1953, one of the patrician characters of The Heart in Exile, a sympathetic and best-selling novel about homosexual life in London, looked back wistfully on this apparently disappearing culture. ‘People like us have less money now’, he complained, ‘the working class no longer respects us as they did’ – whereas previously, young working-class men

were yours for the asking. . . Boys accepted us because we were class. . . they liked us because, unlike women, we didn’t cost them money. I suppose we made a fuss of them, which their girls didn’t. Anyhow, today they can afford women, and if they don’t want women they have plenty of money for other amusements.

‘We don’t like people like ourselves’, explained another, ‘we don’t want anybody who shares our standards. I mean educated, middle class and so on. In fact, we want the very opposite. We want the primitive, the uneducated, the tough.’

Heterosexual attitudes to same-sex behaviour were just as deeply inflected by presumptions about class. As doctors, lawyers, and crimin­ologists struggled to understand homosexual desire, they tended to distinguish between the apparently more loving and ‘natural’ passions of mature, respectable men, and the perverted promiscuous practices supposedly more common amongst working-class queers – which, as a handbook on the Psychological Treatment of Crime explained with distaste in 1949, simply combined ‘primitive sexual interests with an interest towards all forms of sexual activity’.7

Similar double standards characterized attitudes towards hetero­sexual prostitution. This was a prime enabler of sexual freedom for bourgeois men, yet perpetuated the depravation of lower-class women: small wonder that its class basis provoked such strong feelings on all sides. Equally telling was the character of ninteenth – and early twentieth – century censorship. The Victorians and their successors put considerable efforts into limiting the public availability of sexually explicit materials. To a certain extent it proved possible to push sexual imagery, writing, and information underground, and to police its availability. Yet this did not prevent ever-greater quantities of pornography from being clandestinely produced and circulated. Many gentlemen amassed huge collections of it: the main concern was simply to keep immoral mater­ials away from women and from the masses. In i960, when Penguin Books was prosecuted for publishing D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, this outlook was echoed in the opening speech of the lead prosecutor, J. M. G. Griffith-Jones (of Eton, Cambridge, and the Coldstream Guards). After he lost the trial, his remarks were to be held up by more liberal commentators as notoriously ill-judged; yet in earlier decades they would have been wholly unexceptional. Naturally, Griffith-Jones stressed, in this modern day and age it would be wrong to ‘approach this matter in any priggish, high-minded, super-correct, mid-Victorian manner’. Nonetheless, the essential test for the jury was

to ask yourselves the question, when you have read it through, would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?[41]8

The subject of Lawrence’s book, written in the later 1920s, was itself of course a testament to the great English obsession with sex and class.

The final key feature of modern boundaries on sexual freedom was the growing frequency and harshness with which homosexual men were persecuted, both legally and socially. This was once more a development that had its origins in the eighteenth century, but took on even greater prominence after 1800. It was, again, especially marked in England. Throughout the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of prosecutions and convictions per year for sodomy and homosexual indecency. Until the 1830s Englishmen were regularly executed for ‘buggery’: between 1810 and 1835, forty-six men were judicially killed for this crime. Thousands more were publicly humili­ated in the pillory, or sentenced to jail for their unnatural perversions. Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment at hard labour for two years in 1895 is only the best-known example. Even more remarkable than this Vic­torian severity is that, in numerical terms at least, it was vastly outstripped by the huge twentieth-century increase in legal persecu­tion of homosexual behaviour. At the time of Wilde’s trial, such incidents amounted to about 5 per cent of all trials for crimes against a person; by the later 1950s, the figure had increased to over 20 per cent – in other words, thousands of prosecutions per year. The same dramatic surge took place in other European countries and across the United States. To curb homosexuality, perhaps even to exterminate it, was for many decades a prominent concern of public policy.9 There was far less overt anxiety about lesbian sex, which had never even fallen under any criminal law. Yet it is telling that, all the same, even its mere discussion in public was regarded as a threat to morality. In 1921, a proposal to criminalize sex between women was rejected in parliament partly because it was felt undesirable to draw the practices of ‘an extremely small minority’ of women to the attention of the vast majority ‘who have never heard of this at all’. Likewise, when in 1928 Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness tried to advocate toler­ance for female ‘inverts’, its message was summarily deemed ‘obscene’ and ‘unnatural’, and the book banned.10

At the root of this collective nineteenth – and twentieth-century con­cern to restrict supposedly unnatural sexual practices was an important development in how such behaviour was conceived. Rather than as sinful actions, they were increasingly likely to be viewed as the marks of a deviant personality, whose origins (whether in nature or nurture) now became the focus of intense debate. The typology of ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ behaviour thus came to be mapped on to a medicalized pathology of character-types – the homosexual ‘invert’, the ‘nymphomaniac’, the ‘criminal woman’, and so on. As we have seen, this approach had its origins in the Enlightenment desire to understand human nature in new, scientific ways; but it grew increas­ingly elaborate and powerful in subsequent centuries, as medicine and biology became ever more authoritative determinants of what was sexually and socially ‘natural’. (This was one of the chief insights of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1976), the most influential late twentieth-century study of the subject.) Here was born our essen­tially modern way of thinking in terms of sexual identities, rather than sexual acts, and our obsession with labelling others and our­selves accordingly.11

Even after 1800, therefore, sexuality continued to be policed in a variety of important ways. Though the machinery of public punish­ment had been largely abandoned as far as sex between men and women was concerned, it was directed with increasing practical and symbolic force at ‘unnatural’ behaviour. More generally, the ideals of sexual restraint, newly reinforced, had a profound impact on main­stream attitudes and behaviour. Yet there were several crucial differences between the sexual regimes of the modern and the pre­modern worlds. As we have seen, there was now always in sexual matters a question over the exact boundaries between the public and the private domain. Overt policing was also a low priority for the major institutions of government: modern ways of enforcing discip­line were much more diffuse and fragmented. All in all, the norms of sexual discipline were far less hegemonic than before, and in contin­ual and growing tension with alternative lifestyles and attitudes.

The result was a sexual culture riven by, indeed dependent on, a whole series of contradictions and hypocrisies – this is sometimes called the ‘Victorian compromise’, though its essential features lasted into the later twentieth century. It was one in which, at one level, sex­ual matters were being continually dissected, discussed, and publicized; and, at another level, were supposed to be hidden away from sight. It was a culture in which what was normal and permissible behaviour and knowledge varied strongly according to class and sex – and in which the transgression of those boundaries consequently became highly sexualized. It was equally one that, in its quest to shore up moral norms, attempted to draw the boundaries between the public and the private with ever greater rigour, so that exactly the same behaviour could be treated according to widely different standards, depending on its exposure. As the political history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries abundantly illustrates, sex outside marriage by men was generally silently tolerated – yet if their conduct became public it was to be fiercely condemned.[42]

This combination of paradoxes explains the variety of scholarly views on the essential character of Victorian and early twentieth-century sexual culture. It is easy to find well-off men who revelled in sexual freedom; not hard to notice the huge population of prostitutes. On such grounds, some early (and male) historians of Victorian sexuality were keen to highlight its erotic aspects. More recent and feminist scholars by contrast have tended to reaffirm the endless ways in which women in this society, and to a lesser extent men too, were indoctrin­ated in the repression of sexual desire.12 Take again Arthur Munby and Hannah Culwick. Almost everything about Munby’s outlook on women was, actually or potentially, sexualized. He thought about

their bodies constantly. The two of them kissed: they saw each other naked. Yet in half a century together they never seem to have had intercourse. Theirs was undoubtedly a highly unusual relationship: yet there is no better illustration of the Victorian tension between sex­ual obsession and restraint.

Epilogue: Modern Cultures of. Sex – from the Victorians to the. Twenty-first Century

How we perceive the past, what we see in it and what we ignore, depends on our current perspective. Anyone who has looked back over their own life at various points will appreciate that. It is equally true of historical writing: the past looks different to different histor­ians and at different times. This book grew out of my attempt to understand the profound chasm between our present attitudes to sex and those that prevailed for most of western history. In describing this change I have highlighted the themes and the time-frame that seemed to me most evidently important, and concentrated on the views of the educated middling and upper classes of the period. This was not a democratic world: its public culture was disproportionately shaped and controlled by these dominant social groups. Yet, as I have tried to show, it was also an increasingly open and pluralist society, in which sexual attitudes were far from uniform.

Other scholars and scientists take different perspectives. Some would lay greater stress on the limits of sexual discipline before the eighteenth century, or on its continued strength thereafter, or on varia­tions between sexes, classes, and regions. Others assert that the most fundamental aspects of sexual behaviour are neurologically hardwired into our brains, so that studying the history of sexual attitudes doesn’t reveal anything significant. But that is like saying that politics is always about the pursuit of power, without trying to understand how govern­ment evolved from tribal conflict to parliamentary democracy, or why even today it takes such different forms around the world.

How we view the past equally shapes how we see the present. The argument of this book has been that the origin of modern western attitudes to sex lies in the great intellectual and social revolutions of the eighteenth century. For well over a thousand years, from the early middle ages to the seventeenth century, the enforcement of ever – stricter public discipline over sexual behaviour was a central preoccupation of every Christian community across the globe – yet by 1800 this had been replaced by a fundamentally different outlook. This radical transformation laid the ground for the sexual culture of the Victorians, of the twentieth century, and of our own day.

The most basic modern novelty was a perennial indeterminacy about the limits of sexual freedom. In place of a relatively coherent, authoritative world view that had endured for centuries, the Enlight­enment left a much greater confusion and plurality of moral perspectives, with irresolvable tensions between them. That has been part of our modern condition ever since. So, too, have been the growth of sexual liberty; the increasing dominance of urban ways of living and discussing sex; the presumption that men are naturally more sex­ually active and women more passive; an enduring association between morality and class; and our endlessly fluctuating obsessions with ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ behaviour, pornography and celebrity, and the distinction between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’. These have been the dominant themes of nineteenth – and twentieth-century sex­ual culture. Only by looking back at the transition from the pre-modern to the modern world can we properly understand where they came from.


By the end of the eighteenth century, a new openness about sex had transformed the culture of the English-speaking world. A whole range of sexual ideas and practices, within and without marriage, was now discussed, celebrated, and indulged more publicly than ever before.

From our own perspective it is easy to see the limits of this new toler­ance. For an unmarried woman to conceive a child out of wedlock remained a social disaster that could ruin her life. For two men to have sex with each other was even more dangerous. It was primarily the heterosexual libido of white, propertied men that was celebrated – that was, after all, where power and cultural influence were concentrated in this society. Nonetheless, as we have seen, the accept­ance of sex as natural, pleasurable, and empowering, was to be found in other circles too.1

Much more striking than its limitations is the contrast between the new frankness of the eighteenth century and the culture of discipline that had dominated English society up until that point. Gone was almost the entire formal machinery of sexual policing by the church and state. Gone, too, was the intellectual and social environment that had sustained it. The public discussion of sex was now vastly greater in scale and complexity; it was no longer tightly controlled by a male clerical and social elite; and it no longer overwhelmingly communi­cated the message that sex outside marriage was dangerous and wrong. On the contrary, by 1800 this presumption was constantly being denied, implicitly and explicitly, in a huge variety of new media. The result was a wholly new universe of communication, in which ideas about sex were shaped in radically different ways. This was a seismic shift. It was also primarily an urban phenomenon, one that was led by developments in London. Even in the cities of the far-away North American colonies, it was the capital’s culture that was the dominant influence.2 The principles of sexual discipline retained great authority throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as we shall see in the Epilogue: but they never again held such dominant sway. Henceforth, it was rather the tension between restraint and hedonism that was to determine the sexual culture of the English­speaking world.

The effects were remarkable. By 1800, it had become common for members of the aristocracy and gentry to live much more openly than ever before in unmarried and adulterous relationships. At various points in the later eighteenth century this was true of the Prime Min­ister, the Lord Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Duke of York, the Prince of Wales, and countless other notable men and women. Several of the Founding Fathers of the United States, including Franklin, Burr, Jefferson, and Hamilton, shared the same outlook. 3 It was an ethos that would have been inconceivable to the Pilgrim Fathers and their English counterparts.

Sexual pleasure was now also increasingly celebrated communally, in special masculine clubs. One of its most vigorous proponents, the politician Sir Francis Dashwood, founded several libertine societies. At the centre of his estate he built a Temple to Venus, landscaped to resemble a gigantic vagina – his was the company for which John Wilkes in 1763 was to print his infamous erotic poem, the Essay on Woman. Even more remarkable was a much humbler club called ‘the Beggar’s Benison’, which from the 1730s onwards spread from the east coast of Scotland to Edinburgh, Glasgow, and as far afield as St Petersburg in Russia. Its members met regularly to drink, talk about sex, exchange bawdy jokes and songs, and read pornography. They paid young women to strip and display themselves naked. Their cen­tral purpose was to compare penises and masturbate in front of one another, singly and together, in elaborate rites of phallic celebration. The club’s membership was a cross-section of respectable, middle – aged, propertied society: clergymen, noblemen, gentlemen, lawyers, army officers, customs men, merchants, craftsmen, and academics. Even though most of its records and artefacts have been lost, there still survives a remarkable collection of the club’s ritual objects, adorned with texts and images celebrating sexual freedom – medals, seals, sashes, diplomas, punch bowls, phallic wine glasses, a specially embellished Bible, and a round pewter platter with various obscene decorations, upon which members collectively ejaculated (see plate 22).4

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also became the great age of the English courtesan. These women, the heirs of Kitty Fisher and Fanny Murray, were not mere mistresses but independent sexual entrepreneurs, whose fame and fortune sometimes rivalled that of their male companions. Nancy Parsons, the daughter of a tailor, was successively the lover of the Duke of Grafton and the Duke of Dorset, then married the Viscount Maynard, and finally, in her early fifties and with Lord Maynard’s consent, became the companion of the teenaged Duke of Bedford. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, after being divorced by her husband for adultery with an Irish peer, became the longtime mistress of the Earl of Cholmondeley, and the sometime lover of various French noblemen, as well as of the Prince of Wales. Her illegitimate daughter married into the peerage. Countless others achieved greater or lesser renown.5

Especially in London and other towns, there grew up a huge mater­ial and cultural industry devoted to sexual pleasure. Prostitution became ever more visible and extensive. Bagnios and other places of assignation advertised openly, as did men and women seeking marital or sexual adventure. Sexual disease and sexual health were publicly debated. Newspapers incessantly discussed sexual scandals and per­sonalities: several even devoted themselves entirely to sexual gossip and titillation. Overtly erotic pictures and writings also became more


51. One of the illustrations to the seven-volume Trials for Adultery (1:779-80), which avidly chronicled the sexual peccadilloes of divorcing aristocrats.



52-55. The celebration of gentlemanly sexual freedom: two engravings
from an illustrated edition of John Cleland’s pornographic novel, Memoirs
of a Woman of Pleasure (1766), and two of the many erotic prints
produced by Thomas Rowlandson around 1800.



widely available. Before the later seventeenth century, pornographic writing had been largely confined to Latin, Greek, Italian and French texts; much of it circulated only in manuscript; all of it was produced and consumed fairly clandestinely. In the later eighteenth century, however, there developed a flourishing trade in English erotica. Though the publishing of obscenity remained illegal, pornography was now much more common and easily available. By the turn of the century, it was possible even for schoolgirls and rural clergymen to obtain commercially produced erotic books and illustrations of ‘naked men and women in carnal connection with each other; in different situations, standing, lying, sitting, all of the most indecent kind’ (see illustrations 52 to 55) / All this reflected a new appreciation of sex as the modern, enlightened, natural, rational pleasure par excellence. It also was a consequence of the media revolution. The changes it had inaugurated, and the infinite opportunities it provided for the publici – zation and celebration of sex, were here to stay.


The rising popularity of courtesans was therefore part of a whole ser­ies of interrelated developments in eighteenth-century society. It was the product of new attitudes to fame and notoriety, of novel forms of writing, of changing attitudes towards public opinion, and of shifting assumptions about personal identity. It also epitomized the emergence of a new type of mass media, in which private affairs and personal opinions were publicized on a previously unthinkable scale. Its lasting significance can be interpreted in two contrasting ways.

The first is to highlight the artificiality of material that celebrated immoral women. A lot of it – whether memoirs, or anecdotes, or portraits – was designed, at least superficially, to look truthful. Yet if we look closer it is equally evident that most of it was made up, by male writers and publishers. As with all biography, one attraction seems to have been the promise of authenticity, the revelation of pri­vate information and secrets about well-known people. So tempting are the style and format of many made-up accounts, and so scarce other sources, that many modern historians, and even the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, have tended to treat them as essen­tially true.1 We should also remember, though, that eighteenth-century readers loved ambiguity about fact and fiction. Whether or not particu­lar stories were accurate was ultimately not necessarily important: their purpose was to entertain and to instruct. From this perspective, most writing about courtesans was no different, in form and function, from contemporary fiction. It can tell us quite a lot about eighteenth-century culture, but very little about the women it purported to describe. As much as it reflected and amplified their fame, it also distorted and abused it, projecting onto them, without their consent, other people’s lies and fantasies.

Yet reputation in any society is not just a matter of public percep­tion and projection. It also depends on one’s own actions. The other way to interpret the publicity surrounding infamous women in the eighteenth century is therefore to recognize their own complicity in it. Many of them cultivated their own celebrity, indeed broadcast it loudly. Much of this was done through personal appearance, word of mouth, and manuscript correspondence within the circles of fashion­able society. However, leading courtesans also actively promoted themselves, in print, to a much wider public audience.

One way they did this was through the publication of authorized prints, in which they collaborated with some of the leading artists, engravers, and publishers of the period. We can date the point at which this practice took off with remarkable precision. In the last week of March 1759, the courtesan Kitty Fisher took out a news­paper advertisement, deploring the constant exploitation of her persona by base ‘little scribblers’ and print-sellers, who foisted spuri­ous writings and images of her upon the public (it is printed at the head of this chapter). A few days later, she went to see the most suc­cessful painter of her day, Joshua Reynolds, who immediately set to work crafting more appealing images of her, for conversion into mass – market prints. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership, for no one was more adept than Reynolds at the creation and manipu­lation of visual celebrity. From then on, he painted major portraits of the leading demi-mondaines of the time, exhibited them prom­inently, and got them published as cheap prints in all shapes and sizes. Like other portraitists who took up the practice, he was simultan­eously boosting his own public profile, and fuelling the celebrity of his sitters, to their mutual benefit (see plates 16 to 18, and illustra­tion 45).1

This was also the age in which scandalous women first published real autobiographies and vindications of their own behaviour. Such writings served a variety of purposes. They allowed the author to present a favourable picture of herself to the world, and to name and shame her enemies. They earned her money from eager readers and booksellers. Most lucrative of all was the practice of blackmailing for­mer lovers and clients, by threatening to publish their names and letters. This was one of the central aims of the serialized Apology of the courtesan Teresia Constantia Phillips, which was a runaway best­seller when it started appearing in 1748. In the same year were published the first two volumes of the Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, denounced by her estranged husband as ‘an incorrigible prostitute’. By 1800 the genre had become well established. When Margaret Leeson, the most fashionable prostitute and brothel-keeper of eighteenth – century Dublin, found herself down on her luck in the 1790s, it was thus obvious to her what to do. Like any modern celebrity seeking to capitalize on her moment of fame, she began publishing her memoirs. In three volumes, over several years and several hundreds of pages, she told all, drawing on her extensive private papers, accounts, and cor­respondence. It was a heady brew. There was the inevitable narrative of her own seduction into unchastity and courtesanship, with vignettes of her many keepers; the even fuller story of her life as a madam to some of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom; copious tales of high jinks in high society; letters from her lovers; histories of all the famous prostitutes she had known; and endless details of sex­ual commerce and scandal (see illustration 50). No wonder the work was ‘bought up with the greatest avidity’.3

This development overlapped with the growing use of sexual histor­ies as political weapons. There was obviously a long history of discrediting political opponents by associating them with sexual scan­dal: the tactic itself was not new in the eighteenth century. But three things were. Mass opinion was now increasingly acknowledged to be a legitimate, important, and inescapable arena of political debate. This was an idea that can already be glimpsed in the revolutions of the 1649 and 1688; a hundred years later it had advanced exponen­tially. The second change was the incomparably greater power of publicity. In previous centuries most politico-sexual satire had been transmitted only orally or in brief, ephemeral, manuscript lampoons and libels. Now there had grown up entire genres of permanent, widely circulated public print devoted to the exposition of sexual scandal. Fictional memoirs, newspapers, titillating magazines, and satirical prints – all of them were regularly used, overtly or surrepti­tiously, to undermine politicians by associating them with particular courtesans or general immorality.

The final novelty was the increasing use of sexual satire for radical political purposes: not just to attack particular individuals, or even to condemn a particularly licentious court, but to agitate against the whole corrupt system of aristocracy and monarchy. From the 1760s onwards, French writers based in London put out an extraordinary stream of slander and pornography directed against the French church and government. Some of them were motivated more by greed than by principle, but the effect of their writings was the same. As Robert Darnton and other historians of eighteenth-century France have skil­fully revealed, this flood of scandalous material helped shape French public opinion and seriously undermined the legitimacy of royal gov­ernment, both before and after 1789. By the 1790s, English writers and publishers were increasingly adopting the same tactics in their

appeals to a mass audience. In the radical underworld of late Geor­gian London, the publication of anti-clerical and anti-aristocratic pornography came to be closely intertwined with the advocacy of democratic and revolutionary politics.4

Most extraordinary of all was the huge campaign of sexual muck­raking, blackmail, extortion, and scandalous publicity orchestrated by, for, and against George IV’s estranged wife, Queen Caroline, between 1806 (when he was still prince regent) and 1821 (when she died). He was a notorious rake; she was plausibly alleged to have taken lovers of her own. Their antagonism became a battle for public opinion that provoked hundreds of thousands of middle – and working-class men and women into serious political demonstrations and agitation across the land. It was waged in every medium of print, by every class of politician, from the king and queen themselves down to the lowliest Grub Street hacks (see plate 19).

Queen Caroline was in an exceptional position, and she always maintained her innocence. Yet by 1800 the media revolution had made it possible even for avowedly immoral, low-born women to manipulate their sexual power to previously unheard-of political and commercial effect. In no former age, for example, would a royal mis­tress have dreamed of challenging monarchical authority or of exposing sexual scandals to a mass public. Now this was exactly what happened, repeatedly. In 1781, the actress, author, and feminist Mary Robinson, who also happened to be one of the most celebrated courte­sans of her day, publicly threatened to publish the letters of her former lover, the Prince of Wales – until she was granted a ‘reward’ of £5,000 and an annuity for life. In 1806, when the Duke of York cast off his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, without an adequate financial settle­ment, she likewise threatened to publish details of their affair. Then, when it became public knowledge that she had been at the centre of a ring of bribery and corruption, trafficking in the duke’s patronage over army, church, and civil service positions, she colluded in several ghost-written pamphlets excoriating the royal family. Finally, she had printed 18,000 copies of a sensational memoir, complete with the duke’s love-letters to her. Her reward was a gigantic pay-off from the government (a lump sum of £10,000, and large annuities for life for her and her daughter), in return for the suppression of this dangerous

text (see plate 20). The great courtesan Harriette Wilson went further still, maximizing her profits through a combination of extortion and titillation. First she announced the imminent appearance of her mem­oirs, which caused consternation amongst her innumerable former lovers, not least the king. Next she wrote privately to each man, threatening to expose him unless he immediately sent her hundreds of pounds. This tactic alone netted her several thousand pounds. Then her advance publicity advertised the names of those clients who were included in the book. Finally, the work was published, in instalments, to overwhelming success, bringing her many thousands more. In its first year alone it ran to thirty-one editions, in addition to innumer­able pirated, plagiarized, and spurious versions (see plate 21).5

The eighteenth century thus saw the rise not just of novel forms of communication and new attitudes towards publicity, but also of a new type of immoral female celebrity. Such women did not shy away from scandal: they revelled in it. When James Boswell first met his future mistress, Mary Rudd, in 1776, she was already notori­ous, and proud of it. ‘Oh Sir,’ she cried when he introduced himself, ‘pray sit down – I have often heard of you, we are both characters – pray Sir, sit down.’ This self-consciousness, the awareness of being a character in the public gaze, was a key ingredient in the culture of celebrity. It fuelled the careers of successful prostitutes as it did those of female writers and performers. Such public assertiveness was never the preserve of more than a small minority of sexually independent women. It was widely deplored by conservative com­mentators. In the course of the nineteenth century it was to come under sustained attack. Nevertheless, its emergence after 1700 marked a watershed in the perception, and the self-presentation, of female sexuality.6


The expanding scope of biography brings us to the final indication of shifting attitudes towards sex and publicity in this period: the grow­ing fame of types of people previously regarded as disreputable. Traditionally, biography had served a moral purpose. The lives of saints, martyrs, rulers, divines, and other worthies were valuable as exemplars of virtue, whilst those of tyrants and murderers conven­tionally warned of the snares of sin and the providence of God. In the eighteenth century these remained important motives. But the height­ened value now placed on individuality and personality, together with the other developments we have surveyed, also helped to create the first age of celebrity.

‘Celebrity’ is a slippery concept to define. The word ‘celebrate’ in its

various forms was very old. As early as the fourteenth century we find Chaucer describing Hercules as ‘celebrable for his hard travaile’; and by the seventeenth century it was established practice to write of people as ‘celebrate’, or ‘celebrated’, in the sense of famous or renowned. The sense of ‘celebrate’ as actually making someone well – known appeared at around the same time, and grew in importance during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nowadays, as a conse­quence, ‘celebrity’ usually means a peculiar, lesser kind of fame, which is limited in three main ways. The first is that it is an essentially per­sonal type of renown, as distinct from the reputation that comes to people who hold a notable office, such as monarchs, or are associated with some conspicuous achievement. The second is that celebrity is intrinsically fleeting, though it can be remarkably long-lived. Thirdly, and in consequence, it is especially dependent upon regular publicity. It was in the eighteenth century, as the opportunities for such exposure multiplied, that this particular form of ephemeral, media-dependent fame first became a widespread phenomenon.1

Its origins can be traced back to the earliest days of professional writing for publication, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This was the period in which it first became possible to make a living as a hack writer, churning out tracts and pamphlets for public sale, and there were soon authors who succumbed to the temp­tation of advancing their books by promoting themselves. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, we should think of the Elizabethan pamphleteer Robert Greene (1558-92) as ‘England’s first celebrity author’; whilst the most recent biographer of John Tay­lor ‘the Water-Poet’ (1578-1653) describes him as ‘the first modern “personality”, skilfully manipulating the media and “famous for being famous”.’2 When the first professional women writers appeared on the scene, a hundred years later, they were often the objects, will­ingly or not, of even greater interest in their personal lives. (This was particularly so when, as in the case of Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley, and Eliza Haywood, their private affairs were rumoured to be as full of sexual intrigue as their writings.) As the means of publicity expanded, and writers became more dependent upon commercial suc­cess, personal celebrity became an ever more important feature of the English literary world.

After 1700 the same focus on personalities also came to character­ize the public perception of other, even less reputable, professions. In the early eighteenth century there developed a new fascination with the lives and exploits of highwaymen and other apparently romantic criminals. In the 1720s, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard inspired scores of ballads, sermons, plays, and satires. The notoriety of such figures was one of the inspirations for John Gay’s phenomenally suc­cessful Beggar’s Opera (1728), which itself did much to further the cult of the glamorous criminal. By 1700 there was already a long trad­ition of writing about notorious criminals, but it was only in the eighteenth century that many of them became renowned in their own lifetime, that their portraits were published as cheap prints, and that their biographies became celebratory as well as didactic.3

An even closer connection can be drawn between the growing fame of whores and of actresses, who had first appeared publicly on the English stage at the Restoration. The overlap between their roles was obvious. ‘Indeed most stage-players are courtesans,’ says one charac­ter in an early play by Margaret Cavendish; ‘And most courtesans are good actors,’ replies another. As we have seen, from the 1660s onwards actresses were on constant public display in London. Their personali­ties were the subject of great public interest, and they often facilitated such intimacy by addressing the audience in their own voice, in spe­cially written prologues and epilogues. It was also well known that many of them led scandalous lives, offstage as well as on. Several of the period’s leading mistresses, from Nell Gwyn to Dorothy Jordan, started out in the theatre. In many respects the contemporary celeb­rity of actresses was far greater than that of whores and bawds. But it is significant that it emerged at about the same time; that it took simi­lar forms, from portrait prints to hack biographies; and that it was strongly fixated on their sexual behaviour.4


The eighteenth century thus saw the birth of a new type of media cul­ture, in which both private affairs and personal opinions came to be given unprecedented publicity. This development fuelled the freer public discussion of sexual matters, facilitated the celebrity of immoral women, and provided novel opportunities for the manipulation of public opinion. What is striking is that the same tendencies can be found in the fiction of the period, as well as in many other genres of contemporary writing. This points to the third major source of novel attitudes towards sex – a profound change in how men and women conceived of personal identity and its public significance.

At one level, this involved a transition away from the traditional view that character was primarily to be determined from a person’s actions, and towards the presumption that the key lay in somehow uncovering their innermost feelings and private transactions. The more naturally inaccessible to others, the more potentially revealing such personal information might be. As the literary critic Hugh Blair explained, it was not just appropriate for a biographer to record his subject’s intimate life, but essential: for ‘it is from private life, from familiar, domestic, and seemingly trivial occurrences, that we often receive most light into the real character’. Dr Johnson agreed: the deepest insight came from biographers who ‘lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside’. It was for similar reasons that Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his autobiography (first published in 1782) was to lay great weight upon his sexual feelings and actions. ‘If there be a [single] circumstance in my life, which describes my nature,’ he announced at the beginning of one such confession, ‘it is that which I am going to relate. . . Whoever you may be who are desirous of knowing a man, have the courage to read the two or three following pages, and you will become fully acquainted with J. J. Rousseau.’1 In this growing stress on the primacy of private sentiments the founda­tion was laid for one of the most basic assumptions of modern sexual attitudes. Instead of thinking that someone’s sexual conduct merely reflected his or her general temperament, the idea was eventually to take hold that everyone had an essential inner sexuality, which itself shaped their outward personality.

Another manifestation of the changing outlook was that in many areas of intellectual endeavour the notion was advanced that truth lay not in the general and the universal but in the individual and the par­ticular. This tendency derived from the popularization of philosophical trends that had been started in the mid-seventeenth century by Des­cartes, Hobbes, and Locke, and were consolidated by their successors after 1700. Instead of proceeding on the basis of inherited assump­tions and supposedly innate ideas, it gradually came to be the logical ideal to accept nothing on trust and to rely solely on one’s personal observation of the facts. The empirical scrutiny of specifics accord­ingly became much more important, for it was no longer merely a means of confirming universal truths, but an end in itself, the corner­stone of real knowledge.

As literary critics have long appreciated, there are remarkable par­allels between these trends in philosophy and aesthetics and the simultaneous rise of fictional realism. The early-eighteenth-century novel, too, introduced into literature a new and influential way of describing reality, one which aimed at authenticity through particu­larity, whose characters were supposed to be indistinguishable from real people, and whose truth was seen to be inextricable from its veri­similitude. The same change of emphasis can be observed much more widely, not just in newspapers and other new forms of journalism, but in social description generally.2

Throughout the seventeenth century, as in earlier times, whoredom had been conventionally epitomized in the stock characters of ‘a whore’, ‘a bawd’, ‘a town miss’, and so on. When writers described particular sinners, they likewise focused on their correspondence to universal norms, rather than their individuality. Even in John Dun – ton’s Night-Walker of the 1690s, which in many respects was in the vanguard of journalistic realism, the harlots and rakes are all essen­tially anonymous figures. To have emphasized their particularity would have been to diminish their universality, and their paradigmatic quality.3 In the eighteenth century the position came to be reversed: now the addition of personal detail served only to heighten the appar­ent truth of a narrative. It is this new desire to personalize social phenomena that helps to explain, for example, why mid eighteenth – century sexual charities were so keen to publish the letters and stories of individual penitents; and, equally, why there was such interest in the supposed histories and memoirs of impenitent whores. Nowadays we are so used to this way of thinking that it seems scarcely remark­able. It is largely by learning about particular examples that we tend to accumulate our knowledge about, say, adultery, rape, or marital breakdown, and the more detail we have of specific instances the bet­ter we feel we understand the phenomenon as a whole. Yet it was only in the course of the eighteenth century that it became normal to treat individual stories in this way.

This development was evidently only gradual and far from compre­hensive. All analysis of social and sexual relations depends to some degree on generic and impersonal archetypes. The older tradition of discussing whores and rakes in terms of abstract personifications con­tinued throughout the eighteenth century, as did the use of symbolic names in literature, and of satirical stereotypes in prints.4 Nor was the interest in particular life stories entirely new. The point is rather that there was a decisive shift of emphasis. Although many seventeenth – century writings on immorality had been packed with illustrative examples of harlots and whoremongers, much greater authority was always accorded to classical and biblical instances than to present – day exemplars. It was only after 1700 that it became common to rely mainly or exclusively on modern paradigms. In addition, whether real or made up, such personal narratives were now invested with a more immediate significance. Rather than interpreting the lives of individu­als as simply confirming patterns of behaviour that were laid down by divine and natural laws, eighteenth-century descriptions of particular persons were increasingly inclined, even when seeking to establish general conclusions, to emphasize the individuality of the subject.

For all these reasons, the period after 1700 saw a growing interest in publishing the stories and materials of private life. Much of the ori­ginality and appeal of the first novels lay not just in their purported realism but in the supposed disclosure of confidential accounts and secret writings. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, of 1722, described itself as a true ‘private history’, an autobiographical narrative ‘written from her own memorandums’ by the heroine. A similar format character­ized Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Colonel Jack (1722) and Roxana, the Fortunate Mistress (1724), as well as countless later stories billed as autobiographies, memoirs, or histories. Accounts of real-life whores were part of this trend. Their similarity to new forms of fiction was noted as early as 1723 by the Lincolnshire poet and novelist Jane Barker, who observed that the most fashionable histories of the age were those of ‘Robinson Crusoe, and Moll Flanders; Colonel Jack, and Sally Salisbury’.5

There was also an overlap with the increasing vogue for romans a clef which supposedly laid bare the sexual intrigues of notable con­temporaries, especially politicians. This was not an entirely new type of writing. Veiled descriptions of recent court scandals had formed part of the elaborate plot of Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania, printed in 1621. In the mid 1680s, Aphra Behn published several instalments of Love Letters from a Nobleman to his Sister, supposedly the corres­pondence of the Whig conspirator Lord Grey of Warke and his sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Berkeley, whose adulterous and incestu­ous elopement had caused a great stir. However, it was only after the Glorious Revolution, as part of the growing freedom of party political satire, that the genre became properly established in English. Now there appeared numerous retrospective Whig accounts of the ‘secret history’ and sexual corruption of the recent Stuarts; whilst Tory writ­ers mounted a string of acerbic attacks on past and present Whig personalities, led by Delarivier Manley’s notorious ‘secret histories’ and ‘secret memoirs’.6

Letters, another type of private writing, also came to be publicized in novel ways. There were obvious classical precedents for epistolary fiction and for the circulation of private correspondence. In the six­teenth century, humanists and reformers, like many later scholars and activists, communicated their message through letters that were meant to be widely publicized; so too did princes and bishops. In the seven­teenth century knowledge of political events was spread through newsletters, and it became a common conceit to print polemical tracts in the form of ‘a letter from’ one personage to another. Only in the eighteenth century, though, did there develop a substantial market for the publishing of personal letters, real or otherwise, as a means of access to the private life of others. We have noted already the depend­ence of contemporary newspapers and magazines upon correspondence to and from their readers. Telling a story by printing a character’s intimate communications also became a favourite tool of novelists, especially when describing love and lust. Nearly a fifth of all the fic­tion produced in the eighteenth century, it has been estimated, used some kind of epistolary technique.7

Above all, there was an immense new appetite for biographies of real people. The eighteenth century was the first age of biographical dictionaries, of regular obituaries, of collected letters, and of pub­lished memoirs on a large scale. ‘No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography,’ explained Dr Johnson in 1750, ‘since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more cer­tainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition.’ Even the most ordinary lives, ‘not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes’, were worth relating in print, for in learning about others we inevit­ably learn about ourselves: ‘we are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure’. Not everybody would have agreed with Johnson’s analysis of human nature. Some readers, biographers, and autobiographers preferred to dwell rather upon the oddity and uniqueness of personality. But the net result was the same. By 1800, the lives of a much broader spectrum of people were thought to be worthy of public interest than had been the case a hundred years earlier, and reading about the private affairs of the dead and the living, and collecting their portraits, had become some­thing of a national pastime.8


The popular press and its social counterparts, such as debating clubs and coffee-houses, were not merely the means of discussion: their practices also altered the very terms of debate. The new types of exchange created novel ways of thinking about morality. This was the second way in which the new media affected sexual sensibilities.1

For a start, a far greater diversity of views than ever before emerged into print. The early periodical press did much to create this new openness, by encouraging correspondence and providing advice on the problems of love and lust. Although conduct books and casuistical literature had been around for a long time, it had never previously been possible for men and women of all social classes, in their thou­sands, to seek help by writing anonymously to a newspaper and having their query published and answered in print, for all the world to see.2

This sudden innovation was the brainchild of the publisher John Dunton, whose hugely successful bi-weekly question-and-answer journal, the Athenian Mercury (1691-7), was the first English period­ical to capture a popular audience. From the outset, the most common topics about which its readers sought advice were love, marriage, and sexual ethics. What was the propriety of unmarried cohabitation? What morals should one attribute to a woman who dressed inde­cently? Was innocent friendship ever possible between a man and a woman? Why were prostitutes generally barren? Was it wrong to masturbate? Could one conceive at first intercourse? Might adultery ever be justified? None of these questions was new, but never before had they been so popularly and publicly debated. So great was the volume of such correspondence that it spawned a monthly special issue to deal with the backlog, and then a separate spin-off publica­tion, the Ladies Mercury (1693). The format and focus of Dunton’s publication in turn inspired many notable successors, including Defoe’s Review (1704-13), the British Apollo (1708-11), the Tatler (1709-11), the Spectator (1711-14), and the Gentleman’s Magazine, founded in 1731.3

In addition to publicizing, and attempting to solve, moral dilemmas presented by their readers, eighteenth-century periodicals set them­selves up to be much more general arbiters and communicators of social norms, which they expounded in essays, verses, and general reflections. By mid-century such aspirations had become a common feature of popular journalism. The growing popularity of periodicals thus created a new and widely read type of authority on questions of conduct. In the eyes of contemporaries there was no necessary contra­diction with older sources of guidance. As one remarked, the Bible remained the fount of all moral knowledge; whereas the Spectator simply ‘taught me a more easy and agreeable manner of practising vir­tue’. In fact, as has rightly been pointed out, there was a considerable divergence between the moral philosophy of early eighteenth-century advice literature and what had come before. Its motive was much more often to entertain as well as to instruct. Its basis was also different. Although it commonly invoked scripture to buttress its arguments, divine law was no longer automatically the primary criterion. Instead, virtuous behaviour now tended to be defined in secular terms: it fol­lowed reason, civility, and the dictates of human nature.4 Finally, it is likely that the very form of popular journalism contributed to the idea that moral judgements might be essentially subjective. It was not just the growing volume of newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets that brought about a greater multiplicity and inconsistency of views, but also the fact that these media intrinsically depended on fomenting dis­cussion, provoking questions and comments, contradicting one another, and competing for public attention.

Another consequence of these new conditions was the rise in the eighteenth century of what we might call ‘media events’: cases whose public discussion was so intense that it took on a momentum and a significance of its own. Many such episodes were inspired by some form of sexual controversy. In turn, they inevitably served to highlight contrasting views about sexuality. Even in the seventeenth century some scandalous incidents had provoked considerable comment. In the 1610s, the Overbury affair spawned a flurry of broadsides, pam­phlets and poems, in addition to a large body of scribal material. Similar interest surrounded the trial of the Earl of Castlehaven in 1631 for abetting rape and committing sodomy, the divorce proceed­ings of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk in the 1690s, and a string of other cases involving sexual impropriety. By the mid eighteenth cen­tury the novelty was not just that such episodes were much more numerous, nor even that the amount of printed commentary, and its circulation, was vastly greater.5 It was that public involvement through the press was now so commonplace that it could itself become part of the course of events. The combination of frequent and competitive news reporting, and the availability of countless avenues for public intervention, meant that public scandals now almost always inspired endless printed debate between observers and interested parties, even as events were still unfolding.

In the case of sexual celebrities even the most apparently trivial incident could be amplified a hundredfold. When in March 1759 Kitty Fisher was thrown off her horse whilst riding in St James’s Park, it inspired months of public comment, songs, verses, pictures, pam­phlets, and entire books (see illustrations 47 to 49). The most common focal point, though, was a trial. After all, a court case contained all the ingredients for a ready-made public debate: different sides offering irreconcilable stories, personalities to dissect, the expectation of scan­dalous facts, the certainty of a final denouement, and the possibility of punishment, ruin, and even death for the defeated party. It was in the 1760s that the term ‘cause celebre’ first came to be used in English, and several of the earliest examples of the phenomenon are still so described today.6 There was the case in 1753-4 of the young maid Elizabeth Canning, who claimed to have been abducted and held cap­tive for several weeks in a bawdy house, but whose detractors were convinced, as Voltaire put it, that she was simply ‘une petite friponne’, who had got herself pregnant and had disappeared to cover up the fact. Even greater publicity surrounded the trials in 1775 of the biga­mous Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, and of the courtesan Mary Rudd, her lover Daniel Perreau, and his twin brother Robert. Four years later, the murder of Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, by a young, love-struck clergyman, likewise provoked end­less comment and speculation. So overwhelming was the public discussion of such cases that the legal proceedings themselves, and their capacity to establish truth and justice, came to appear almost secondary to the trial by media that was conducted in print.7

The same dynamics shaped countless other now obscure and for­gotten incidents of eighteenth-century sexual scandal. Take the case of Ann Sharp, alias Bell. In October 1760 it was widely reported in the London papers that a young gentlewoman had recently been seduced into a bagnio in mysterious circumstances, sexually assaulted, and mortally wounded. The truth of these rumours was equivocal. Even when the body was specially exhumed and examined, the inquest con­cluded that there had been no foul play. Yet the story refused to die, for it appeared to contain all the ingredients of the worst kind of seduction narrative: the happy daughter of a reputable family in the country, first ruined by a passing army officer; then, moving to


47. One of the prints devoted to Kitty Fisher’s ‘merry accident’ in March 1759.

London, gradually degraded into ever meaner forms of prostitution; then, when down on her luck, sought out, abused, abandoned, and destroyed by an upper-class rake who lacked any shred of humanity or contrition. As a consequence, the lives, ‘adventures’, and characters of Ann Sharp and William Sutton, her supposed assailant, were loudly and endlessly debated in print: by correspondents to newspapers, in editorials, in poetry, and in a steady stream of factual and fictional accounts issued by interested and disinterested parties. Such was the intensity of public comment that even the coroner and the chief magis­trate, John Fielding, were forced to take out public advertisements in the papers in defence of their conduct. In this way, the general percep­tion of the case increasingly turned upon the motives and contributions of rival commentators, rather than upon the evidence per se. By the time that Sutton was brought to trial and acquitted of murder, four and a half months later, the judicial verdict was largely irrelevant, for many observers had long since made up their minds. ‘To be tried by


the public,’ as one of Miss Bell’s partisans urged, had come to be almost more desirable than to be tried at law.8

The final notable feature of enlightened print culture was that it presented novel opportunities for the manipulation of public opinion. This may seem an ironic development. Indeed, Professor Jurgen Hab­ermas, the most influential modern theorist of the subject, tells us that exactly the opposite is true. The emergence of a new type of public sphere in early-eighteenth-century England, he argues, allowed the educated classes for the first time to engage in ‘rational-critical debate’ about literary and political issues, free of censorship, commercial pressures, or political partisanship. It was only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that this independent critical spirit was destroyed by the commercialization of the mass media, and the rise of advertis­ing, public relations, and other modern tools of manipulation.9

Even in the eighteenth century, however, it was not unusual for publicity to be carefully managed and manufactured. The reports of news and gossip that appeared in the press were often produced and sold to papers by professional hack writers. The letters and comments supposedly sent in by ordinary readers were commonly re-written, and sometimes wholly made up. Some editors took payment for pub­lishing or suppressing particular items of news; others were entirely in the pay of particular politicians – as were many of the leading writers of the day.10

This was also the period in which advertising and book reviewing first became important and ubiquitous promotional tools. Both lent themselves to underhand methods for marketing books, goods, per­formances, people, and causes. Advertisements masquerading as news or correspondence could disingenuously alert readers to events and publications; whilst notices and reviews that were in reality little more than meretricious plugs disguised themselves as objective recommen­dations. Amongst the wide variety of ‘news’ inserted for payment in one London newspaper in the spring of 1744, at exactly the same rate as normal advertisements, were spurious commendations of ‘a bowl­ing green, a play, a good fishing lake, and the knighting of Thomas Rider, esquire, of Kent’. It was to describe the rise of such tactics that the term ‘puff’ took on new meanings in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. In 1732 the London Magazine described it as ‘a cant word for the applause that writers and book-sellers give their own books etc, to promote their sale’. Chesterfield similarly thought it a ‘low’ word – but used it repeatedly himself. Pretty soon it became a popular fictional epithet. A letter from ‘John Puff Esq.’ is prefaced to Henry Fielding’s 1741 spoof, Shamela. In Samuel Foote’s comedy Taste (1752), a ‘Mr Puff’ helps to palm off worthless objects as valu­able works of art; in his The Patron (1764) the same name is given to a mercenary bookseller. Similar Mr Puffs appear in Susanna Centlivre’s The Election of 1749 (a printer) and R. B. Sheridan’s 1779 play The Critic (‘a gentleman well known in the theatrical world’).11

Exactly the same means that served to communicate and amplify public opinion were thus commonly employed to deceive and control it. The further development of the mass media in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries greatly expanded the audience susceptible to such techniques. From the outset, however, the manipulation of publicity was a natural, intrinsic by-product of the commodification and influ­ence of printed news and opinion. Even today it is startling to realize quite how shameless eighteenth-century tactics could be. Popular newspapers sometimes found themselves faced by rival publications that had overnight adopted exactly the same title, date, and number­ing, in order to trick the public. The common custom of anonymous and pseudonymous publication and reviewing allowed authors sur­reptitiously to insert, in one pamphlet or paper, trailers and testimonials for another. Writers could clandestinely plug their own books, as well as employing the puffing services of their friends. Jonas Hanway penned an enthusiastic notice of his three-volume Advice from a Farmer to his Daughter (1770), and asked Elizabeth Montagu to sub­mit it as her own. John Cleland secretly reviewed his own work, and so did many other writers. Mary Rudd described one of her own publications, anonymously, as ‘one of the most spirited, and at the same time the most elegant and temperate compositions’ to have appeared in recent times. Although ‘this may be regarded as a puff for the book’, she concluded, ‘it is however different from all other puffs in one respect – it is literally true’. Boswell not only repeatedly and prolifically reviewed his own public appearances and literary works

(‘a book of true genius’, ‘the production of no ordinary genius’, etc.), he even prefaced one of his own anonymous pamphlets with a dedica­tory address to himself.12

To illustrate the growing potential of the media to influence ideas, connect people, and motivate actions we have only to compare the methods adopted by Thomas Bray and Jonas Hanway, the two most energetic social reformers of their day. When in the 1690s Bray sought to establish a penitential hospital for prostitutes, he simply circulated manuscript copies of his plan to a handful of well-wishers, and can­vassed acquaintances privately for their support. There were no regular newspapers or journals through which he could easily have advertised his idea to a broader public, nor did he seek to hold his proposals up to indiscriminate scrutiny by publishing them in pamph­let form. Instead, he personally approached a few key individuals and tried to gain their assistance. Even at the end of the seventeenth cen­tury this was an entirely conventional way of proceeding. It was precisely how, shortly afterwards, Bray succeeded in founding the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, perhaps the most suc­cessful charity of its time, as well as the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which similarly came into being without any recourse to the public at large.13

To Jonas Hanway, half a century later, such reticence would have been inconceivable. He, too, was a master of covert networking and of the personal appeal. Such was his attention to detail that, when prospective donors were given literature about the Magdalen House, it came bound in specially designed covers that showed penitents cry­ing out ‘O Save Me, Save Me’ – ensuring that the volume’s message was broadcast even if it was left unopened. However, Hanway also took for granted the need to appeal to a more general audience, and to exploit the power of print. Publication, he explained, was even more effective than public meetings. It allowed one’s message to be delivered without interruption, distraction, or contradiction; and it gave people time to digest and ponder the merits of a case. What is more, although ‘there are many who have not, and many more who think they have not, leisure to read. . . even these pin their faith chiefly on the report of those who criticise books’: so that eliciting favourable notices was crucial too. His approach was therefore to flood the media with positive impressions, repeating himself over and over again, in order to get the message across as widely and insistently as possible: publishing and re-publishing, often anonymously, the same sentences and sentiments in the form of plans, letters, reviews, com­ments, plugs, trailers, and advertisements. All the while he strenuously kept up the disguise of a disinterested, impartial bystander. In truth, as Frances Burney noted, he was ‘addicted’ to newspapers. Yet to his audience Hanway presented himself as an aloof observer, drawn into the fray only by the exceptional merits of the case. ‘As I have but little time to read’, he suggested disingenuously, in one of his innumer­able puffs for the Magdalen House, ‘what I write myself is the more genuine’.14[39]

Hanway’s methods testify to the transformation of public commu­nication that had taken place over the previous fifty years. Even minor contributions to any debate were henceforth routinely and immedi­ately magnified, duplicated, and circulated throughout the city, creating a range and depth of comment that would formerly have been unimaginable. Pamphlets, newspapers, literary journals, and ordinary readers rushed to comment on any popular topic. Yet, des­pite appearances, such discussion was never entirely spontaneous and free. At every stage it was now possible, as publicists like Hanway did so masterfully, to instigate, fan, provoke, influence, exploit, and direct the flow of public opinion towards one’s own purposes.


Its most obvious cause was an immense growth in printed media. Already by 1700 the population of London was markedly more liter­ate than that of the rest of the country. Most men and women in the capital could read and write, including the bulk of servants and appren­tices. Ever since the invention of printing, however, the publication and circulation of all kinds of information had been inhibited in various ways. The most overt were official licensing and censorship, through which successive governments tried, albeit never with complete suc­cess, to prevent and suppress the expression of heterodox views. In consequence, most of what appeared in print was already constrained by self-censorship and by the relative formality of the medium.1

The main alternative means of disseminating ideas in writing was through the circulation of manuscripts. Up to the end of the seven­teenth century such ‘scribal publication’ remained extremely important, especially for material thought unfit to print. It offered much greater freedom of language and subject-matter, which is why most salacious material (bawdy and obscene verses, sexual satires, and erotic writ­ings) circulated in this format. Script was also much more restricted in its audience, for the number of copies made was usually compara­tively small, and many authors and transmitters of texts consciously limited their readership. Even the most widely circulated manuscripts

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46. This broadside ballad about Fanny Murray probably sold for a penny. The woodcut portrait is a copy of one of the many engraved prints of her.



tended to remain the preserve of a social elite, largely unknown and inaccessible to the mass of the reading public.2

Since the invention of printing, censorship had broken down only on two occasions of political crisis: during the Civil War and again in the early 1680s. At both times a flood of material poured off the presses until licensing was re-imposed. In 1695, however, following the semi-accidental lapse of the Licensing Act, it came to be aban­doned for good. The result was that the eighteenth century saw an unprecedented rise in the number and variety of books and pamphlets published, as well as a marked expansion in their freedom of expres­sion. We know of about 800 different titles issued in 1677, for example; but by the end of the eighteenth century it was not unusual for there to be upwards of 8,000 publications in a single year. Around 1670 only about two dozen printing houses in London, Oxford, Cam­bridge, and York were authorized to print anything; by 1800 there were hundreds of printers and publishers, at least one in almost every town in England. There was a corresponding explosion in the number and spread of booksellers. Finally, publications of all kinds were also accessible to a mass audience in entirely new ways: through circulat­ing and subscription libraries, book clubs, and coffee-houses.3

Especially important in creating a new intellectual climate was the spectacular rise of the periodical press. Before 1600 there were no newspapers; even in 1695, they remained few in number, narrow in scope, short-lived, and limited in distribution. Yet already by 1716 so many new titles had entered circulation that Dudley Ryder’s diary refers in passing to at least a dozen of them. A modern list of the ‘principal’ London papers in 1752 runs to twenty daily, tri-weekly, bi-weekly, weekly, fortnightly, and monthly publications, not counting many lesser journals and magazines. By 1765 there were already, in addition to newspapers, over seventy-five metropolitan periodicals, many of them with very large circulations. Many of these papers were read far beyond the capital, whilst the provinces were served in addition by dozens of local journals.4

The combined readership of these various media was equally pro­digious. When he started the Spectator, Joseph Addison calculated that, though he normally printed only 3,000 copies, each issue reached around 60,000 men and women every day, by being passed on privately, read aloud, and circulated in clubs and coffee-houses – so that ‘if I allow twenty readers to every paper, which I look upon as a modest computation, I may reckon about three-score thousand dis­ciples in London and Westminster’. In later years, when the paper was at its height, it was said ‘that 20,000 [copies] were sometimes sold in a day’. In addition, it was increasingly common for the same items of news and opinion, the same letters and essays, the same stories and ideas, to be endlessly reused. Most popular journals were collected and reprinted in volume form at least once, ensuring that their con­tents remained in circulation long after the date on which they had first appeared. By the middle of the century, newspapers also inces­santly reprinted, extracted, recycled, and plagiarized each other’s contents from day to day.5

This enormous increase in the quantity and availability of printed publications transformed the nature of public communication. It allowed events and opinions to be publicized much more widely than before. New forms of print now made generally available material of a kind that had previously circulated only orally or in manuscript. News, gossip, and information were transmitted with ever greater speed and frequency. The scale on which they circulated was also infinitely amplified: by the 1750s, especially in the capital, even the most obscure men and women avidly consumed newspapers. That was precisely the reason, explained Samuel Johnson in his own paper, that the common people of England were the best informed in the world: ‘this superiority we undoubtedly owe to the rivulets of intelli­gence, which are continually trickling among us, which every one may catch, and of which every one partakes’.6 Without these develop­ments, the extraordinary celebrity of eighteenth-century courtesans would plainly not have been possible.

Yet although the proliferation of new media was an important con­tributory factor, it cannot be a sufficient explanation. Already in the early seventeenth century engraved portraits of famous men and women had been tremendously popular – the fact that images of courtesans became fashionable a hundred years later testifies less to the emergence of a new medium than of a new attitude. The same is true of other forms of publicity. Even in the reign of Charles II it had been possible for the scandalous sex-life of a low-born woman to be widely publicized. Between 1663 and 1673, the serial bigamist Mary Carleton was the subject of dozens of biographical and autobiograph­ical narratives, memoirs, plays, and pamphlets. Portraits of her were engraved and published alongside her works. She even appeared on stage, starring as herself, in a dramatized interpretation of her story.7 In many respects Mrs Carleton’s public persona, and its literary appropri­ation, prefigures that of the scandalous women of the mid-eighteenth century: and yet it stands as a lone exception before 1700. The deeper question is therefore why in the eighteenth century print and publicity, as well as expanding in scope, came increasingly to be used in new ways.

This transformation was so complex that it can only be understood as the product of several interrelated changes in the social and intel­lectual environment – in the character of public opinion; in the means and terms of debate; in assumptions about private and public life; and in the nature of fame and celebrity.

The first great change was that the availability of novel forms of communication helped to create a different attitude towards public opinion. Whereas in previous times the idea of directly appealing to popular judgement had generally been regarded with suspicion by writers, artists, and politicians, their Georgian successors grew to be highly self-conscious about their relationship to the broader public and their dependence upon its support. Instead of denouncing ‘com­mon’ or ‘vulgar’ views as low and misguided, it now became increasingly fashionable to measure, shape, and defer to ‘public opinion’ – a new phrase, whose coinage in the first half of the eighteenth century reflects the change of sentiment. It remained perfectly possible for theorists, critics, and statesmen to denounce popular views as misguided; or to distinguish between refined and uneducated assessments; or to dis­dain popularity altogether – but the burgeoning importance of public opinion was undeniable. As Dr Johnson, a keen student of the subject, advised, ‘there always lies an appeal from domestic criticism to a higher judicature, and the public, which is never corrupted, nor often deceived, is to pass the last sentence upon literary claims’.8

This development has been much studied by historians of politics, philosophy, and the arts.9 But it is, if anything, even more relevant to the subject of this book. In literature and politics the effect of new genres and modes of communication can be traced back at least to the

early seventeenth century; by contrast, in the case of attitudes to sexual behaviour, the power of print as an agent of public opinion developed much later and more suddenly. It was only in the early eighteenth century that there emerged a culture in which sexual mat­ters could be continuously and publicly discussed by a mass audience. The rise of the periodical press ensured that social information was much more freely, continuously, and voluminously available, that it was endlessly copied and commented on from paper to paper, and that it was shared by much more open and substantial communities of readers than ever before. In this way there became established for the first time a set of permanent mass media for the circulation and discussion of news and opinion.

The use of pamphlets likewise burgeoned. The seventeenth century had already been a great age of pamphleteering, especially on political and religious topics. The controversialist Edward Stephens, whom we encountered in Chapter 1, put forth almost a hundred different tracts between 1689 and 1706, and he was a distinctly minor writer: doubt­less other seventeenth-century authors were more prolific still. By 1750, though, pamphlet publication had come to address a far wider range of subjects, and to be much more easily accessible even to hum­ble authors, than had generally been the case fifty years earlier. By the middle of the eighteenth century the evolution of the periodical and pamphlet press had together made it possible for almost any literate person who wished to disseminate information or opinion to address a large audience quickly, easily, and anonymously.

The new media also actively encouraged their readers to interact with them, and thus to take part in public discussion. It was not new for writers to address their audience directly, or for books and pam­phlets to provoke printed rejoinders. However, the proliferation of newspapers and journals brought about something altogether differ­ent. Most of these publications depended heavily on unsolicited correspondence, verses, essays, advertisements, and announcements, sent in, often anonymously, by ordinary readers. In this way the pub­lic and its views gradually became much more visible and assertive than they had ever been before. What is more, exposure to the popu­lar press itself inescapably instructed readers in the new opportunities and conventions of publicity. The prominence given to readers’ responses to topical issues, the constant dialogue between corres­pondents, and the general, unremitting stream of public consciousness broadcast in papers, pamphlets, and magazines made concrete the sense of belonging to a large, active, and opinionated community of discussants.

This was no mere illusion, for already in the 1710s the editors of popular papers received many more letters than they could print. Unfortunately most submissions to newspapers and magazines were unsigned or pseudonymous, so that it will never be possible to deter­mine where they came from. However, some sense of the opportunities available by the second half of the century is provided by the record of James Boswell’s writings between 1758 and 1794. Even though very incomplete, this includes many hundreds of anonymous letters, essays, reviews, verses, epigrams, comments, announcements, reports, and other contributions, originally appearing in more than twenty different papers and widely reprinted in others. Boswell was obvi­ously a gentleman and an increasingly practised writer, but humbler men and women, too, came to be acutely aware of the potential power of the press to advertise their opinions. By the middle of the eight­eenth century it was common even for criminals, suicides, and convicts facing execution to take pains over the publication of their thoughts in pamphlets and newspapers. ‘There was never a time’, remarked Dr Johnson in 1753, ‘in which men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were posting with ardour so general to the press’: it had become a signal characteristic of the age.10