A Lexicon of Lusts

‘DEBATES SURROUNDING THE study of the history of sexuality have spawned enough books to furnish a library,’ Julie Peakman writes in a short appendix to this book’s brief conclusion: people were trying out ‘all kinds of libidinous experiments’ and indulging in all forms of ‘sexual experiences and enjoyments’. But debating is not Peakman’s style, and she acknowledges that what she has to offer is merely a simplified outline of more complex works by Roy Porter or Lawrence Stone. Her intention is to offer us a lexicon of lusts from adultery to tribadism, and introduce us to their exponents, from Boswell to Harriette Wilson.

Few of the tales she tells are new, and, compressed to half a dozen pages each, all are reduced from coy, lingering build-up to dull bump-and-grind. In Boswell’s six pages he is ticked off as an ‘insufferable lecher’ whose aim was only ‘immediate sexual gratification’; he was poxed ‘no less than nineteen times’, Peakman informs us with something approaching relish. The pox was something Lord Chesterfield particularly warned his son against. ‘In love a man may lose his heart with dignity,’ he wrote, ‘but if he loses his nose, he loses his character into the bargain.’ Casanova apparently had ‘a penchant for anal sex’, but, like most of those mentioned here, he kept his breeches on. The preference of the whore Mary Russell (‘a dashing little girl’) for bare-breeched encounters is enough to have her mentioned here. Once, when going at it ‘buff to buff’, she upset a candle and nearly perished ‘like another Semele in love’s flames’.

By the time we get to Harriette Wilson, the ninth or tenth person whose biography is briskly potted here, a trick to keep our interest keen has become necessary and it is supplied in the form of numbers. Harriette was one of fifteen children; her memoirs went through thirty-eight editions; on their publication, in 1825, people thronged ‘ten deep’ outside the bookshop. She was offered, and refused, A200 for sex; artfully concealed her ‘forty intrigues one year’; allegedly wrote two novels: and died in 1846. When, as with the ‘monks’ of Medmenham Abbey, it is by no means clear how many of the lurid tales are true, they are related with the interpolation of an occasional ‘probably7 or ‘possibly’. Boswell was ‘not known’ to have been a member of their Order but ‘probably’ mixed with ‘possible’ visitors including ‘Sterne, Hall-Stevenson, Hogarth, Walpole and Garrick’. Benjamin Franklin is ‘said to have been’ a member and other ‘probable members’ included ‘the Earl of Bute, George Bubb Dodington, Dr Benjamin Bates, … Charles Fox MP, George Selwyn, an MP and known necrophile, and his crony the Duke of Queensberry’. The doings of the Order are likewise clouded in obscurity but ‘probably’ featured a large baboon, a great deal of sexual revelry, and shaven heads ‘in mock imitation of a monk’s tonsure’. Only after spending twenty pages narrating these hoary myths does Peakman resume her historian’s pose and admit that these activities were ‘probably’ exaggerated to provide ‘scandalous material for publishers’. Whether that was then or now. she does not relate.

‘Allegedly’ is another word which figures greatly in this book. It provides the leitmotiv of the chapter on the Order of the Beggar’s Benison of Anstruther, in which, by contrast with most other parts of this book, details are minutely presented. Charles I1 was said to have visited Anstruther and ‘allegedly’ gave members ‘a wig made from the pubic hair of his mistress’, in which, ‘allegedly’, he was followed by George IV, who filled a snuffbox with his mistress’s pubic hair and presented it to them. Sadly, much of this is merely legend: myths invented to provide a flamboyant history to a club of men involved in smuggling. A salacious ballad was reported to have been sung at meetings, but ‘no copy … is known to have survived’; the club ‘allegedly’ met at the gloomy Jacobite Castle Dreel but probably met in taverns; an inventory of artefacts, glasses, seals and sashes in the club’s possession is gone through and all its contents are seen to be machine-made fabrications. Some entries in a minute-book mention ‘a girl of 15’ who ‘appeared nude for a few minutes’, but it soon becomes apparent that the society was truly Scottish: the real vice animating its meetings wasn’t sex but tax evasion.

Sadly the book is rather humourless, running through later entries on exponents of lesbianism, cross-dressing, flagellation, bestiality, masturbation and necrophilia with barely a smile. Sodomy was a ‘foreign vice’ to which Germans were far more opposed than Italians; crossdressers – the book lists quite a number – directly challenged the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:5), but wifebeaters using sticks no thicker than their thumbs were behaving in a perfectly God-fearing manner. And a welcome tip we receive is that a flower in the buttonhole is a sure indication of a flagellant. ‘Ye shall slay the beast’, it says in Leviticus 20:15, if it raises men’s ‘unnatural lusts’, which did for several cattle from Waterford to Wickenshaw; in Wunschelburg, Silesia, it accounted for greyhounds, cattle, swine and sheep, but in Vanves in France a she-ass was let off because, without free will, she was generally judged to be an honest, if misguided, creature. After this book there is no item of clothing, no domestic pet and hardly a single household object which might confidently hope to have the same thing said of it.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter