The Pleasures of Amatory Pleasures

Aleksondra Hultquist
Stockton University

As a key word in the eighteenth century, “amatory” elides a stable definition. It is one in a series of key words that tries to account for the practices of love, marriage, sexuality, pornography, and erotica and the literature that explores these concepts. Julie Peakman’s recent monograph, Amatory Pleasures: Explorations in Eighteenth-Century Sexual Culture (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), provides a firm grasp of “amatory” in the long eighteenth century, both wide-ranging within the concept itself as well as specifically grounded in the period. Amatory Pleasures can be added to Peakman’s extensive list of feminist history of sexuality studies from the early modern through Victorian eras. It is a gathering of her previous work; as she notes, the purpose of her book is “to bring together a collection of disparate articles under one cover to make them more easily accessible” (xiii). As such, the essays are organized into chapters under three main concepts: Norms and Anomalies, Erotic Women in Fact and Fiction, and Exploring Bodies. There are benefits to this book—mostly that, indeed, her work is more easily accessible to the researcher. It also provides a solid base of any researcher interested in the history of sexuality and the eighteenth century.

The introduction lays out how the book highlights cultural constructs of eighteenth-century sexuality (cultural rather than theoretical, though it is grounded in sexual theory). She argues for the aspects of sexuality that position the ideas about and practices of sex in the eighteenth century, and I think the relationship between sexual theoretical aspects and cultural “truths” hits the right balance, using one to inform and shape the other.

Part 1 offers an overview of sexual practices in the eighteenth century through cultural practice and print culture. This is an excellent outline of the historical realities of sexuality, one that will be especially useful for any scholar who is looking to understand historical and cultural contexts. Chapter 1 organizes sexual norms in three main categories: marriage practices, prostitution, and homosexuality, with a strong emphasis on British sexual culture, also branching to practices on the Continent and in the far east and colonies. Chapter 2 argues for sexual perversions, that is sexual practices that are “against nature,” a definition created and upheld through religious codes, local morals, and governmental controls. Peakman deftly navigates the muddier aspects of topics such as rape, pornography, prostitution, and homosexuality, delineating practices oppositional to modern sensibilities. The main thrust of her argument posits that the nature of sexual perversion in the eighteenth century is linked to procreation—practices that lead to reproduction are “natural” and those that cannot, are “unnatural.” Chapter 3 examines the phenomenon of sexual blaming and shaming to control behavior evident in eighteenth-century print culture. The specific turn in the eighteenth-century erotic publications is anti-sodomy, anti-divorce, and anti-Catholic (56), ideas central to a culture that controls through disgrace and culpability.

This book is a feminist history of sexuality, partially because so much of the idea of sexuality rests in females themselves—pregnancy, venereal diseases, and perverted sexualized natures are clearly linked to femininity in the eighteenth century, if not actual females. This is most evident in Part 2, which looks at printed materials that cross the fact/fiction divide: whore biographies, whore auto-biographies, novelistic frameworks of sexual education, and female friendships.

Chapter 4 argues for the whore biography as a new genre of British literature created in the eighteenth century due to cheaper printing practices and the mass movement from country to city life. Peakman contends that the whore biography (“whore” being defined as anyone having sexual contact outside the confines of marriage—a vast definition for sure) is both promotional and vindictive. She cites the pleasures of revelation as the driving force of the works, which mark the works’ documentary style of writing, rather than pornographic description (63). Short analyses of several examples of whore biographies also wrestle with the larger question, “What are we to do with the whore?”—a question directly related to the contradictory nature of the concept of the city itself.

Chapter 5 explores the autobiographies of publicly sexualized women. She reads the whore autobiography as an important contribution to women’s writing, going so far as to argue that “life-writing” was a particularly eighteenth-century phenomenon (though it is very much a late-century singularity, a fact she does not clearly emphasize). As places of power that vindicate behavior and expose broken promises (usually failed annuity payments), these texts highlight aspects of a woman living in a man’s world; they recognize the double standard in polite sexual behavior and create a voice in the public sphere to denounce these anti-women practices. The whore autobiography is not about pornographic descriptions of a life of sensual pleasures, but rather of emotion; anger, revenge, jealousy, and passionate personalities drive these narratives. She uses three main autobiographies to categorize issues such as the failure of patriarchal structures to protect the innocent, the importance of ladies’ education in the art of pleasing (similar to the virtuous-genteel education of the time), the notion of seduction by the first lover, the “chaste” practices of whores’ behaviors, and coquettish conduct, which from the female point of view is understood as an honest emotional practice rather than deceit.

Chapter 6 uses John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748) to track the significance of gender to sexual education and partialities. The text is significant, she argues, because it is “reflective of the beliefs and opinions of sexual matters of the eighteenth century” (103). This “logical and normal” progression of sexuality, Peakman argues, centers on the blood taboo. The established norms of English sexual propensities move from tribadism (or sex between women); to the forceful, painful, and unpleasant “conquering” of virginity by heterosexual penetrative sex; and finishing with flagellation as a stimulant for both the giver and receiver.

Chapter 7, while fascinating, does not seem to belong to this book. Her chapter on the friendship between Emma Hamilton and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, important on its own, does not fit into the idea of amatory pleasures. Rather it is a relationship between women that directed international politics in the late 1700s. The chapter is a significant piece of work in that it highlights the friendship of Hamilton and Queen Maria, rather than the men that they communicated with (King Ferdinand, Sir William Hamilton, and Admiral Nelson). This alone makes the chapter an important one in terms of women’s friendships, but the aspect of “amatory pleasures” that might better fit into the larger book is the amiable manage á trois between Nelson, Hamilton, and her husband Sir William.

Part 3 argues for the construction of the body in the eighteenth century and how that links to contemporary scientific culture, especially humoral theory and botanical metaphors. Chapter 8 analyzes the space between pornographic/erotic and medical texts to reveal anxieties about the eighteenth-century body. This chapter is unique in that it explores the conservative aspects of erotica and pornography, notably that new medical research rarely crossed into the public imagination and that erotic writing preserved an “old value system rather than embracing new theories” (144). Medical terminology morphed from procreative “how to’s” to pornographic arousal through bodily description. Her principal discussion focuses on the notion of the humors and whether fluid expenditures during sex (blood, ejaculations, and secretions) were beneficial or detrimental to health.

Chapter 9 concentrates on the sexual attitudes as revealed in botanical metaphors, which manifested in satires of the virtuosi and the Royal Society. Her careful readings demonstrate how debates on the anatomy and physiology of plant procreation was a method of discussing human sex through three themes: men’s anxieties regarding women’s bodies, the uneasiness of women’s sexual insatiability and therefore inconstancy, and the fear of catching disease. Through a careful reading, Peakman unearths the sexualized botanical metaphor in an extensive array of erotic and satirical texts. While she concedes no comprehensive stance on sex in these works, they nevertheless comprise a cultural celebration of sexuality “to be raised in public without the use of graphic detail” (158).

The final chapter of the book examines the repetition of the erotic garden in a variety of artistic expressions that describe sexuality through the metaphoric use of physical and imaginative landscapes. She tracks the convergence of the European Tour (and other travels, especially those to the South Seas), Neoclassical revival, and an interest in sexualized botany to the creation of the erotic garden, thus creating gardens, such as that of Sir Frances Dashwood’s estate, which were both utopias and homages to love (163). Erotic gardens modeled lager sexual allegories in which the female body is a landscape of love, expressed through grottos, areas of dense bushes, and fountains as fluidic expenditures. These were spaces of seclusion and freedom, and therefore perfect places for erotic encounters and exploration. She also explores the “repressed echo” (167) of the walled and organized secret garden as it was described in anti-Catholic erotica, and returns to flagellatory stimulation—flowers and birch branches as literary signifiers of flagellatory sex.

There is no conclusion, coda, or epilogue to the book, any of which would be useful for two reasons. The first is to review the cultural implications of the larger argument and offer avenues of further exploration. But the second issue addresses a larger criticism of the book as a scholarly endeavor: there is little acknowledgement of recent cultural histories of sexuality that are specific to the eighteenth century. Important monographs such as Karen Harvey’s Reading Sex in the Eighteenth-Century (2004), Thomas Lacqueur’s Solitary Sex (2003), Kathleen Lubey’s Erotic Imaginations (2012), and Laura Rosenthal’s Infamous Commerce (2006) are not cited. This is surprising, as these scholarly books cover topics central to Peakman’s thesis from a distinctly eighteenth-century point of view: reading practices of erotica and pornography and the history of masturbation and prostitution, respectively. Since many of these monographs rely on Peakman’s earlier research, I would have liked to get her sense of that newer material and how it might augment or challenge her own arguments.

Early in book there is a looseness as to the definition of the eighteenth century. Peakman’s examples range from the early 1500s to the late 1800s, which reminds researchers that any trend has a pre- and post-history. The strength of this approach is that it acknowledges that history is not linear or progressive (or anti-progressive) as it is often (uncritically) claimed to be. There is, however, nuance lost to this method. Dipping in and out of history creates an even more porous quality of the eighteenth century than we are used to. While she does point out trends of the eighteenth-century culture of sexuality, one is often reminded of this broad range of dates and questions whether the information is characteristic or anomalous. Nevertheless, one must admire the sheer volume of historical reading that this work takes on.

The framing of the book is particularly useful. There are clear introductions and conclusions to each chapter (something, that it seems happen less frequently in academic works), and an excellent descriptive introduction, which places this book in the larger context of her work. Peakman has a direct clarity of prose that is accessible, interesting, and intellectual; I found it a pleasure to read. The index is, I think, particularly useful in terms of subject headings as well as the usual author, title, and historical figure information. However, there are clear issues with the publication of the book that have nothing to do with the author: there is a lack of a navigatory framework in the notes section, namely no page headers to help you find your place should your endnote bookmark slip out of place. (And why is that presses insist on endnotes when I have yet to find an academic that wouldn’t rather simply see a footnote?) Similarly frustrating for the scholar, there is no bibliography. But these are issues with the nature of the press, which bridges the gap between academic work and educated layperson, not a weakness of the work itself.

The book is replete with important illustrations: portraits, satirical works, images from erotic works, and photographs of gardens adorn every chapter, something lovely to see in these strapped pecuniary times of publishing. There is an unevenness to the commentary on the illustrations, though. In some places, the text does not cite or mention why the image might be there, such as Peakman’s juxtaposition of sexual practices of European expansion as represented in Plate II of William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1732)—there is a dark-skinned servant in one corner, but the demonstration and importance of the image to the argument is absent. Similarly, some frontispieces are described but not shown, like that belonging to the Fruit-Shop, an erotic text discussed in chapter 10. The intelligent reader will make her own connections, of course, but guidance as to the inclusion of these images as part of Peakman’s argument would have been helpful.

The areas of improvement for the book do not take away from its usefulness or importance in establishing a clear idea of a feminist history of sexuality in the eighteenth century. It is a valuable book for placing sexual practices in context and a necessary text for any scholar who broaches the subjects of gender, life-writing, medical texts, or literary representations of sex in the eighteenth century. One cannot, I think, find a more solid base on which to begin research.