In June 1660, Charles II left the Low Countries, departing from Scheveningen beach. Many Royalists who had been exiled for over a decade made their way back to London, together with the various delegations that had visited the king in the Dutch Republic. Cromwell’s former flagship Naseby, that was sent to transport the king back home, was renamed Royal Charles for the occasion. The days of Royalist despair were over. Their joyful departure was painted by Johannes Lingelbach. Adriaan Vlacq (who had spent part of his career in London) published a richly illustrated folio account of Charles’s stay in the Low Countries in an English, Dutch, and French edition. Charles entered London on 29 May 1660 to reclaim the throne. He was thirty years old.
Charles gathered an unconventional set of people around him and the subsequent revival of drama showed a marked orientation towards licence. Playwrights such as Buckingham, Rochester, George Etherege, or Charles Sedley were known libertines who, by challenging traditional visions of marriage and family life, fashioned an alternative socio-cultural model. Restoration court culture was both explicit and political. In his play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (1684) John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, linked Charles’s sexual debauchery to his absolutist political ambitions: ‘My pintle shall my only sceptre be [and] with my prick I’ll govern all the land’. In poetry traditional standards were under attack too. The unrivalled leader of poetic ribaldry was the Earl of Rochester. In his lyrics he embodied all that the Puritan mind found intolerable.
In 1678, Dutch author Adrianus van Beverland had anonymously published his Peccatus originale. With quotations taken from the Bible, the author claims that the only sin of Adam and Eve was their ‘conversatio carnalis’. The original sin simply was the erotic stimulus present in every human being. The book infuriated the authorities. When in 1679 a second revised edition appeared with the author’s name on the title page, Van Beverland was banned from the country. He fled to England and lived for years under the patronage of Leiden-born philologist Isaac Vossius who, in 1670, had been invited to Cambridge as protégé of John Pearson, Master of Trinity College. His name remains linked to the publication of ‘scandalous’ books of which the Peccatus remains the most notorious one.
Van Beverland was the most libertine writer of his era. His presence coincided with a flourishing of erotic literature in the Dutch Republic – part and parcel of the rise of the radical Enlightenment – during (roughly) the last three decades of the seventeenth century. In spite of a reputation for tolerance, the Republic was one of the first nations to issue a separate decree to censure lascivious books. The ban did not stop Dutch erotic literature finding its way to the English market. De Haagsche lichtmis (1679) was translated as The London Bully, or The Prodigal Son (1683); and D’openhertige juffrouw (1680) as The London Jilt, or The Politic Whore (1683; a second corrected edition appeared in 1684).
Erotic literature was intermixed with other genres and subgenres. Bodies were represented by metaphor or suggestion. Medical treatises vacillated between lectures about venereal disease and lurid tales of sexual behaviour. On one page the author recommends mercury as a cure for syphilis, on the next he points at red-haired women for having ‘dangerous’ passions. The author in this case is surgeon John Marten who, residing in Hatton Garden, Camden, published his first extant work in 1706. It concerns a ‘translation’ from the Latin of Treatise of the Safe, Internal Use of Cantharides, a study originally published in 1698 by Joannes Groenevelt (a Deventer-born physician who had settled in London in 1675). The latter had made the use of cantharides (or Spanish fly) widely known in England. Martin almost doubled the size of the original by adding numerous tales of a lascivious nature. The work became known as Dr Marten’s ‘poxy book’.
In 1741 Thomas Stretser, writing under the French-sounding pseudonym Roger Pheuquewell, produced one of the more striking books to emerge from this period of oddities, entitled A New Description of Merryland. Using the scientific language of geography, he compares the female anatomy to a foreign coastline and sexual activity to a journey of discovery. In the same year he shrewdly published a detailed critique of his own work entitled Merryland Displayed in which he explained the origin of the idea. While reading a passage on the Low Countries in Patrick Gordon’s Geographical Grammar, he had been struck by the similarities between the Dutch coastline and the shape of the female anatomy. Those parts of the country that are ‘best inhabited are generally the moistest; and Naturalists tell us, this Moisture contributes much to its Fruitfulness; where it is dry, it seldom proves fruitful, nor agreeable to the Tiller …’.
Between the 1720s and the 1770s a range of risqué pamphlets were published that maintained an appearance of respectability by choosing a Latin word in preference to an English one and a metaphor rather than a bald description such as The Electrical Eel; or, Gymnotus Electricus, and the Torpedo; a Poem (ca. 1777), etc. Such works were published either anonymously or the authors used suggestive pseudonyms (Philogynes Clitorides, Paddy Strong Cock, or Timothy Touchit). During that period the London erotic market was dominated by the activities of a single bookseller and publisher, a man nicknamed the ‘Unspeakable Curll’.
Edmund Curll had arrived in London from the West of England in 1698/9 and was apprenticed to the bookseller Richard Smith before setting up his own business in the Strand. He soon was in trouble with the authorities for publishing A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs (1718), was a translation by George Sewell of a Latin text that had been around since at least 1639. The book had been written for the instruction of physicians, but Curll added a sexually orientated frontispiece, and ensured that the title-page would clarify for the reader what the book’s genre was: ‘Printed for E. Curll, in Fleet-Street …where may be had, The Cases of Impotency; and Eunuchism and Onanism Display’d’. Curll always looked for juicy titles. Books were commodities, the rapping more important than the content. He was quick to discover that a ‘succès de scandale’ can be extremely lucrative. Controversy creates attention and notoriety. In literature, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Jaap Harskamp is a contributor to the New York History Blog at Jaap Harskamp, Author at The New York History Blog