Nineteenth-Century Pornography Essay - Critical Essays

Nineteenth-Century Pornography


Nineteenth-Century Pornography

The nineteenth-century marked a high point in pornography and prudery in Western culture. Both phenomena were influenced in large measure by dramatic advances in literacy and by a changing view of the nature of sexuality, particularly regarding women. Previously written for an aristocratic audience whose behavior was often deemed decadent, pornography in the nineteenth-century was increasingly aimed at the burgeoning market of middle- and lower-class male readers. At the same time, it was believed that females' delicate sensibilities would be offended by even the mildest sexual content in literature or art. As a result, many religious and civic authorities considered it imperative that society severely restrict and even prosecute the production of pornographic material.

The word pornography, taken from the Greek language, originally referred strictly to writing about prostitutes; the term acquired its broader, more modern meaning in the early nineteenth century, first in France and somewhat later in England. In the previous three centuries, lewd material had primarily been written for the private entertainment of a male aristocratic audience. By the late eighteenth century, obscenity and pornography, particularly in the form of cartoons, song sheets, and pamphlets, tended to be political in nature, publicly ridiculing the aristocracy, the clergy, and even the royal family by representing members of these groups in a variety of compromising positions. Prosecution of the purveyors of such texts was based on charges of blasphemy or sedition. In England, the 1820s marked a turning point, however, in that such material was increasingly being attacked and suppressed as obscene rather than seditious. During this time former political radicals in the publishing business, such as George Cannon and the Dugdale brothers, were abandoning the use of pornography in the service of political satire and producing it instead for its own sake. In addition to original material, new editions of eighteenth-century works—such as John Cleland's Fanny Hill: or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) and John Wilkes's obscene parody An Essay on Woman (c. 1763)—were published as well.

The increased demand for pornography during the early years of the nineteenth century has been attributed to a variety of causes. Iain McCalman reports that increasing levels of literacy, changes in family life, and the growing emphasis on the individual were all significant factors in producing an enthusiastic market for pornography. Greater demand was accompanied by greater efforts to suppress material deemed obscene, which drove the trade in pornography underground and made it even more profitable. David Loth claims that “it is no accident that among the English-speaking peoples the Golden Age of Prudery and the Golden Age of Pornography coincided.” According to Loth, the nineteenth century saw a revival of the Puritan belief that “the virtuous never should indulge in the pleasures of the flesh.” Many believed that this principle was especially true for women, who were considered highly sensitive to the slightest hint of sexual content in written material. H. E. Haworth recounts the efforts of nineteenth-century critic Francis Jeffrey to protect “the entire female half of the population” from literature he believed to be indecent. In America, obscenity statutes were passed in the early part of the nineteenth century; indeed, in 1821 Fanny Hill, published more than seventy years earlier, was the subject of the first prosecution for lewdness in Boston. In England, Dr. Thomas Bowdler gave his name to the process whereby literature was expunged of all objectionable material. Even the works of Shakespeare were “bowdlerized” because they were considered far too racy for family reading. In 1818 Bowdler published an enormously successful ten-volume work entitled The Family Shakespeare which, according to Loth, “could be read aloud to a man's daughters with complete confidence.” By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, censorship had reached a point where the word leg was deemed too obscene to be mentioned in front of ladies, even in reference to tables, pianos, or chickens.

Not surprisingly, many of the most notorious works of pornography were published anonymously, including perhaps the most well-known nineteenth-century erotic memoir, My Secret Life (c. 1890). As the definition of pornography became broader—eventually including any material that offended prevailing moral sensibilities—the work of mainstream literary figures came under scrutiny as well. Barbara Milech suggests that the nineteenth century witnessed a “struggle to define the boundary between licit and illicit representation, between literature and pornography.” Shelley's Queen Mab (1813) and Byron's Don Juan (1819-24) were among the many literary classics considered pornographic. Algernon Charles Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866), deemed both lewd and anti-Christian, was assailed so viciously in the press that Swinburne was very nearly subjected to criminal prosecution. Allison Pease contends that the poet's promising literary career was completely derailed by the controversy: “Swinburne went from being hailed as the next great poet of England to being vilified as ‘the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs.’” Swinburne had refused to tone down the work in advance of publication despite the urging of his friends; earlier in the century, John Keats had been forced by his publisher to remove several offensive lines from “The Eve of St. Agnes,” prompting Haworth to contend that “the Romantics were as concerned as the Victorians about ‘indecency’ and ‘indelicacy,’ not to mention pornography and obscenity.” Ruth Mayer argues that Emily Dickinson also practiced a form of self-censorship in her poetry, writing about passion in the conditional mood, since “passion and ecstasy are problematic issues for a woman writer to approach in nineteenth-century America.”

Both bourgeois literature and pornography are, according to Milech, “obsessed with the heterosexual couple” and both “represent male erotic desire primarily to men.” But aside from heterosexual erotica, there was also a great deal of material devoted to various practices condemned by nineteenth-century moralists as perversions: fetishism, homosexuality, incest, transvestism, and sado-masochism. The latter practice takes its name from the writings—and possibly personal practices—of two European noblemen: the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) of France and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1835-1895), born in Austria of mixed Spanish, German, and Russian descent. Numerous pornographic texts in England were devoted to the most popular form of sado-masochism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, flagellation—often called “the English vice.” H. Montgomery Hyde reports that Fanny Hill contains a flagellation scene that was apparently “the first detailed description of the practice to appear in print in England,” as well as a homosexual scene that was excised from most nineteenth-century editions. Hyde also discusses a well-known homosexual poem, Don Leon (1886), attributed to Byron and containing “an unblushing defence of sodomy.” Incest was the subject of an 1874 novel, published anonymously, titled Letters from a Friend in Paris; the work is considered by critics to be monotonously pornographic without the slightest hint of literary merit.

Pornographic representations returned to the realm of the political in connection with such nineteenth-century reform movements as the antivivisection effort and, most especially, abolitionism. Illustrations of naked female slaves being beaten were an important part of the anti-slavery rhetoric in both England and America. Mary A. Favret explains that the speeches before the House of Commons on the slave trade bill produced “a dynamic of erotic pain and pleasure among the members of the House.” Further, she contends that such images constituted the only sexually explicit material considered appropriate for viewing by women, who were thus given “an opportunity to participate vicariously in sexual excesses otherwise denied to proper gentlewomen.”

Representative Works

The Lustful Turk (novel) 1828
Letters from a Friend in Paris (novel) 1874
Rosa Fielding, or, A Victim of Lust (novel) 1876
The Amatory Experiences of a Surgeon (novel) 1881
Randiana (novel) 1884
My Secret Life (memoirs) c. 1890

Henry Spencer Ashbee
Centuria librorum absconditorum [as Pisanus Fraxi] (bibliography) 1879

Honoré de Balzac
Droll Stories (short stories) 1874

John Benjamin Brookes
The Seducing Cardinal (satire) 1830

George Gordon, Lord Byron
Don Juan (poem) 1819-24
Don Leon (poem) 1886

George Cannon, publisher
Birchen Bouquet; or, Curious and Original Anecdotes of Ladies fond of administering the Birch Discipline (erotica) c. 1830
The Elements of Tuition and Modes of Punishment (erotica) c. 1830
The Exhibition of Female Flagellants (erotica) c. 1830

Giacomo Casanova
Mémoirs de J. Casanova de Seingalt, écrits par lui-même (autobiography) 1826

John Cleland
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure Fanny Hill (novel) 1749

William Dugdale, publisher
Nunnery Tales, or Cruising under False Colours: A Tale of Love and Lust. 3 vols. (novel) n.d.
The New Ladies' Tickler; or The Adventures of Lady Lovesport and The Audacious Harry (novel) 1866

George Lippard
The Quaker City; or the Monks of Monk Hall. A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (novel) 1845

Guy de Maupassant
À la feuille de rose: maison turque (play) 1875

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Venus in Furs (novel) n.d.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade
Justine (novel) 1781
The 120 Days of Sodom (novel) 1785
Aline and Valcour (novel) 1788
The Philosopher in the Boudoir (nonfiction) 1795
Juliette (novel) 1796

George Augustus Sala
The Mysteries of Verbena House (novel) n.d.

Percy Byshhe Shelley
Queen Mab (poetry) 1813

St. George Stock
The Romance of Chastisement (novel) 1866

Algernon Charles Swinburne
The Flogging Block (poetry) n.d.
Poems and Ballads (poetry) 1866

Paul Verlaine
Les Amies (poetry) 1867

John Wilkes
An Essay on Woman (satire) c. 1763

Criticism: Nineteenth-Century Pornographers

H. Montgomery Hyde (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: Hyde, H. Montgomery. “The Pornography of Perversion.” In A History of Pornography, pp. 122-52. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964.

[In the following excerpt, Hyde discusses nineteenth-century pornography devoted to sado-masochistic practices, homosexuality, and incest.]


Apart from purely erotic pornography, there are various manifestations of sexual abnormality in pornographic literature, such as sado-masochistic practices, homosexuality, incest, transvestism and sundry forms of fetichism. The principal sado-masochistic perversion is, of course, flagellation. We have already seen how it was practised in the period of...

(The entire section is 12165 words.)

Iain McCalman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: McCalman, Iain. “Grub Street Jacks: Obscene Populism and Pornography.” In Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840, pp. 204-31. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, McCalman explores the production of pornography, some of it associated with radical politics, centered on Holywell Street in London.]

The authorities caught up with George Cannon for the first time in October 1830. Early the following year, after two separate prosecutions, he was sentenced to a total of twelve months' imprisonment in Tothill Fields, not as we might expect for blasphemy or sedition, but on charges of...

(The entire section is 13733 words.)

Allison Pease (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Pease, Allison. “Victorian Obscenities: The New Reading Public, Pornography, and Swinburne's Sexual Aesthetic.” In Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity, pp. 37-71. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, Pease traces the relationship between increasing levels of literacy in Victorian England and the production and regulation of pornography.]

Edmund Gosse characterized the British poetry scene in the 1860s as a time of almost deadening quiescence. Tennyson had settled into the tasteful repose of his laureateship, Browning was squirreled away producing The Ring and the Book, and minor writers were...

(The entire section is 18787 words.)