Literary erotica from the 19th century is back

I must admit to not having read de Sade or even Anaïs Nin. I’m always “meaning to” but haven’t yet. I should, especially because I can’t get enough of James Joyce’s dirty letters. This sparked my interest. from The Times (London):

You might have thought that the move to a visual culture that has taken place over the past 200 years would have put paid to the pleasuring pen, but far from it. Today Belle de Jour’s blog is still delighting her followers, and Tracy Quan’s Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl has its devotees. But when is pornography erotic? And when is erotica literary?

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, HarperPerennial is releasing new editions of ten “erotic tales” under the flag Forbidden Classics. Two of the titles date from the 18th century – John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748 and 1749, generally known as Fanny Hill), and the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: ou Les Malheurs de Vertu (1791). Funnily enough, both authors were in prison when they wrote these books, so it is easy to guess at the spur to their creativity. But the print explosion of the 18th century had also resulted in rising demand. Gentlemen who had money collected them. Those who did not went to the coffee house where you could while away an hour or two with a choice selection of rude books (and such well-handled copies are still to be found carefully preserved in august university collections).

It is a curious episode in the history of literary sexuality. New ideas to do with the value of the individual life, and new democratic freedoms meant an astonishing lack of prudishness that is hard for us to grasp even now. True, you had to be pretty brave to live a sexually liberated life in the way of Mary Wollstonecraft or Percy Shelley, but it was possible. And the number of explicit publications dating from this time – both in words and pictures – still accounts for many a scholar’s enthusiastic interest in the period. But there were also dangers. Cleland was prosecuted in 1750, largely because a pirated version of his book included an unauthorised scene between men. And while de Sade was cracking his whip in France, Marie Antoinette’s reputation was destroyed (in part) by a scurrilous publication that depicted her in flagrante with animals, with women and with her own son.

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