Coming and Going
One of the many perks of life at Erotic Review is the occasionally atypical things one receives in the post. On returning home last week my front door was stoppered by a heavy package: this’ll be something tax-y, I thought gloomily, as the paper came off.
Underneath lay a smart blue cover, bare except for one word that, in my haste to see what was inside, I didn’t spot. Turning to the first page there’s a print of Adam and Eve, all flora and fauna and Eden and bliss. Except that curled around Eve’s neck is what on first glance appears to be the serpent, but is – of course – a double-ended penis the size of a piece of construction tubing.
There are 40 items included in the rare-book collector Simon Finch’s catalogue. It’s called Eroticism, and all pieces have been taken from a collection of over 300 works squirrelled away lovingly over the years. Finch tells the story of arriving at an old bookseller’s while at university and noticing the enormous stacks of erotica, which the seller didn’t want to catalogue and which Finch subsequently took home in two creaking vans – “It was my most thrilling purchase to date.” He goes on to explain that, during this period he also acquired a selection of old works on death “in its myriad guises”. The two became fused in his mind, hence the collection’s longer title Sex and Death. Coming and Going. In Japanese, the word we associate with orgasm is translated as “to go”; similarly, the French have their petit mort. “My student flat” writes Finch, “was swamped by books on sex and death, my dreams haunted by these twin giants”.
The catalogue is, first and foremost, an exploration of the erotic – but by spanning a vast time period of more than 500 years it also becomes a historical document in itself. It provides an overview on how we have talked, written and thought about sex over the centuries, unravelling a “unique perspective on changing attitudes… documented from the cutting edge of the clandestine erotic publishing industry”. This is a journey that begins at the Renaissance and ends at the first verbal – and later visual – pornography in most countries of the western world. We see “the flowering of French erotica” in the second half of the 18th century, the rise of “bourgeois pornography” in 19th-century France, Germany and Britain, the “erotic-surrealisme” vogue of the 1920-50s and then, finally, the explosion of the 60s.
The idea of erotica as important historical artefact is explored in the title poem of Alexander Radcliffe’s The Ramble: an Anti-heroick poem together with some terrestrial hymns and carnal ejaculations from 1682. Written in the tradition of Rochester’s 1680 poems, The Ramble starts with the author, in bed with a prostitute, responding to a knock at the door. He embarks on a walk through Restoration London – visiting theatres, gambling dens and coffee houses before returning to bed to be sick. We turn to a later deck of playing cards, possibly from Frankfurt c1830 – the engraved prints are hand-coloured with stencils and seem innocent enough. When held up to the light, however, they reveal the additional figures standing (or more often, kneeling) by the King, Queen and Jack. Later still, M N Devergie attempts to express the nature of syphilis through a graphic portrait of the human head with attached colour plates. Particularly interesting, also, is Cyprien Berard’s Lord Ruthwen, ou les vampires – another first edition of one of the earliest vampire novels, the classic merging of sex and death, which inspired a successful theatrical run in London and Paris in 1820 and precipitated a period of “vampire mania” in both cities.
The question of the materials’ providence and rarity is explained by the general disinterest and disregard by many rare-book collectors across the centuries. Erotic publications were often kept, if they were kept at all, in secret – and once a collector had died their families usually destroyed the work. Many prints, texts and pamphlets were seized and destroyed. An early example of this is the reproduction of L’escole des Filles (ou la philosophie des dames) by Michel Millot and Jean de l’Ange – the entirety of the 1655 first edition (300 copies) was seized and destroyed. The only reprints (numbering about eight) were likely printed in Holland – the plate displayed in the catalogue is the only known survivor of the 1686 edition. The text is, according to Finch, one of the first examples of a book being purchased for purely pornographic purposes – bought by that old 17th-century scoundrel Samuel Pepys. In January 1668, Pepys writes about finding the book at “Martin’s, my bookseller” – this was the reign of Charles II, after all, so possibly easier for such works to be in circulation – and finding it “the most bawdy lewd book” he’s ever seen, and that he’d be ashamed to read it. However, the next day he writes about returning to the Strand and the bookseller, “and there stayed an hour and bought that idle, roguish book”. He buys it in plain binding, takes it home, reads it, masturbates furiously and then burns it: no wonder the articles in this collection are some of the most rare examples of early erotica in existence.