Rex v. Curll: Pornography and punishment in court and on the page
Venus in the Cloister: or, The Nun in Her Smock, a translation from the French printed by Edmund Curll in 1724, may have recommended Curll for prosecution not only because it was pornographic but because it declined to enact intratextual strategies of punishment common in pornography then as now. The series of sexually explicit episodes central to pornography often culminates in the destruction of the principal conveyor of erotic charge, usually female, and thus in the viewer’s or reader’s release from fear of exposure. The pornographic encounter ends with the male reader/viewer exiting the cinema or closing the text confident that the transgressor has been identified and silenced and that his own role in the transaction has been effaced.1 The film Snuff (1975), which ends with the onscreen murder of the pornographic actress, is only the most blatant example of a well-worn tradition.
Some of Curll’s pornographic works are analogous to the twentieth-century film, but Venus in the Cloister is not among them. The narrative’s central characters-the young nuns Angelica and Agnes-enjoy sexual relations with one another and, peripherally, with men. The lesbian encounters in particular are free of the predetermined struggles for dominance evident in a good deal of pornography; the heterosexual encounters are nothing more than material for the stories that the young women tell during their own foreplay. At the end of the work, the lovers look forward to resuming their “Conversation” (184), which has become a companionate affair as well as a sexual one. The male reader seeking validation of his power over the female subject finds instead a narrative in which male agency counts for very little. There is no invitation to punish the transgressor because there is no transgressor. There is no transgressor because the norm against which pornography conventionally measures transgression-masculine power-is absent. Where much pornography lends power to the “insatiable woman” of idnal fantasy only to claim it back at the moment of narrative (and theoretically sexual) climax, Venus in the Cloister neutralizes masculine power while positing lesbianism as unbound by rigid models of power.2
Curll would learn that extratextual power was not so easily attenuated. The publication of Venus in the Cloister prompted a sustained campaign of harassment against the printer, who was arrested twice in 1725 and once in 1727; he was incarcerated for more than two years during the period 1725 to 1728. A stopand-start trial at the court of King’s Bench resulted in a fine of 25 marks, a serious but not debilitating penalty, and an order to “enter into a recognizance for 100 for his good behaviour for one year”-to post a bond (Thoms 143). Rex v. Curll is familiar to legal scholars as the foundation of the English law for obscene libel that survived until 1959 (Thomas 83).
I do not claim that the book’s thematic generosity prompted the prosecution. The court probably realized that Venus in the Cloister was unusually graphic and saw in it an opportunity to clamp down on a printer whose previous lapses– pseudoscientific “treatises” and whatnot-had provided him with more dodges. But, for all that, a reexamination of the case and of various pornographic or parapornographic works of the 1710s and 1720s allows us to identify an interesting phenomenon: the pornography singled out for punishment by the state was the pornography that did not employ the punitive function available to it by way of convention. What the state punished was not the representation of sex, but the representation of sex-lesbian sex in particular-that was not punished intratextually. The result is the incorporation of pornography into a conservative and, to risk cliche, hegemonic penal apparatus.
In what follows, I first clarify the chronology of Curll’s trial, which has been garbled in previous accounts. The corrected account highlights the determination of attorney general Philip Yorke, earl of Hardwicke, to prosecute Curll for printing a book that precedent seemed to protect but that was, on the other hand, both more interested in representing “deviance” and less interested in punishing it than earlier targets of prosecution had been. I then consider Venus in the Cloister itself, with a mind to illustrating its hostility to masculine penal strategies. Finally, and by way of contrast, I examine one of Curll’s earlier forays into pornography: Giles Jacob’s A Treatise of Hermaphrodites (1718), like Venus in the Cloister in representing lesbian sex, but unlike the later work for its thematic use of the punishment-motif. The court probably examined this book when they were preparing their case against Curll; however, they chose to ignore it in the trial.
The details of Curll’s legal problems in the 1720s are not fully recoverable, although various incomplete or inaccurate accounts have made them more obscure than they need to be. Some of the data are clear enough. In October 1724, Curll printed Robert Samber’s translation of Venus dans le cloitre, ou la religieuse en chemise (1683), probably by Jean Barrin.3 Curll never admitted to printing the work, which did not bear his name on the title page, but no one in his time or since has found reason to take the disavowal seriously. A second “edition” (now lost), probably a new impression, followed in January or February 1725. The work was cited in an anonymous complaint to secretary of state Charles Townshend, along with A Treatise of the Use of Flogging in Venereal Affairs, a translation from the Latin of a strained send-up from 1639 that Curll had printed in 1718.4 Curll was arrested in March 1725 and jailed until July of that year. On 30 November 1725, he was tried and found guilty. But, as Curll’s Victorian biographer, William James Thoms, observes, counsel for the printer “moved an arrest of judgment, on that ground that the offence was not a libel; but if punishable at all, was an offence contra bonos mores, and punishable only in the spiritual courts” (141).5 In other words, the defense requested that final judgment and sentencing be postponed while the court considered the question of jurisdiction.
The court had plenty of time to do so. Curll was jailed again in December 1725; this time, he was held until July 1726. In the King’s Bench Prison, he met John Ker, who had been a spy during Queen Anne’s reign and whose Memoirs Curll published in three volumes, seriatim, upon his release from jail. These provided the proximate cause of a third arrest, probably in February 1727, after which Curll was jailed until the following February. On the twelfth of that month, he received separate sentences for publishing Venus in the Cloister, A Treatise of the Use of Flogging, and the Memoirs of John Ker. The punishment for the Treatise matched that for Venus in the Cloister (the L100 bond was a response to both); and the punishment for the Memoirs consisted of an additional fine, an hour in the pillory, and a guarantee of Curll’s behavior for one year beyond the period stipulated in the initial sentence.
Modern accounts of these events have descended stemmatically from Thoms’s biography. Although accurate in itself, the account may have allowed misreadings that have had the effect of minimizing the government’s concern about Venus in the Cloister. Thorns goes out of his way to argue that Curll’s trip to the pillory was the result of the “political” offense of printing the Memoirs, not the “immoral offence” of printing the two earlier works (143). The claim is well documented and is no doubt true; but it suffers from the author’s refusal to consider that a de facto arrest for one thing might be a de jure arrest for something else, or, more specifically, that the Memoirs might have provided the government with an occasion for doing something that it wanted to do but had not previously been able to do. Proving “immoral offence” is difficult; proving the divulgence of state secrets is less so.6
By way of context, it is worth noting that, a few years later, the government would try Richard Francklin for printing the confidential if innocuous “Hague Letter” in Craftsman 235 (2 Jan. 1731), midway through that paper’s run of a series by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke that the government had tried ineffectually to stop. The trial earned the government the conviction that had previously eluded it (Pettit, Illusory Consensus 60-61).7 Hardwicke sentenced Francklin four years to the day after he sentenced Curll. As in Curll’s case, if more plausibly, the crime was libel. Ker’s Memoirs stood in the same relationship to Venus in the Cloister as the “Hague Letter” did to the incendiary material that Francklin had been dishing up at double strength since the summer of 1730: they provided the opportunity, not the offense.
A misunderstanding about the chronology of Curll’s trial may have helped legitimate Thoms’s claim that Venus in the Cloister was only one of three publications for which Curll was punished and not the most important one. Thoms first cites Abel Boyer’s Political State of Great Britain to show that, on the last day of November 1725, Curll was convicted at the King’s Bench for “printing and publishing several obscene and immodest books, greatly tending to the corruption and depravation of manners” (Thorns 141). Boyer identifies A Treatise of the Use of Flogging and Venus in the Cloister as particularly offensive works. Thorns then reproduces a document from the Rawlinson Manuscripts, prepared before the trial, in which Curll states his intention to plead innocent; this document, too, lists the Treatise and Venus in the Cloister. It is followed by the account of Curll’s motion for the arrest of judgment, reproduced above. The paragraph concludes with a review of the trial from Sir John Strange’s Reports of Adjudged Cases. Thorns reproduces Strange’s dating of the passage: “Michaelmas Term, 1 Geo. 2.” He does not append the precise date, no doubt assuming that his readers would realize that the material dated to the fall of 1727, two years after Curll moved the arrest of judgment.
Unlikely as it may seem, Thoms’s assumption proved false. Later commentators have either confused the initial phase of the trial of 1725 and its continuation in 1727 or have declined the opportunity to correct the faulty impression. Ralph Straus, author of a popular biography of Curl (1927), says that the discussion of jurisdiction took place in 1725, on the day that the verdict was pronounced and the arrest of judgment was moved (see 103-05). In fact, the material that Straus quotes from Strange is a summary from fall 1727 of a debate from “Trinity term last” (Strange 788)-that is, from early summer 1727. Any doubts about the dating are removed by Strange’s remark that Sir Francis Page replaced Sir John Fortescue on the bench between the terms in question (791); this happened in September 1727.8 So the arrest of judgment was debated in the summer of 1727, not in the fall of 1725.
Thirty-eight years after Straus’s book appeared, David Foxon followed Straus into error. He, too, moved the Trinity Term 1727 debate to November 1725, citing for authority Straus and the account of the trial in State-Trials-taken from Strange and duly labeled “Mich. Term. I Geo. II.”9 Donald Thomas’s work shows no sign of such confusion; and Thomas adds the helpful datum that the verdict of November 1725 was only “a mere formality, simply a decision on the question of fact, of whether or not Curll had published the two books before the court” (81). But Thomas has no occasion to contradict earlier twentieth-century accounts, so he does not clarify the matter of what the court was considering and when the court was considering it. No one else has done so either.
A spurious time-line emerges, according to which the guilty verdict, the motion for arrest of judgment, and the discussion of the motion all occurred in November 1725. The court then declined to consider the matter further until November 1727 at a trial initiated by and, to a significant extent, concerned with Ker’s Memoirs, which (by implication at least) provided the government with the ammunition it needed to dispense with Curll’s motion about a different work. The matter stands differently when we restore the debate about jurisdiction to its proper place in the summer of 1727-after, not before, the publication of the Memoirs and Curll’s subsequent arrest. This sequence finds the court still debating the legal status of Venus in the Cloister a year and a half after its initial verdict but still not ready to make a final decision about it. The Memoirs are an additional irritant, nothing more.
This adjustment helps us understand the court’s evident preoccupation with Venus in the Cloister. Strange gives no indication that the court mentioned any other book in either the Trinity or Michaelmas Terms. His account is presumably accurate: he was Curll’s lawyer at least by November 1727 (see Strange 791) and by November 1725, if Straus is to be trusted (103). Neither Thoms nor Straus acknowledges the absence of the other works from the trial records that they cite. Thomas notes the “emphasis” placed on Venus in the Cloister during the trial, by which he seems to mean that the works named in the indictment and in the records of the sentencing were not those discussed during the trial (79; see also Foxon 14n. 24). No one has ever suggested that the court discussed the Memoirs of John Ker during this phase of the trial. Although the data about the separate sentences are irrefutable, the trial was not given over to a discussion of the three separate works. Hardwicke focused his comments on “an obscene little book”; his fellow justice Sir James Reynolds used the locution “this book” (Strange 790, 791; my emphases). Whatever the specifics of the sentences-or for that matter the complaint and the indictment-might have been, Curll was tried for printing Venus in the Cloister.
Probably the court had so much difficulty reaching a decision about the arrest of judgment because Curll’s counsel could cite compelling precedent. Strange observes that, in Regina v. Read (1708), the King’s Bench had ruled in favor of an arrest of judgment proposed by counsel for James Read and Angell Carter (789). Like Curl, Read and Carter had been convicted of printing what Strange describes as an “obscene book” (789)-in their case, a poem entitled The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead (1707). Strange adds that “the opinion of Chief Justice (John] Holt was so strong with the objection, that the prosecutor never thought fit to stir it again” (789).
Curll’s lawyer at the start of the trial-perhaps Strange-presumably modeled his defense on Regina v. Read. In any case, the argument was in place by Trinity Term 1727. Chief Justice Robert Raymond was for declaring against Curl] then, but he owned himself troubled by “the case of The Queen v. Read” (Strange 790). Reynolds acknowledged that Regina v. Read was “a case in point” but declared himself a foe to the earlier ruling (791). Fortescue did not cite Regina v. Read. He did, however, respond to Raymond’s uncertainty with a speech in support of Curl’s motion: “To make it indictable there should be a breach of the peace, or something tending to it, of which there is nothing in this case” (791). The court was still unable to reach a decision, and the case “was ordered to stand over for a further argument” (791).
Fortescue’s retirement removed Curll’s sole supporter on the bench; when the reconstituted court convened in Michaelmas Term, they ruled unanimously against Curll. The argument against Curll is summed up in Hardwicke’s statement from the Trinity Term session:
this is an offense at common law, as it tends to corrupt the morals of the King’s subjects, and is against the peace of the King …. The spiritual courts punish only personal spiritual defamation by words; if it is reduced to writing, it is a temporal offense … and it is punishable as a libel. (Strange 789-90)
The ascendency of Hardwicke’s position was aided by two factors in addition to Fortescue’s retirement. The first was Curll’s failure to prepare Strange for the November hearing. Strange was forced to admit that his client (who was, after all, in jail) had not given him proper guidance: “my want of being ready proceeding from [Curll’s] own neglect, they refused to indulge him to the next term” (791-92). The court then ruled that Curll’s crime was indeed a temporal offense, thus clearing the way for his sentencing the following February, at which time the jurists considered the less important matters of A Treatise of Flogging and Ker’s Memoirs.
The second factor was the court’s manipulation of precedent-a gambit no doubt facilitated by the rupture between Curll and Strange. Regina v. Read was simply brushed aside. Strange reports the opinion of the court that “if Read’s case was to be adjudged, they should rule it otherwise” (792). Hardwicke’s own choice of precedent, as Thomas puts it, was “not one which most people would have thought of”(81). The case was Rex v. Sedley (1663), the response to an incident during which Sir Charles Sedley and some friends mounted a balcony and “excrementized in the street” (Anthony A Wood, qtd. in Thomas 81). The unhappy groundlings rioted; Sedley was fined and briefly imprisoned. Thomas observes that “more than sixty years after these events, [Hardwicke] reminded the court of King’s Bench that in Sedley’s case it had declared itself to be the custos morum of the King’s subjects, the official guardian of public morals” (82). On this dubious bit of jurisprudence was based the modern law of obscene libel.
Hardwicke’s zealous pursuit of the verdict suggests the importance of the case to him. Undoubtedly, English law was imprecise on the matter of obscenity, and the jurist might well have found this irritating. He seems to have recognized in Venus in the Cloister an opportunity to rectify the situation, certainly a better opportunity than Curll had yet offered. A modern reader examining Curll’s earlier publications will have no trouble appreciating an earlier period’s sense of their “immorality” but will be unlikely to find in them much that is “sexually explicit and designed to induce sexual arousal,” to cite a broad, uncontroversial definition of pornography (Hardy 48). Venus in the Cloister fits the definition perfectly. The distinction between the “immoral” and the “pornographic” may not have been accommodated by English law in Hardwicke’s day, and indeed Rex v. Curll further obscured it. But, for all that, the court could not have failed to appreciate fundamental differences between Curll’s earlier publications and Venus in the Cloister.
The tepidity of Curll’s previous work is due in part to the fact that much of it is what Peter Wagner calls “medical and para-medical literature” (8). Daniel Defoe was among the loudest critics of this strain of “Curlicism,” which is exemplified by A Treatise of the Use of Flogging.’ Unlike Barrin’s work, this literature is more concerned with quasi- or para-sexual oddities than with depicting acts of sexual exchange. Such material had failed the government in court, anyhow. Hardwicke would have known that a case against the author of the Gonosologium novum, a 1708 treatise on venereal disease, had resulted in dismissal (Foxon 13; Thomas 78). And Curll’s Treatise of the Use of Flogging had the further advantage (to Curll) of being a translation, as the printer pointed out in his notes toward the trial, where he offered the additional point that the book had been in print for seven years before the government moved against it (Thoms 141). Venus in the Cloister was a translation as well, but French is not Latin, and the mode of appeal of Venus dans le cloitre was hardly as indirect as that of De usu flagrorum.
Curll’s nervousness around this time suggests that he, too, knew that he had put himself more at risk than he had done in the past. Of the six titles mentioned in The Humble Representation of Edmund Curll, published around the time of the 1725 arrest, only Venus in the Cloister does not record Curll’s name on its title page.11 Curll attempts to pass off the book as a reformationist effort along the lines of The Praise of Folly, intended “to lay open the Abuses and Corruptions of the Church of Rome, in relation to the Monasteries and Religious-Houses” (7). The claim evidently “hoodwinked” Fortescue (Wagner 73), but its sheer extravagance is more to the present point.12 Curll’s notes for the 1725 session reveal plans for a different but equally unconvincing defense. Venus in the Cloister, Curll says there, was “done out of French by Mr. Samber of New Inne of which we only sold one, as any other Bookseller might do” (Thoms 141). Here, Curll attempts to shift the blame to his translator and to imply, although not quite to state, that he had not published the book, just tried unsuccessfully to sell it. (Why a second “edition” of such a flop, one might ask?) And, in November 1727, Curll argued in the press that Henry Rhodes had printed an edition of Venus in the Cloister in 1683 without incurring any penalty (Foxon 14). This last claim is more compelling than the others, but the shifting tactics suggest that Curll was jockeying for position in a battle that must have looked grim after Fortescue’s retirement.
Even the basis of Curl’s appeal-the invocation of Regina v. Read-is flawed from a literary-critical point of view, if not clearly from a legal one. Venus in the Cloister and The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead are as different from one another as the former book is from the Gonosologium novum. Not only did Venus in the Cloister trade in greater erotic detail than The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead had, but it differed from that poem and many other “non-medical” works by declining to present sex as a prop of the patriarchy. The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead records the lamentations of a young woman about the putative difficulties of finding a man to “get [her] Maiden-head” (3). Its faint erotic charge results from descriptions of activities pointedly not engaged in, and sexual exchange in it is controlled by men.13 The contrast that this poses to Barrin’s chronicle of sexual abundance is super-evident.
Foxon’s categorization of Venus dans le cloitre is more credible than Curll’s own attempt was; but it, too, overlooks the anti-patriarchalism of the work. Foxon proposes a lineage that includes Niccolo Franco’s(?) La Puttana errante (c. 1650), the anonymous L’Ecole des fines (1655), Nicholas Chorier’s Satyra sotadica (1660), and Venus dans le cloitre. He finds these works allied by their aim “principally to arouse sexual desire and encourage erotic fantasies” (48)– the basic definition of pornography, again.” He further justifies the grouping by noting that all three works employ “the Aretinesque form of a dialogue between an experienced woman and a virgin” (30). Also, English translations of L’Ecole des fines and the Satyra sotadica, like Samber’s translation for Curll, were the objects of successful prosecutions (Foxon 34, 40).
Foxon does not say as much, but his grouping includes only works generally unconcerned with punishing their sexual participants. Granted, as Foxon points out, the Satyra sotadica has an uncomfortable investment in sadism, “defloration” (38), and the “seduction of the young and innocent” (48); but, however we feel about this amalgam, the fact remains that Chorier punishes characters who resist sexual involvement, not those who would embrace it. This is the inverse of statements like Snuff, in which “willing” women are blamed, then punished.” The works that Foxon lists are unashamed of their status of pornography, but the state is ashamed of them.
I suggest that Venus in the Cloister is the most threatening of the group. The earlier works that Foxon lists are all interested in enforcing heterosexual norms. The Satyra sotadica may experiment with lesbianism, but it makes sex between women an adjunct to male sexual pleasure. In La Puttana errante and L’Ecole des fines, older women instruct younger women in the art of pleasing men. These works are non-punitive, but they are also blunt appeals to male fantasies of power. Venus in the Cloister insists upon its distance from the masculine mainstream. It presents essentially lesbian lovers who engage in heterosexual congress but are not dependent upon it, unlike the familiar “insatiable woman” of pornography.
Although pitched to a male readership, the work is about women’s pleasure and women’s camaraderie. The Aretine mentor/pupil relationship takes the form of an intimate relationship between the twenty-year-old Angelica and the sixteen-year-old Agnes, not the form of a doughty instructress preparing her charge for participation in heterosexual life. It is true that Agnes’s course of instruction includes sexual encounters with several men, and, once in their discussions, Angelica expresses envy for a nun who has left the convent for “what we would all quit it for, a handsome young Fellow and one of a good Family” (133). And Angelica herself enjoys frequent heterosexual coition. Barrin emphasizes the primacy of the lesbian relationship in several ways, however. First, the young women control the narrative by arranging various events (including heterosexual liaisons) to suit their own and each other’s fancies. When they want male company, they arrange for it; when they do not, men do not intrude on them. Secondly, the descriptive passages without exception linger on female bodies. In one instance, this is ascribed to the narrator’s erotic and aesthetic preference. When Angelica tells Agnes about a young couple of her acquaintance, she says, “I would draw you his Picture, but, to tell you the Truth, I had rather draw one of our own Sex” (134). The description that follows particularizes the female subject in a plainly erotic manner. This account hints at the third and most important means by which Barn privileges the lesbian bond. The women perfect a form of erotic exchange based on an acknowledgment of the power of narrative-the power of the pornographic narrative that they control, that is. The stories they tell to one another, whether about their own activities or the witnessed activities of others, become elements in their own erotic play. Peripheral encounters intensify the lovers’ bond; they do not co-opt it or imaginatively offer it up to the reader.
Speech and sexuality intertwine throughout the work, as in asides like Agnes’s declaration, “You make my mouth water, when you talk so sensibly of these matters” (164). The most striking instance occurs in Angelica’s story about the beautiful young Dosithea, ignored by her husband and overcome by “a Thousand lascivious Ideas” (106). Angelica, the familiar hidden spectator of eighteenth-century fiction, recounts Dosithea’s efforts to extirpate desire by flagellating herself “upon her Posteriors” and “on her poor Thighs” (108). Not surprisingly, Dosithea’s attempt fails. “Half naked” but in full view of Angelica, Dosithea masturbates and climaxes, falling into “an Ecstacy,” with “her Eyes half dying” and “her Mouth smiling with those amorous gentle Contractions, of which she knew not the Cause!” (109). Agnes’s response to the story indicates her own excitement and acknowledges her lover’s adeptness at fusing the verbal and the erotic: “Lard! I wish I had been present!” (109), and “I must own I take an extreme Pleasure to hear you, though you were not so young and beautiful as you are; your Mind alone makes you amiable and lovely. Give me a Kiss” (116). Shortly we encounter the string of dashes that stands in for consummation. Angelica says, “But I am not yet satisfied. 0 kiss me ever with the Kisses of that Mouth! O let me, dearest Angel, let me – – -” (117). The devaluation of the merely physical (“though you were not so young and beautiful as you are”) suggests a non-scopic sympathy hostile to the requirements of the pornographic reader.
Barrin sometimes presents the sexual play of the women in ways that risk compromising the narrative’s pornographic appeal in the interest of pressing a larger claim about the boundaries of pleasure. After Angelica has excited Agnes with a story about her scourging of a novitiate, Agnes expresses a desire to perform the dominant role in a sado-masochistic scenario. Angelica cooperates (thus incidentally suggesting a flexibility of roles uncharacteristic of the genre). When Agnes flogs Angelica’s “twin Sisters” with too much verve, Angelica responds, “Ouf! ouf! ouf! what Havock thou makest; this Kind of Diversion does by no means please me, but when it is not too violent” (25-26). Agnes then desists. The pornographic scene is aborted precisely when it threatens to prohibit, rather than to enhance, Angelica’s pleasure. The sexualized woman’s willingness to participate in a fantasy of punishment is referenced to her index of pleasure, not to presuppositions about her culpability and about the need for an exaggerated sort of punishment designed to appease the reader’s “moral” sense and, again, his scopic expectations.
Scenes such as this one anticipate and answer the objection that this lesbian fantasy is staged for the delight of the male reader, along the lines of an unabashedly exploitative work like the Satyra sotadica. Further evidence appears in the more anxious narrative of Alicia. After confessing her innocent dalliances with Rodolphe to the lascivious Father Theodore, Alicia is subjected to an orgiastic flogging that involves her confessor, her aunt, and, in an auxiliary role, her father. The scenario may cater on one level to misogynistic fantasies of abuse, although one would do well to keep in mind Anne McClintock’s argument that sado-masochism, rather than replicating familiar structures of dominance and submission, “performs social power as scripted, and hence as permanently subject to change,” ultimately “revers[ing] and transmut[ing] the social meanings it borrows” (208). This story, too, turns on an injunction against unwanted pain, thus, in this case, against the punitive strategies of the oppressive male. “Lord!” says Agnes in response to Angelica’s narration, “What Sacrifice! What Butchery! What Execution was here!” (159). When Rodolphe reappears, the author attributes to him a mode of response to Alicia’s body different from the drooling cruelty of Father Theodore: “he flung his Arms about her Neck, and kissed her a thousand Times, handling amorously several Parts of her Body” (161). Only then does the narrator express her own excitement, dashes and all. Agnes’s outrage at the nonconsensual exhibition of male agency reroutes the scene; Angelica’s description of the non-abusive union frees the scene up for use as “lesbian” fantasy.
If men are invited to gaze on the bodies of Venus in the Cloister, they are also made to acknowledge their fundamental distance from them. The scene just described, for example, creates lesbian sex from a heterosexual scenario, inverting pornography’s common expectation that lesbianism “works” only extrinsically, by exciting the male consumer. And Barrin consistently denies men the representative voice that ordains the punishment of the sexualized woman who has beguiled and thus asserted her power over them. The work ends on a note of tenderness that preempts moral sanction by invoking the deity: “Adieu!” says Angelica, “I shall think it an Age ’till we renew our Conversation. ‘Till then, Heavens bless my Dear, Adieu” (184). Morality is an internal affair; punishment is neither required nor offered.
It remains to be seen that this liberality makes Venus in the Cloister unusual. One need not look far to find modern examples of pornography that rely on the dialectic of female “degradation” and male “approval,” posited as characteristic of pornography in early feminist orthodoxy (see note 2, below). I have offered Snuff as an extreme but representative case, noting specifically its emphasis on punishment, which I take to be central to this dialectic. One might nominate a better-known film like The Devil in Miss Jones (1972), a descendent of The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead that renders the protagonist ridiculous by making her endlessly desiring but endlessly unable to achieve orgasm, and which ends in her suicide. Some recent pornography attenuates, complicates, or opposes the emphases on degradation and punishment (as Venus in the Cloister does),16 but examples of the other strain still abound.
More pertinent is the status of “penal” pornography in Curll’s day. Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina: or Love in a Maze (1725), at bottom a pornographic work, manipulates the topoi of female desire and female culpability and so endorses the penal inclinations of the genre (Pettit, “Our Fictions”). Curll’s own list provides a more telling contrast to Venus in the Cloister. Giles Jacob’s Tractatus de Hermaphroditis: or, A Treatise of Hermaphrodites was “subjoined,” as Curll put it (Humble Representation 5), to A Treatise of the Use of Flogging. Unlike its companion in print, A Treatise of Hermaphrodites only intermittently pretends to an affiliation with the “medical and para-medical” genre. Like Venus in the Cloister, it is a work of pornography, the more similar to Barren’s narrative for exploiting the erotic cachet of lesbianism-“hermaphrodite” really means “lesbian” here. But where Barren thwarts male agency, Jacob thematizes it. Although he titillates his reader with descriptions of lesbian congress, Jacob either ridicules or destroys his lesbians, or converts them into heterosexuals. In this way, he legitimates male agency as surely as The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead or The Devil in Miss Jones does.
The place of A Treatise of Hermaphrodites in the 1725-27 trial is obscured by the format of its publication. Curl leaves no doubt that he thought the book had been named by Hardwicke’s complainant (Humble Representation 5-6), and there is no reason that it should not have been. What is certain is that it played little part in the trial, if any. Thomas’s work with the King’s Bench indictments reveals that, although the book is mentioned in the indictment of Curll, “no passages are quoted from it” (79). By way of contrast, the sections of Venus in the Cloister reproduced in the indictment take up five pages in Thomas’s appendix (343-48).17
Thomas finds it “curious” that the court attended more to (even) A Treatise of the Use of Flogging than to A Treatise of Hermaphrodites, and he reasons that the court would have found more ammunition in Jacob’s offering than in the translation (79). This may be so, but it does not help us account for the “curiosity” at issue. The court’s thoroughness with respect to Venus in the Cloister, and the length of its deliberations, makes it unlikely that the jurists would have neglected to read a document that they had named in their indictment. Probably, they read A Treatise of Hermaphrodites and decided to ignore it. This in turn may suggest that Hardwicke wanted to focus the trial on a recent book rather than an older one, or it may suggest that the court found Jacob’s work less objectionable than Barrin’s. This last possibility is the least concrete of the three but also the only one open to inquiry. It may be that the penal conservatism of A Treatise of Hermaphrodites made that work less threatening to the court than Venus in the Cloister was.
At the core of Jacob’s “treatise” are three accounts of lesbian lovers, full of masturbation, flogging, and other staples of works like Venus in the Cloister and the Satyra sotadica. Jacob’s comparative meanness is clear in his equation of hermaphroditism, or biomorphic irregularity, and lesbianism, the option available to “robust and lustful Females” (17) whose irregularities disqualify them from mainstream sexual exchange. Jacob quickly establishes the degraded status of lesbianism. The Roman lovers Margureta and Barbarissa are “Masculine Ladies” (20) whose secretiveness inspires the servant Nicolini to spy upon them.18 Nicolini sees that the goal of their foreplay is the achievement of arousal sufficient to produce the dramatic elongation of their clitorises.19 Biomorphic reticence on the part of Barbarissa, “who was not so Masculine as Margureta” (21), is overcome when Margureta poses for her lover, shows her pornographic drawings, and flogs her. After they conclude their encounter, they “[kiss] each other in the most loving manner” (22). The terminal voice is the pornographer’s voice, enabled by Nicolini’s description: “This Story sufficiently shews the unnatural Intrigues of some Masculine Females….” (22-23). Of course it “shews” no such thing. Rather, it provides a moral overlay to that effect.
In the subsequent narratives, Jacob moves from mere moralism to correction and punishment. The beautiful (not “masculine” or hermaphroditic) Theodora and Amaryllis are prevented by circumstance from marrying the men they desire. Meeting in Ferrara, they vow “to live together as Sisters or inseparable Companions” (40); of course, they become lovers. Their sexual activities are based on the use of “artificial Penis’s of the largest Dimensions” (41)-Jacob’s indictment of lesbian mimesis, so to speak. When the disguised Philetus earns admission to their “rolicks” (43), he pretends to penetrate Theodora with a dildo but in fact does so with his own penis. Rape begets enlightenment: “Theodora considering what had happen’d and experiencing a material Difference between Art and Nature, agreed, on his humble Request, to Marry him” (45). After the nuptials, she sings the following stanza:
The Shadow I’ll no longer try,
Or use the pleasing Toy;
A sprightly Youth I can’t defy,
The Substance I’ll enjoy. (45)
Theodora’s recantation is public, incorporated into the ceremony that solemnizes heterosexual union and in this instance legitimates male superiority. Amaryllis also marries. Jacob says that “they both enjoy’d the greatest Happiness, making no difficulty to forget all Sorrows past” (43-45). Again, what he has shown is the opposite of “sorrow,” but he reserves the right to impose his moral interpretation onto his own pornographic text.
This faux-comic strain is absent from the third narrative, which features the mutilation of “two famous Hermaphrodites, who … were arriv’d to that consummate pitch of Impudence, that they were not asham’d to own their Bestiality” (46). Isabella, in bed with “a Foreign Count” (52), is found to have “something like the Testicles of a Man,” which the count severs, the blood “issuing out with great violence” (54). Her lover, Diana, unchastened by a humiliation suffered after her passionate attempt on a parson’s wife, “met at last with the same Fate as Isabella, her masculine Instrument being likewise sever’d from her Privities, after which, both of them liv’d to be harmless old Women” (55). Beyond incorporation into the heterosexual mainstream, the women are forced into a guilty, sexless dotage. It is not difficult to see the contrast that this poses to the giddy promise of future pleasures that constitutes closure in Venus in the Cloister.
In sum, confronted with two pornographic works, the King’s Bench punished the forgiving one and forgave the punitive one. The moral and penal inclinations of the court proved compatible with those of Giles Jacob-and of Nicolini, Philetus, and the “Foreign Count.” Rex v. Curll, like the episodes in A Treatise of Hermaphrodites, comes down against sexuality that resists male agency-heterosexual agency, in particular. In a sense, Hardwicke’s protracted meditations on Curll’s motion-his postponements and his athletic handling of precedent
enabled him to move English jurisprudence into synch with a certain sort of English pornography. The judgment of the court mimics the plots of penal pornography; the unguilty pleasures of homosexuals draw Hardwicke’s censure as they had drawn Jacob’s.
One might discern the workings of a larger phenomenon here. Linda Williams sees in recent “American obscenity law” a “move[ment] away from the notion of explicit sex and towards the targeting of scapegoatable `deviants,”‘ specifically homosexuals (“Second Thoughts” 47). Jacob and Hardwicke also imply that punishing “deviation,” not the representation of sex per se, is the task at hand. Of course: what rankles puritanism is not sex, but sex that refuses to apologize for its distance from cultural norms. The attempts of far-right American politicians in 1998 and 1999 to distinguish their extramarital affairs from President Bill Clinton’s provide one recent reminder of this commonplace. In its condemnation of happy lesbians and its neglect of raped and mutilated “hermaphrodites,” Rex v. Curll, too, is an expression of the passionate intensity of an unyielding worst. A two-year battle to cast lesbianism as the analogue of public defecation is more likely to impress us as grotesque than as unimaginable.
University of North Texas
I am grateful for the assistance of John Dussinger; James Landman; Thomas Lockwood; Jacqueline Vanhoutte; James Mosley, St Bride Printing Library, London; and the Office of Sponsored Projects, University of North Texas.
1 For heterosexual print pornography and the author’s “discourse” as “essentially … male,” see Hardy 47-48; for men as the primary consumers of print pornography, see Hardy 99. Hardy’s generalizations are not controversial.
2 Like most recent commentators, I reject the early feminist assumption that a “degraded” woman and an “approving” male are intrinsic to pornography (see Hardy 48). The old orthodoxy is surveyed by Hardy (48-49), Clover (1-2), and Williams (“Second Thoughts” 58-59). I see the topos of degradation as one of many devices available to pornography, and I distinguish between works that do and do not employ it. For the thematic arrest of male agency in a pornographic film, see Karyn Kay on Call Me (1988), in Gordon and Kay (94). See also McClintock on sado-masochistic scenarios as “revers[als],” not amplifications, of socio-sexual hierarchies (208).
3 Foxon notes that the work “is usually ascribed to Jean Barrin” but that “it has also been attributed to Francois de Chavigny de la Bretonniere” (43, 43n. 10). He and later scholars favor the attribution to Barrin.
4 Modern accounts of the complaint list only these two works, but Curll’s Humble Representation shows that the printer believed that three more were named: Three New Poems (1721), comprising a poem by Buckingham and two modernizations from Chaucer by Elijah Fenton; Samber’s translation of Albert-Henri de Sallengre’s Ebrietatis Encomium: or, The Praise of Drunkenness (1723); and a translation of Saint Albertus Magnus’s De Secretis Mulierum; or, The Mysteries of Human Generation Fully Revealed (1725). Because later accounts of the complaint are deduced from records of the
trial, not transcribed from precedent documents, there is no reason to discount Curl’s list. In any case, Curll was not tried for printing the other books.
5 Thoms’s eleven-part serial biography, signed (felicitously) “S. N. M.” upon its original appearance in Notes and Queries, was privately reprinted in 1879, presumably at the author’s expense, as Curll Papers: Stray Notes on the Life and Publications of Edmund Curl. The initials “W. J. T.” appear at the end of the reprint; the question of authorship is settled by the autograph inscription in the British Library’s copy (10827.aa.32) and by a manuscript letter interfoliated with that copy, signature excised, addressed to “W. J. Thorns, Esq” and thanking the addressee for “the Curll Papers.”
6 Thomas’s evaluation is judicious: “Curll had not made things any easier for himself by publishing during the course of his trial The Memoirs of John Ker…. [W]ith their appearance in print whatever leniency Curll had once hoped for could be discounted, in fact a new charge was brought against him on account of their publication” (83).
7 The government had help this time: the Juries Act (1730) enabled the prosecution to stack the jury (Pettit, Illusory Consensus 61).
8 See DNB on Sir Francis Page; see also Thomas 82.
9 See Foxon 14; Complete Collection of State-Trials 91.
10 The debate is recorded in Defoe and in Curll’s response, Curlicism Display’d; “Curlicism” is Defoe’s coinage. The vagueness of Defoe’s attack suggests the difficulty of pinpointing “moral” error in works that eschew explicit sexual representation as well as irreligion. The quickness with which the “controversy” died out-it comprises only Defoe’s attack in the Weekly Journal, a prompt rebuttal, and a jokey follow-up in the same paper (12, 19 Apr. 1718), and Curlicism Display’d-may suggest that Curti’s “para-medical” material did not cause much offense in 1718.
11 The Humble Representation, which “does not seem to have been advertised,” appeared after the 1725 arrest and “may even have been written in prison” (Straus 100n. 1).
12 Wagner recognizes Venus in the Cloister’s fundamental mode of appeal (231) but places the work in his category of “Erotica against the Roman Catholic Church” (72). The religious trappings of the work are conventional, however, based on a durable fantasy and, more broadly, on pornography’s perennial “othering” of its subjects. For recent evidence of the nun as erotic icon, see Webster on “the fashion world’s use of ecclesiastically inspired images.” The photograph that accompanies Webster’s article shows two attractive “nuns,” kneeling, holding rosary beads, and wearing revealing undergarments. This sort of thing may or may not imply anti-Catholicism; but its focus, like that of Venus in the Cloister, is elsewhere.
13 The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead represents a larger oeuvre of non-performance that also includes Curll’s The Case of Insufficiency Discuss’d (1711) and Eunuchism Display’d (1718), both of which the printer felt obliged to defend in Curlicism Display’d (2-4; 13-22). In the film Deep Throat (1972), the removal of the protagonist’s clitoris into her throat somatizes the fantasy of control expressed verbally in The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead.
14 Foxon’s limitation of the definition to “hard-core pornography” (48) has the advantage of distinguishing erotic literature from. for example, Wagner’s “medical and para-medical” works.
11 Osanka and Johann provide serviceable summaries in their section on “slasher and snuff videofilms” (31-34); they note that, in Snuff, the victim is “a pretty film production assistant [who] tells her director that she was sexually aroused” by an on-screen murder (32). Her attractiveness, subordinate status, and sexual accessibility established, she, too, is killed in bed.
16 Again, see Kay, in Gordon and Kay; see also Straayer, and Williams, “Provoking Agent.”
17 There are substantive discrepancies between the text quoted in the indictment (or, less plausibly, Thomas’s transcription) and the text of the 1724 edition.
18 The settings of the narratives further encode erotic appeal: “the hotter the Climate, the stronger are the Inclinations to Venery” (19). Travel agents who advertise in tube stations in the winter employ this mode of appeal.
19 Wagner notes that Jacob trades in “the myth of the enlarged clitoris … which was a favorite topic in the [eighteenth-century] literature on masturbation” (32).
Barrin, Jean. Venus in the Cloister: or, The Nun in Her Smock. Trans. Robert Samber. London, 1724. Clover, Carol J. Introduction. Gibson and Gibson 14.
A Complete Collection of State-Trials, and Proceedings for High-Treason, and Other Crimes and Misdemeanours. 4th ed. Vol. 9. London, 1779.
Curll, Edmund. Curlicism Display’d: or, An Appeal to the Church. London, 1718. -. The Humble Representation of Edmund Curll. London, [1725?].
Defoe, Daniel. The Weekly-Journal: or Saturday’s-Post 69 (5 Apr. 1718). The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead. London, 1707.
Foxon, David. Libertine Literature in England 1660-1745. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1965.
Gibson, Pamela Church and Roma Gibson. Dirty Looks: Women, Pornography, Power. London: BFI Publishing, 1993.
Gordon, Bette, and Karyn Kay. “Look Back/Talk Back.” Gibson and Gibson 90-100.
Hardy, Simon. The Reader, The Author, His Woman and Her Lover: Soft-Core Pornography and Heterosexual Men. London: Cassell, 1998.
Jacob, Giles. Tractatus de Hermaphroditis: or, A Treatise of Hermaphrodites. London, 1718.
Letter to William John Thoms. 15 Nov. 1879. Interfoliated in Thorns, Edmund Curit. Shelfmark 10827.aa.32. British Lib., London.
McClintock, Anne. “Maid to Order: Commercial S/M and Gender Power.” Gibson and Gibson 207-32.
Osanka, Franklin Mark and Sara Lee Johann. Sourcebook on Pornography. Lexington, MA: Lexington-D.C. Heath, 1989.
Pettit, Alexander. Illusory Consensus: Bolingbroke and the Polemical Response to Walpole, 1730-1737. Newark: U of Delaware P; London: Associated University Presses, 1997.
“Our Fictions and Eliza Haywood’s Fictions.” Talking Forward and Talking Back: Critical Dialogues with the Enlightenment. Ed. Rudiger Ahrens and Kevin L. Cope. New York: AMS Press, 2000.
Straayer, Chris. “The Seduction of Boundaries Feminist Fluidity in Annie Sprinkle’s Art/Education/Sex.” Gibson and Gibson 156-75.
Strange, Sir John. Reports of Adjudged Cases in the Courts of Chancery, King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer. Vol. 1. London, 1755.
Straus, Ralph. The Unspeakable Curll. 1927. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970.
Thomas, Donald. A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.
Thoms, William John. “Stray Notes on Edmund Curll, His Life, and Publications.” No. 8. Notes and Queries 2d set. 60 (21 Feb. 1857): 141-44. Rpt. in Thoms, Curll Papers: Stray Notes on Edmund Curll, His Life, and Publications (n.p.: privately printed, 1879) 63-73.
Wagner, Peter. Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America. London: Seeker and Warburg, 1988.
Webster, Paul. “Spiritual chic angers Church.” The Guardian [London) 23 Dec. 1998: 10.
Williams, Linda. “A Provoking Agent: The Pornography and Performance Art of Annie Sprinkle.” Gibson and Gibson 192-206.
“Second Thoughts on Hard Core: American Obscenity Law and the Scapegoating of Deviance.” Gibson and Gibson 46-61.
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