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8 - Obscenity and the erotics of fiction

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 January 2012

Robert L. Caserio
Pennsylvania State University
Clement Hawes
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
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Thirty years after publishing Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748–1749), the most celebrated erotic novel in the language, John Cleland was still boasting about its periphrastic delicacy of style. His ornate diction originated in a kind of wager, he told James Boswell, undertaken to demonstrate “that one could write so freely about a woman of the town without resorting to the coarseness of [L'École] des filles, which had quite plain words.” This was a telling contrast, for L'École des filles, a libertine dialogue of 1655, had long been a byword for brazen obscenity. Seized and burned by the Paris authorities within weeks of its first appearance, it was also suppressed in London when the publisher of an English translation was fined “for printing divers obscene & lascivious bookes, one called The School of Venus.” But Cleland's claim was not only to have transcended, in his elaborate circumlocutions, the most scandalous pornographic writing of the previous century. By eschewing the gross literalism of L'École des filles, he had also achieved a sensuality unmatched by the most sophisticated literary bawdry of his own day. The language of the body in Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne's Rabelaisian masterpiece of 1759–1767, was likewise “too plain,” and Cleland had told Sterne so to his face. “I reproved him, saying, ‘it gives no sensations.’ Said he: ‘You have furnished me a vindication. It can do no harm.’

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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