Tuesday, 26 October 2010

300-Year-Old Stash of Erotica Found

On an auspicious day in April this year The Daily Mail published—with no by-line—a story under the heading 'I pray lovely creature, comply!' 300-year-old stash of erotica found hidden in Lake District manor house.

The Daily Mail is a "middle market tabloid newspaper" according to Wikipedia. It should be remembered that this is "middle" in relation to Fleet Street-norms, so it is about as sophisticated as Melbourne's Waverley Leader and as prurient as FHM.

The story runs as follows:

A secret hoard of lewd pamphlets written to titillate the common man more than 300 years ago have been discovered in a manor house. Known as Chapbooks the bodice-ripping yarns were found hidden in the library of Townend House at Troutbeck in the Lake District. The pamphlets had been shoved behind a collection of straightforward books, presumably to hide them.

Chapbooks - the name derives from 'chapmen' the door-to-door peddlers who sold this type of literature - told racy tales of amorous advances, love and marriage. The pamphlets were printed on cheap paper so thin that hardly any have survived the ravages of time.

Townend House was owned by a landowning farming family, the Brownes, whose literary collection has been passed to the National Trust. Emma Wright, who is the Trust custodian at Townend said:

'The Browne book collection goes back through the centuries and proves that rural people had a strong interest in literature. However, as we have gone slowly through the library we have found hidden away these Chapbooks. They contain rather saucy even rude tales which were found to be rather amusing by their 18th century readers.'

One tale is called The Crafty Chambermaid's Garland and details the story of a young woman who tricks a man into marrying her. Written in 1770 it states: 'The Merchant he softly crept into the room. And on the bedside he sat himself down. Her knees through the counterpane he did embrace. Did Bess in the pillow did hide her sweet face. He stript (sic) of his clothes and leaped into bed saying now lovely creature for thy maidenhead. She strug led (sic) and strove and seemed to be shy. He said divine beauty I pray now comply.'

The National Trust has put some of the steamy pages with their illustrations onto digital photo frames with MP3 recordings also available for visitors. Mrs Wright added:

'The Chapbooks have really caught the imagination. The Brownes were obviously far from straight-laced.'

Since the distribution of erotica in the eighteenth-century is central to my present research, I contacted Emma Wright, the Townend House Custodian. She informs me "that these books were catalogued in 2004" and—showing great restraint—adds

The Daily Mail article is somewhat inaccurate in respect of the "discovery" of the chapbooks—they have not been found hiding behind the other books (although that would make a good story!). They are very much part of the collection and have in several cases been rebound by a family member and are shelved along with everything else in our library.

So, not a "secret hoard"; not "shoved behind a collection of straightforward books"; and not "found" or "discovered"! To this I would add not erotic, but perhaps The Daily Mail staff are made of more "combustible material" than I am!**

If—without this colourful tale—you are still interested in looking over the list of the Browne family chapbooks, you can do so via Copac. Select "National Trust" from the pull-down list next to Library, and then type in "Townend chapbooks" as a Keyword.

If you do this search, as I have, you should then get a list of 49 records, ranging from 1700 to ca. 1820. The crafty chamber-maid's garland is one of the oldest, one of only eight that are dated to before ca. 1800; it is also one of the few that can be described as racy or erotic, along with The London 'prentice; or, The wanton mistress (1795?) and The maid's lamentation (1800?).

As such, this collection is of little use to me as an example of the distribution of erotica in the eighteenth-century. But it is an excellent example of wild exaggeration, hyperbole, unsubstantiated claims, misleading information etc. It is also a good example of why we need to always check our sources!

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**The phrase comes from Boswell and Johnson. Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769 (17 March 1768) writes:

We seemed hearty and easy. Only I, whose combustible, or rather inflammable, soul is always taking fire, was uneasy at having left Mary, a pretty, lively little girl whom accident had thrown in my way a few days before.

Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1787), under 1777, ætat 68 records:

I asked whether Prior's Poems were to be printed entire: Johnson said they were. I mentioned Lord Hailes's censure of Prior, in his Preface to a collection of Sacred Poems, by various hands, published by him at Edinburgh a great many years ago, where he mentions, "those impure tales which will be the eternal opprobrium of their ingenious authour." Johnson. Sir, Lord Hailes has forgot. There is nothing in Prior that will excite to lewdness. If Lord Hailes thinks there is, he must be more combustible than other people." I instanced the tale of "Paulo Purganti and his Wife." Johnson. "Sir, there is nothing there, but that his wife wanted to be kissed, when poor Paulo was out of pocket. No, Sir, Prior is a lady's book. No lady is ashamed to have it standing in her library."

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