Sunday 2 July 2017

Books I never considered indecent, 1836

On 24 October 1836, Selim Cohen was again indicted for stealing at least a dozen books from William Holmes. During his cross-examination, Holmes (who been a bookseller for twenty-six years, and had two shops) reveals his thoughts concerning books which he considered indecent, or not: mostly not.

It seems that Holmes was familiar with a great many books that were usually concidered obscene at the time, and had twice been imprisoned for seditious libels, which may be why Cohen was found not guilty, though it is clear that he stole the books. Since each dash indicates an omitted question, it is quite difficult to understand exactly what was going on in the Old Bailey Proceedings, and how deep a hole Holmes was digging for himself by lying about his past, his activites, being corrected in questioning etc. But I am guessing that, in the same that the copyright laws at the time would not protect you from piracy, if the work concerned was judged to be obscene (which is what happened with Byron's Cain), property laws did not protect you from theft of books judged to be obscene, and the judge may have let Cohen off for this reason.

* * * * *

Testimony of WILLIAM HOLMES: The house I live in and rent is in Holywell-street—the other shop is in Princess-street … memorandum-books are sold in the shop in Princess-street, but no indecent publications—there are not more than one or two engravings there [Princess-street]—in the Holywell-street shop there are some engravings, decent ones, such as may be shown in any window with perfect safety to the morals of the community—that I swear—I dare say the Adventures of an Irish Smock has been sold—I do not know whether I have it for sale—there may be books in that shop that I do not know of—I know a book called Fanny Hill—I believe there is a copy of it in the shop—I have seen a more indecent publication than that, it is a book called Frisky Songs—I bought a copy of that from the prisoner for 1s., to sell again—I cannot mention a more indecent book, and that I sold, but it was not in the shop—it was in my pocket, and not in the shop—I have sold about two or three dozen copies of Fanny Hill—the one I sell is not the most indecent book next to the one I mentioned—I sold the Frisky Songs because I did not with to keep it—I bought it to sell to another bookseller—I know a book called the Female Husband—it is not an immoral book—it is a woman who personated a man, and married several woman—a narrative of what she did is given in it—I should call it her amours—I do not think they are indecent—I do not consider that or the Fanny Hill I sell, are indecent works—I sell Aristotle's Masterpiece—that is considered a medical book—I never considered it indecent—it treats of the differences of the sexes, and of the operations in the womb—I think it does not treat of the operation of getting children—I have read it—I do not think it more indecent than any other medical book—I sell a work called The Poet—I think there are some in the shop—I think it is not an indecent book—it treats of the amours of a Frenchman and woman—there is a frontispiece to the Female Husband—it is a male and female in bed, covered up, and person entering the room.

In sum:

  • Frisky Songs—"I cannot mention a more indecent book"; it is "more indecent" than Fanny Hill
  • Fanny Hill—"I do not think [it is] indecent"
  • Female Husband—"not an immoral book"; "I do not think [it is] indecent"
  • Aristotle's Masterpiece—"I never considered it indecent", no more "indecent than any other medical book"
  • The Poet—"I think it is not an indecent book"
  • Adventures of an Irish Smock—[not characterised]

  • A few notes: Fanny Hill requires no explanation; The Female Husband is Henry Fielding's account of a notorious 18th-century case of lesbian cross-dressing; Aristotle's Masterpiece is a popular sex manual and midwifery book; I am not familiar with The Poet, and it is the sort of title that defies Google-searching!

    Frisky Songs could be any one of a number of similarly-titled (and now, mostly lost) songsters of the variety included in my Bawdy Songbooks of the Romantic Period (2011). The closest title-match is one we did not include: Wilson's frisky songster: the most spicy collections of all the new double entendre, flash and spreeish songs, now singing at the cidar cellars, Coal Hole, Evans's, and all convivial parties (London: John Wilson, n.d. [ca.1830]), which is held in the library at Bateman's, a 17th-century house in East Sussex where Rudyard Kipling lived, and which was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1939.

    Adventures of an Irish Smock (1782) is a mysterious erotic work, which I have recently located a copy of in an obscure German library. The full title given in the following advertisement gives a better idea of its contents:

    The Adventures of an Irish Smock. Interspersed with ludicrous Anecdotes of a Nankeen Pair of Breeches. Containing, among a great variety of curious connections between the most celebrated Demi-reps and Beaux Garçons upon the Ton. private Intrigues of Lady W—y and Mrs. N—n, never before published; with the whimsical Frolicks of Boarding School Misses, and the Christmas and other Gambols of Maids of Honour. Being a proper companion, particularly at this season, for all men of taste and gallantry, and all females of spirit and intrigue.

    And this is what the reviewers had to say:

    The Critical Review: One of those pernicious incentives to vice that are a scandal to decency. A common pander, who confines his infamous occupation to the service of the stews, is less injurious to society than such prostituted miscreants as devote their time and attention to corrupt the imaginations of youth. The most ignominious punishment prescribed by our laws is infinitely too slight for offences of so heinous a nature; The English Review: The volume is an indecent and impure farrago; and it would be of service to the community, could a summary method be invented to suppress publications calculated to inflame the youth of both sexes and encourage vice, sensuality, and licentiousness; The Monthly Review: This publication is equally remarkable for its stupidity and obscenity.

    It is enough to make you want to read the book, no?

    * * * * *

    The following section of testimony provides some details of Holmes's scrapes with the law; if you want to read more, see here for the full Old Bailey Proceedings.

    Testimony of WILLIAM HOLMES: I have not been all that time [23yrs] in London—I travel in the country—I go to Lincoln sometimes … I have always lived in my own house, or my mother's or my master's, at Lincoln—I was once taken, and slept in jail, but a thing may slip one's memory—that slipped my memory—it was so trifling—I was in jail about a fortnight, till I could procure a sum of money—I was sent there for deserting my wife—I was in jail in town for publishing seditious libels—the first was a letter to Lord Castlereagh, published by Griffiths, in Holborn—I went to jail for six months for that—the second was a letter to the Reformers of England, published by Carlile—I staid in jail two years for that—I think there is no other time—I will swear I have never been in any other jail, or on any other charges than those you have mentioned—nor taken up for any thing else—I am not one of Mr. Carlile's disciples—I believe the Scriptures, and read them in jail the first time I was there—I got into jail again for selling in Mr. Carlile's shop—I always said it was my wife's fault that I got into jail the first time—the Magistrates were kind enough not to commit me, but not gave me time to raise the money—they sent me to Lincoln jail—I did pay the money—because I was too poor—I know perfectly well my wife could procure nutriment from my friends at Lincoln.

    In sum: Holmes was in gaol for

  • "about a fortnight" six months in Lincoln gaol for "for deserting my wife" publishing "a letter to Lord Castlereagh, published by Griffiths, in Holborn"
  • two years for selling, in Mr. Carlile's shop, "a letter to the Reformers of England, published by Carlile"
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