Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Five top books on the 18th century sexual revolution

Faramerz Dabhoiwala is lecturer, tutor, and Senior Fellow in Modern History at Exeter College, University of Oxford, and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. His new book is The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution.

With Toby Ash at The Browser, he discussed five top book on the 18th century sexual revolution, including:
The Journals of James Boswell
by James Boswell

James Boswell is probably best known as the author of The Life of Samuel Johnson. What do his diaries tell us about sex in his times?

Boswell’s diaries are extraordinary, and may be one of the most underappreciated set of diaries in the English language. They are in 12 volumes, and cover the period from the 1760s all the way to his death in the 1790s. What’s astonishing about them, first of all, is how incredibly self-conscious he is about everything that he does. It’s like being inside the mind of someone who is not just acting but always reflecting on what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He does it with a very light touch – he’s a fantastic writer. Second, he is an incredibly libidinous man. He spends his life seeking out women and sexual pleasure. So his diaries give us a first-hand view of the sex life of an 18th century gentleman with a rather powerful sex drive. That in itself is fascinating.

And third, because he’s always so self-reflecting about what he’s doing, he is constantly talking to himself about having sex and what it means – why he’s so constantly attracted to these women and what he does to seduce them. He’s often attracted to women until he seduces them and then he turns away in disgust. He is fascinated by this aspect of his character, and by his inability once he’s married to contain himself. He talks about what his adulteries mean and whether he – or any man – is meant to be monogamous. The diaries are full of sexual adventure but also fascinating reflections on what sex means, and what the relationship is between sexual pleasure and the purpose of life.

The diaries contain a memorable letter he wrote to a friend in 1767 about a night he spent in a “bawdy house” with “a whore worthy of Boswell, if Boswell must have a whore”. I love that line, and I think it says a lot about the man.

The other thing about Boswell is that he knew everyone who matters in 18th century England. It’s a wonderful kaleidoscope. Through his diaries you meet all these other fascinating people, and they are all described with great immediacy. So it’s not just about Boswell, it’s about his entire society.

With his confidence and libido, how unusual was Boswell for his times? Was he a member of an elite, literary class who enjoyed pushing the social boundaries, or was the manner in which he lived more common?

He’s entirely typical of an upper class man of his time. But one of the themes of my book is the strong and increasing division of sexual morality by class and by gender. Different standards are increasingly being applied to men and women of different classes in terms of what is considered OK and what is not. So in that respect he’s not typical, because the upper classes were a tiny proportion of the general population. But he’s also typical of men more generally. This is a point in history where the old idea that women are the more lustful sex – which dominated western culture until the 17th century – is suddenly overturned and replaced by exactly the opposite presumption, that men are naturally promiscuous and can’t help it, and women are more chaste and naturally asexual. That’s another part of the great sexual revolution that happens at this time, which Boswell also epitomises.
Read about a novel that Faramerz Dabhoiwala discussed at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue