Friday 26 June 2015

The Raunchy World of Edmund Curll

I am thrilled to welcome Brian Watson to the salon, with the tale of one of my favourite Georgians, Edmund Curll, publisher of saucy literature!


First I wanted to thank our lovely host, Madame Gilflurt, for inviting me to write up a post on my favorite Georgian of all time: Edmund Curll. Although Gilflurt's guide has touched upon this 'saucy publisher' in the past, I'm going to expand on him a little bit more so we can all get a clearer picture of him, because he is very important to both the Georgian era and to our modern lives.

I hear you ask--how could a little-known eighteenth century publisher of stolen letters and somewhat raunchy books be so important? Well, for one, he plays a central role in the history of pornography/obscenity and, indeed, on the history of how sex 'became bad,' which is the topic of my academic research and my blog at the Annals of Pornographie (some entries NSFW). When Curll was dragged in irons before the Court of the King's Bench in 1725, the result of his trial (after nearly three years of agony) was the creation of the legal term 'obscene libel,' which is legalese for a sort of dirty book that could deprave and corrupt the morals of the English public. This was the first time in history the state had come down on suggestive or erotic material in such a public way, and it would ripple down through the centuries, causing the category of works that we know today as 'pornography'.

Curlls-Labratory: This is likely the only surviving image of Edmund Curll. In the center panel, to the right, he is represented as the two-faced man. (Grub Street Journal)
Curlls-Labratory: This is likely the only surviving image of Edmund Curll. In the center panel, to the right, he is represented as the two-faced man. (Grub Street Journal)
But we get ahead of ourselves. First, a few biographical details!

Edmund Curll was likely born on the 14th of July 1683, somewhere outside of London. Not much is known about his childhood or adolescence because, as it turns out, the names Edmund and Curll were sort of the 'John' and 'Smith' of eighteenth century England. Nevertheless, the record shows that he was definitely apprenticed at the age of 14 in 1679, and by 1706 had opened his very own shop.

While it might make the most sense to call Curll a bookseller--as he had a shop where he sold books--the book market of the 1700's was a very different world than today. Today, when an author writes a book, they then get an agent, who sells a book to a publisher and then the publisher pays someone to print, advertise, and distribute copies to bookstores. In the 1500s and 1600s, these things were often combined--one building could house a shop of books in the front, a printing press in the back, and hired authors on staff! By the time Curll came on to the scene, the printers and the booksellers had become separate, but Curll still combined the modern roles of bookseller, publisher, and advertiser in one. And what an advertiser he was!

Curll was perhaps the first blatant and unrepentant capitalist and in many cases he pioneered advertising strategies that modern corporations still use today. He would publish literally anything with the faintest whiff or hint of scandal surrounding it. Indeed, the first book he published, in 1707 was The Works of the Right Honourable the late Earl of Rochester--a British Earl who was famous in the 1600's for his sexual escapades and his sexual poetry. Nor was he afraid to steal from others or republish things as his own. Indeed, until April of 1710, it was perfectly legal for him to do so--there was no such thing as copyright law, nor any sort of law addressing what was appropriate and legal to publish.

And he certainly got into a lot of trouble doing so. To quote from his biographer:
There was never a man that was called by so many names. There was never a man who succeeded in irritating almost beyond endurance so many of his betters. And nothing could make him see the 'error' of his ways: he just continued to irritate. If, for instance, objection was raised to some book of his of the bawdier kind, it would likely as not be followed by another even more scandalously improper. If a furious author declared that a book of his, published by Curll, was wholly unauthorized, he would probably find that a 'Second Volume' of his work was being advertised as 'Corrected by the Author Himself.
Sometimes, of course, Curll went too far, and he would run into an absurd series of misadventures:
He was given an 'emetick' on a celebrated occasion by [Alexander] Pope he was beaten by Westminster schoolboys, he was several times imprisoned, and once he stood in the pillory. Actions were brought against him in the Courts, he was almost annually lampooned, and word was even coined from his name to describe the regrettable methods of business. Pachydermatously, Curll continued to exist.
You read that right--the famous and supposedly pure Alexander Pope, of all people, actually resorted to poisoning Curll's beer at the bar, all over the fact that Curll supposedly published a poem by Pope that he didn't want public.

Venus: Frontispiece for Curll’s 1725 Venus in the Cloister. (British Library)
Venus: Frontispiece for Curll’s 1725 Venus in the Cloister. (British Library)
Anyhow, his biggest misadventure was in the year 1725, when he published two works, A Treatise on Flogging in Veneral Affairs (a work about using whips in the bedroom, that might make even the most leathered Fifty Shades of Gray fan blush), and a work called Venus in the Cloister.

This latter work, Venus in the Cloister, is essentially a discussion between two different nuns, in which an older nun, Sister Angelica, slowly seduces a younger one, Sister Agnes, be convincing her that it was a-OK to fool around with her. Religion, she says, is comprised of “two Bodies, one of which is purely celestial and supernatural, the other terrestrial and corruptible, which is only the invention of Men.” In order to "truly commune" with God, Agnes should “dispense with the Laws, Customs, and Manners to which [she] submitted herself at her Entrance into the Monastery,”and explore her sexuality (and, one assumes, explore Angelica).  Venus in the Cloister is not all sex--it is also filled with some funny stories--such as one particularly hilarious scene where a an unfortunate nun uses a chamber pot that a lobster had crept into, much to the dismay of the lobster and her genitals. (If you want to know more, I discuss in greater detail here and here --NSFW.)

Regardless, certain groups (like the Society for the Reformation of Manners) took great offense to this sort of work and had Curll arrested in 1725 by the government for being a “the Printer and Publisher of several obscene Books and Pamphlets, tending to encourage Vice and Immorality.” The trial would take three agonizing years to be resolved, mainly because the judges disagreed about whether they had the right to punish Curll for such an offense. When they finally decided there was a need for it, they announced that “This [judgement] is for printing bawdy stuff. . .stuff not fit to be mentioned publicly,” and sentenced Curll to pay a fine of £100 and spend a day in the pillory.

Curll-Humiliated: Curll Humiliated by Westminister Schoolboys (University of Liverpool)
Curll-Humiliated: Curll Humiliated by Westminister Schoolboys (University of Liverpool)
In the end, however, our wily Curll managed to even escape what could have been a very bad day in the pillory–people were known to have been stoned to death in a couple hours. He cleverly managed to avoid being pelted to death by printing and distributing to audience members a pamphlet that said the man before them was there not for obscene libel, but for defending the memory of the deceased Queen Anne, who was well loved by the English population.

I’ll let Curll’s biographer Ralph Strauss close us out:
The crowd came to look and to jeer, and possibly throw a few eggs. One man exercised his privilege and threw an egg. He was nearly lynched. The others smiled and grumbled at Governmental stupidity… In any case, ‘he was treated with great Civility by the Populace,’ and when he was released he seems to have been lifted on to the shoulders of an admiring crowd and taken away to a tavern and [had] as many drinks as even he wanted.”

About the Author

Brian Watson is a historian of pornography and obscenity, and also studies the history of privacy, marriage, and sexuality. He obtained his B.A. in English and History from Keene State College, and his M.A. in History & Culture at Drew University, and is currently expanding his master's thesis into a book on the history of obscenity You can follow him on twitter @HistoryOfPorn

This post copyright © Brian Watson, 2015.


Mari Christian said...

Wonderful, Mr Watson. If Mr Curll had not plodded on we wouldn't have had a wealth of C18th pornography. Thank you.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for reading!

Sarah said...

Mary Whitehouse would have had fits

Catherine Curzon said...

Oh, she would!

Unknown said...

I have just choked over my cereal!!! Thank you for a wonderful start to my day,Mr Watson!!...and we love all your choice of friends,Madame!!:-)

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, sir; Mr Watson's own blog is a constant delight, I do recommend it!

Luccia Gray at Rereading Jane Eyre said...

A Fascinating post! Thank you so much for sharing.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you!

iso said...

One can't help admiring Curll's wiliness.