The transgressive writer Samuel Delany, himself no stranger to “tides of lust” (a title borne by one of his early novels), has theorized that one major reason for the creation of cities in the history of civilization was to provide more and better sex than could be found in pastoral or village settings. By this measure — and according to the randy evidence found in the endlessly entertaining, illuminating and simply shocking new book by Catharine Arnold, The Sexual History of London, that storied city must be accounted a shining beacon in humanity’s progress.
In her introduction, Arnold characterizes London as the supreme global metropolis of lust and sexual shenanigans. Can she prove her thesis? You bet! What follows her opening boast is a portrait over two millennia of a city awash in lubriciousness of every stripe. You can practically hear the plummy accents of Alec Guinness proclaiming, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Except in place of “scum and villainy” you’ll have to substitute unprintable terms of your choosing.
Arnold begins in ancient Roman times, circa 80 AD, detailing the military brothels on the banks of the Thames, their typical hapless slave inhabitants, and the arduous duties demanded of them. She branches out to explicate the outrageous sexual practices of the well-off imperial citizens, tracking the changing fashions of the Roman conquerors for four centuries, until the advent of the Dark Ages.
Throughout this initial foray, she sets the engaging tone for the rest of the book: eminently frank and bold, yet scholastically meticulous. Hyper-readable, yet well-stocked with data. Necessarily when dealing with early eras and their relative lack of primary sources, comprehensive biographies of individuals are sparse. But Arnold will remedy this as soon as possible, mixing her census of representative erotic habits and types of sexual enthusiasts with vivid depictions of both famous amatory athletes (Nell Gwynne) and less-well-known bawdy specimens such as the wonderfully named Priss Fotheringham and Catherine “Skittles” Walters.
Into Chaucerian medieval times Arnold plunges with zest. Then the Elizabethean and Restoration periods. The 1700s receive their own separate rogering, and the rich and ripe Victorian decades get several chapters. The twentieth century breaks down into 1900-1945, and then onward to the close of the 1960s, where Arnold leaves off. But not because the twenty-first century is a sterile desert. “Mercifully, nothing could be farther from the case.” Eternal drives and their fulfillments, according to Arnold, continue to power the city’s days and nights.
Despite a certain immemorial ubiquity of limited carnal desires and practices, Arnold manages to invest each era with its own flavor. For instance, the erotically charged coffee houses of the Tatler‘s days are uniquely different from the King James-era stews. Victorian times saw a unique explosion of printed pornography. And Arnold makes wonderful use of literature along with her sociological research, winkling out keen insights from artists and novelists such as Hogarth and Cleland. Also, a commendable impartiality regarding gender prevails, with both men and women under the microscope and held accountable for myriad their excesses and refinements.
One major pleasure of this book is the language — not only Arnold’s elegant yet direct and colorful prose, but the introduction of many ancient slang terms that remain juicy and evocative. “Molly houses” were the meeting places for male homosexuals. “Posture molls” did not offer sex, but other stripper-style naked delights. “Link boys” were torchbearers who led clients through the disreputable slums. And as for the practice of “chucking” — well, I’ll just say that it involved the placement of currency in a repository not normally associated with the safekeeping of coinage.
Emerging hot and bothered and enlightened from this odyssey of fornication (a term, we learn, that derives from the Roman practice of copulating outdoors under fornices or arches), the reader is inclined to wonder how Great Britain ever managed to create an empire, so apparently busy were all its citizens with pulling their trousers down and their skirts up. But perhaps, as Delany implied, part of the superior package the West had to sell, which the rest of the world wanted to buy, was precisely this libertine freedom. May the sun never set on a bare British backside!
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.