In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Erotic, Obscene, and Pornographic Writing, 1660-1900

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Anthologies of Primary Texts
  • Editions of Primary Texts
  • Theoretical and Historical Contexts
  • Polemics and Debates, Theoretical and Political
  • Censorship and Obscenity Law
  • Publishers and Booksellers
  • Libertinism and Prostitution
  • Colonialism, Exoticism, and Pornography
  • 17th-Century Literature
  • Gothic and Romantic Literature

British and Irish Literature Erotic, Obscene, and Pornographic Writing, 1660-1900
Hal Gladfelder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0121


Since there is no recorded use of the word “pornography” in English before 1842, there has been much debate as to whether it should be used to refer to writing about sexual subjects from earlier periods. But whatever term is used, it is unarguable that the long 18th century—roughly, the period from 1660 to 1830—saw the emergence and consolidation of a canon of sexually explicit texts in Western Europe, and that this canon of erotic literature formed the basis for the proliferation of pornography in the 19th and 20th centuries. The same period is often seen as the era when certain essential features of modernity were consolidated: notably, the redefinition and reorganization of sexual and gender categories, a new emphasis on interiority and the individual subject, and new understandings of the division between public and private experience. Just as literary critics have linked the development of the novel to these broader cultural changes, so might one think of erotic narratives of sexual education and danger as a vehicle that allowed authors and readers to imaginatively engage with new ways of feeling or thinking about sex and power, masculinity and femininity, privacy and public life. Both the canonical literature and the eroto-pornographic literature of the long 18th century concentrate on private experience and on sexuality as the secret, defining truth of the private self; indeed these two types or strains of literature are so intertwined that it is impossible to disentangle them. With the emergence of Romanticism and the Gothic in the later 18th century, sexual danger and desire are brought into even greater literary prominence; and while persistent stereotypes might lead us to suppose that the coming of the Victorian age (1830s–1901) signaled a retreat to propriety and repression, in fact it was (also) a period of pornographic exuberance and unprecedented interest, across a range of discourses, in the diversity of sexual feelings and practices. This bibliography tries to convey a sense of the range of scholarly work from the mid-1960s to the mid-2010s which has focused on erotic, obscene, and pornographic writing from 1660 to 1900. It centers on literature in England, but English and French literatures were so mutually informing throughout this period that some work on French erotic writing needed to be included. And, as the bibliography’s title suggests, no particular effort has been made to draw boundaries between the erotic (the expression of desire), the obscene (the violation of taboos), and the pornographic (a narrative of sexual action), for all three elements come into play in almost all of the texts that make an appearance here.

General Overviews

Although studies in the history of erotic literature and art go at least as far back as to Richard Payne Knight and The Worship of Priapus (1786), as a field of scholarship it coincides with the surge in public debates about obscenity in 20th-century Britain and the United States, especially from the 1960s, when decisive legal battles were fought over Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). Hyde 1964 was written in the context of the 1964 UK Fanny Hill trial, by a scholar who testified in support of that novel’s publication; it offers an accessible and lively introduction to the long history of erotic and pornographic literature. Foxon 1965 is a scrupulous study of the publication and reception of six key European erotic texts in Restoration and 18th-century England, culminating in the publication of Cleland’s classic novel, the first important pornographic text of English origin. Atkins 1982 is a genial introduction to the diversity of bawdy and pornographic writing from the mid-17th century, while Wagner 1990 offers a comprehensive survey of the whole field of bawdy, obscene, erotic, and pornographic literature in 18th-century England and North America, highlighting the English importation and translation of erotic writing from France. Hunt 1993 is an essential collection that brings together women’s and gender studies, history of sexuality, and the study of pornography, stressing pornography’s “modernity” as it moved from Italy to France to England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Kendrick 1996 is a lively and polemical history of the emergence of pornography as a category of thought in the 19th century, when obscene literature began to emerge from the “secret museums” of gentlemen’s private collections and into the public domain, while Laqueur 2003 focuses on the private realm of solitary readers, who were thought to be vulnerable to physical and moral corruption through their consumption of lascivious texts. Private consumption, however, was only made possible on a wide scale by public availability, and both Laqueur and Kendrick explore the public-private dialectic which structures much of the scholarly analysis of pornography.

  • Atkins, John. Sex in Literature. Vol. 4, High Noon: The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. London: John Calder, 1982.

    Accessible, digressive survey of libertine and pornographic writing ranging from Restoration anti-marriage satires to taboo-breaking literature of the 19th and even 20th centuries. Although it is not a rigorous academic study, Atkins’s impressively wide reading and matter-of-fact approach mean that this covers a greater variety of topics and types of erotic or obscene literature than similar surveys, even if it is atypically reserved on the subject of same-sex desire.

  • Foxon, David. Libertine Literature in England, 1660–1745. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1965.

    A foundational and still essential scholarly work, charting the publication and reception of a half-dozen key European pornographic texts in Restoration and early-18th-century England. Foxon’s approach is essentially bibliographical, examining the books’ production, advertising, distribution, reception and legal prosecution, but his observations on the texts and their cultural significance, while brief, are astute. An appendix on the publication history of Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure is a lively piece of literary detective work and the starting point for all subsequent Cleland scholarship.

  • Hunt, Lynn, ed. The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500–1800. New York: Zone, 1993.

    A pathbreaking collection that brought together women’s and gender studies, the history of sexuality, and the study of pornography. Hunt’s introduction sets out the scope of the book, which traces the origins of pornography to 16th-century Italy and 17th-century France, and argues that its later development was linked to the emergence of Western modernity itself. Reflecting new ideas about the body, gender difference, and political authority, pornography was also tied to the emergence of the novel; but after the 1790s it shed its critical social stance “and became instead a commercial, ‘hard-core’ business” (p. 42).

  • Hyde, H. Montgomery. A History of Pornography. London: Heinemann, 1964.

    Published in the wake of the 1964 British obscenity trial against Fanny Hill, this is among the first historical studies of erotic and pornographic writing, ranging from the story of Judith and Tamar in Genesis, and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, to Victorian flagellation and fetish literature. Not a rigorously scholarly or academic study, it is a lively, sometimes ironic introduction to the field and to some of the debates over the definition of pornography. Includes a detailed account of the testimony in the Fanny Hill trial, in which Hyde was a witness for the defense.

  • Kendrick, Walter. The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

    Equal parts polemic and history, Kendrick’s study charts the emergence of “pornography” as a category of thought—“an argument, not a thing” (p. 31)—in the mid-19th century. As Kendrick uses it, “pornography” is the locus of struggle for control over representation, a political “battleground” (p. 157) upon which the definition and regulation of “dangerous representations” (p. 239) are contested. An essential work on censorship and the politics of prohibition, which aims to provoke debate rather than settle the issues it raises.

  • Laqueur, Thomas W. Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation. New York: Zone, 2003.

    A compendious history of shifting ways of thinking and writing about masturbation from classical antiquity to the turn of the 21st century, focusing on the two centuries following the publication of the virulently anti-masturbation treatise Onania (1718). Laqueur’s study is most relevant to this bibliography for its discussion of pornography in chapter 5, in which he examines anxieties about the “pleasures and dangers of literature” (p. 355), especially for solitary female readers.

  • Wagner, Peter. Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America. London: Paladin, 1990.

    Richly illustrated and wide-ranging overview of the many types of erotic, obscene, bawdy, and pornographic writing available in England and North America in the 18th century, drawing attention to France as the most important producer of erotica in the period. Argues that “erotica played a vital part in the creation of a sexual mentalité” (p. 309) that also pervades canonical literature. Wagner’s learned notes and comprehensive bibliography alone would make this an indispensable resource for further research.

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