Magazine article The Spectator

The Gaiety of the Lower Classes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Gaiety of the Lower Classes

Article excerpt

Sex is a perennially compelling subject. Generally speaking, it is (and, I believe, should be) clandestine; this makes it difficult to compare oneself to others in the desire to ascertain how normal one's own instincts and predilections are, which only compounds the allure of it all. Sex and the Gender Revolution addresses this fascination not individually, but historically and socially.

Trumbach is an American academic whose specialisation is the study of homosexuality in 18th-century London. He believes that the appearance of a third gender, known as sodomites, who exclusively desired men rather than women - the precursors of the modern 'gay' man - in the first decades of the 18th century transformed relations between the sexes, laying the foundations of modern Western gender relations. Having read several of his articles and the book's title, I was looking forward to reading an analysis of the genesis of this third gender and a discussion of its development and influence.

What we get is another book entirely:a detailed (and much-needed) study of sex inside and outside marriage in Enlightenment London, concentrating on the lower and middle classes as opposed to the middle and upper classes, who, being more literate, generally' get all the attention. Trumbach's exhaustive research over the past 20 years, using trial records throughout the century, has paid off. Violence within marriage, adultery, prostitution, illegitimacy and rape are all explored, charted. and analysed minutely.

The breadth and detail of Trumbach s research illuminate the secret lives of London's lower classes and the similarities and differences between our age and theirs.

Modern pornography comes to mind when Trumbach describes how men held up candles to inspect the genitalia of `posturers' who would strip and pose before a group; his description of the spread of venereal disease over the 18th century from just gentlemen (it was known as the `Gentleman's Disease') and whores to infect almost every section of society and the commonly held belief that having sex with a virgin would cure the pox reminds us of how lucky we are to live in an age of modern medicine, not to mention modern morality.

Accustomed as one is to reading about the privileged protected world of aristocratic women in the 18th century, the utter impotence of poor, ill-educated women if they were raped, beaten or abused was one of the more disturbing aspects of 18thcentury life revealed by Trumbach's work. The plaintiff paid to bring a case to court, and was then reimbursed if he or she won; women, who went from being the property of their father to the property of their husband - and fell into a degraded limbo if they did not marry - could not bring a case to court without the support of a husband, father or lover. …

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