The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the TLS. This week: How the Earl of Rochester’s dirty poems landed him in trouble, a powerful novel of wartime deprivation from Gerard Woodward, and a new side of scholar John Aubrey.
The Earl of Rochester’s Salacious Poems
“Scribal publication” is the phrase that scholars can deploy for texts too sexually explicit to be published in any other way than one copy at a time. At some point during the Christmas festivities at Court in 1673, Charles II and the Earl of Rochester got talking about a lampoon that was doing the rounds at Whitehall, and the King asked to see it. As Paul A.J. Davis describes in the TLS this week. Rochester rummaged drunkenly through his pockets and accidentally gave him the manuscript of his own “Satire on Charles II” instead. Charles may have been the “easiest King and best bred man alive,” as the poem begins by saying, but not even he could shrug off (for instance) Rochester’s account of the “pains it cost poor laborious Nelly / Whilst she employs hands, fingers, mouth and thighs / Ere she can mount the member she enjoys.” Rochester had to flee the Court and lie low for a while at his country estate. In his absence, the satire circulated unstoppably; not in print (it didn’t become printable until 1697) but through handwritten texts. Such was the variety of Rochester's different versions, discussed in The Poems and Lucina’s Rape, edited by Keith Walker and Nicholas Fisher, many of them were so adapted for appropriate levels of sensitivity that for many of them there is almost no prospect of an agreed text at all.
Gerard Woodward’s fourth novel, Nourishment, opens in 1941. Tory Pace's husband, Donald, is in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany asking her to send him a “dirty letter, by return of post . . . full of all the filthiest words and deeds you can think of.” Tory is shocked that her meek and bookish painter-decorator husband can make such a request—the more so since six months’ worth of increasingly randy and aggressive letters arrive within the space of a week and a half. It is only Tory’s own erotic adventures which subsequently enable her to write a letter—and the enthusiasm with which she eventually writes (launching “a spring offensive of sexual narrative”) has consequences, writes Henry Power in the TLS, which extend well beyond the end of the war. Donald returns home, a suspicious and seedy Odysseus, intrigued by his wife’s wartime activities and bearing several secrets of his own.
The novel is set at a time of scarcity, and all of the characters fret about nourishment. Tory’s tendency to justify the worst excesses of Donald’s behavior—which becomes wildly grotesque after his return from Germany—stems from her anxiety about his sustenance. She only begins to excuse his requests for dirty letters when she considers the possibility that she might be “starving” him, and speculates that there may be “some peculiar aspect of the male body’s design, that means it actually needs sexual congress as much as it needs food.” Tory’s mother reels off a list of victuals (“Cocoa, Oxo cubes, Typhoo, golden syrup, Camp Coffee, fish paste ... can you imagine what it must do to a man to know such things are out of reach?”). Woodward, writes Power, relishes the absurdity of using the resolutely unsexy foodstuffs of mid-20th-century England as a metaphor for lovemaking. And he recognizes that the overlap between food and sex is repulsive as often as it is appealing. When Donald finally takes down his trousers in Tory’s presence, in the hope of redeeming the promise implied in her letters, a strange smell emanates from his crotch, which strikes her “as the same sort of smell you get from a roasting joint of lamb.”
A Great English Scientist
The 17th-century English scholar gentleman John Aubrey is best known for his Brief Lives and little recognized for his role in experimental science. Ruth Scurr reports this week on an exhibition in Oxford and a new book, William Poole's John Aubrey and the Advancement of Learning, designed to rebalance that reputation. Aubrey’s scientific reports to the Royal Society on the danger to dogs of drinking hanged men’s urine and to men of wearing accursed shoes might seem to accentuate the image of an antiquarian wit who, while a student at the same time as Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, would have added little to their studies. But Aubrey, we learn, also gave well-received papers on the wind and waters of the countryside around Stonehenge—while struggling with an artificial language designed exclusively for the rationalist heroes of his age.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.