Colette Colligan. The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley: Sexuality and Exoticism in Nineteenth-Century Print Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. ISBN: 978-0-230-00343-9. Price: US$74.95.[Record]

  • Rachel Teukolsky

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  • Rachel Teukolsky
    Pennsylvania State University

Colette Colligan’s new book The Traffic in Obscenity is a useful contribution to the growing field of nineteenth-century pornographic studies. The book provocatively disputes Steven Marcus’s classic psychoanalytic account, which described pornography as a repressed underworld belonging to “the other Victorians.” Instead, Colligan argues that pornography shared much in common with mainstream Victorian print culture, especially in the way it exploited new media technologies, enabling a mobile “traffic” across borders and empire. (She uses the term “obscenity” to refer to what I would call “pornography,” a difference of perhaps Canadian versus American terminology; in this review I use the terms interchangeably). Colligan sees obscenity less as a secret subculture and more as a transnational media phenomenon. Hence obscene works entailed “sometimes parodic crossovers with mainstream authors, publishers, writings, and images” (7). Each of the four chapters is a case study tracing the intersections between mainstream print culture and pornographic texts and images. Colligan’s insight is brilliantly perceptive, but the book’s aim to trace intersections and “follow the traffic” (9) ultimately yields a more descriptive than argumentative account. One of the most arresting things about this book is its heroic archival work. The variety of sources is impressive given how hard it can be to track down Victorian pornographic materials, many of which have wound up in private collections. Colligan has unearthed a wealth of obscene sources, and her best analysis reveals striking relationships to well-known literary works. She chose the four topics using a method that was “largely experiential,” identifying four repeated tropes in the materials she found. The book therefore examines “the sexual capital of Oriental harems, Arab erotic handbooks, slave plantations, and Japanese erotic art” (7). The thematics of British obscenity provide a fascinating map of British libidinal (and political) interests. Colligan’s chapters sharply illuminate the ties between obscene works and specific histories of British mainstream culture. In the first chapter, she shows how an obscene harem fantasy intersected with Byron’s harem cantos in Don Juan; interestingly, Byron’s poem was refused copyright protection because of its perceived obscene content. From a legal perspective, Don Juan shared much with the obscene orientalist works emerging from a radical political underground. The chapter spends more time analyzing obscene harem literature than in working out the larger political meanings behind this radical print culture. (For this, a reader might turn instead to Iain McCalman’s important 1988 study Radical Underworld). If scholars like McCalman have studied Byron’s appropriation by an underground populism, Colligan shows us the more explicit pornographic tradition underlying that connection. The book also provides keen insights into the relationships between pornography and empire; for instance, Colligan shows how the obsession with the Turkish harem emerged just as the European empires were expanding in the wake of a retreating Ottoman empire. Obscene novels like The Lustful Turk (1828) thus presented a fantasy of harem life that could be enjoyed by a British male reader, while safely containing Turkish power by “punishing the despots, dismantling their harems, and restoring English sexual customs,” as Colligan smartly concludes (50). Insights about the British empire also abound in the chapter on Arab sex manuals and Richard Burton, the intrepid explorer and linguist whose bawdy translations in the 1880s brought the term “pornography” into public discourse for the first time. As Colligan demonstrates, Burton defended his perverse interests by arguing that Britain needed to collect knowledge about its imperial terrains in order to maintain power in the Middle East. Burton’s subversive sexual interests were therefore justified “in terms of British gain” (63). In one of the book’s most provocative chapters, Colligan shows how British …