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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 abolitionism produced its own mirror image in slave-themed pornography. Even the most well-meaning social activist, it seems, was playing upon a deeper iconographic fascination with the whipped female slave. Colligan traces the image of the whipped slave in sources across the nineteenth century, and concludes with a strong claim that twentieth-century sado-masochistic fantasies have at their root the image of the African slave. (In “A Child is Being Beaten” (1919), Freud notes that many of his patients have violent erotic fantasies drawn from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a fact that Freud explains by generalizing about early childhood, rather than arriving at Colligan’s more convincing claim about the material persistence of erotic images over time). Colligan’s surprising and powerful conclusion to this chapter offers a broader, overarching synthesis that is at times missing from other chapters.
A final chapter reveals the strong intertextuality between Aubrey Beardsley’s scandalous illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and obscene prints from Japan, some of which decorated Beardsley’s own home. Much of the material in this chapter feels familiar, especially from Linda Gertner Zatlin’s Beardsley, Japonisme, and the Perversion of the Victorian Ideal. But the chapter works in relation to the rest of the book, revealing links between canonical literary works and obscene print culture.
If The Traffic in Obscenity provides a wealth of obscene sources and images, the myriad details of sexual culture are both the book’s strong point and its weakness. We learn a lot about the particulars of different kinds of obscene works, but the larger moments of synthesis are lacking. Many tantalizing links between chapters go unpursued. For instance, British harem fantasies often featured suspiciously light-skinned women, which was also true of whipping fantasies involving African-American slaves. The underlying fantasy of “white slavery” is only briefly treated; but Colligan’s evidence implies that much pornographic exoticism was actually a cover for more domestic English anxieties about gender.
The same is true for a recurring thematics of male homosexuality. In a surprising array of pornographic scenarios, many of which would seem to encourage heterosexual encounters, there is a turn to male-male sex acts. I wondered whether there were larger conclusions to be drawn about the fraught British relationship to male homosexuality—especially given the way sex acts were built into many all-male Victorian institutions, from schools to ships to the military. Or perhaps the sex scenes were actually pointing to issues beyond sex, indicating desires or anxieties about class, masculinity, or other forms of cultural identity and power. Whatever the explanation, this fascinating material asks for analysis on a more expansive level.
Colligan’s book demonstrates that pornographic culture is always imbricated into mainstream culture, often in ways that are revealing of common fears and fantasies not directly linked to sexuality. I ultimately wished to hear more about a category that is foregrounded in the introduction, but which falls away in the ensuing project, namely, media itself. If the traffic in obscenity mirrored the more respectable byways of an expanding print culture, especially as both were influenced by new technological developments, it would make sense to hear more in the book about media history beyond obscenity. How did the objects of pornography reflect new media developments in newspapers, illustrated magazines, and photographic reproduction? This kind of analysis would really drive home the book’s compelling major claim. The Traffic in Obscenity provides an excellent overview of Victorian pornographic imaginary, even while raising unanswered questions about the larger cultural meanings inhering in such fraught sexual objects.
Rachel Teukolsky is an Assistant Professor of English at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Her teaching and research interests include Victorian non-fiction prose, visual studies, history of gender and sexuality, and travel literature. She is currently completing a book titled The Literate Eye: Victorian Art Writing and the Rise of Modern Aesthetics.
- Marcus, Steven. The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Basic, 1964.
- McCalman, Iain. Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
- Zatlin, Linda Gertner. Beardsley, Japonisme, and the Perversion of the Victorian Ideal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.