Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Cabinet of Love is unveiled to the press...

It's been a busy two days as news of 'The Cabinet of Love' has rolled out through the media. This collection of pornographic poems, initially printed under its own title page and secreted away at the close of the second volume of The Works of the Earls of Rochester and Roscommon (1714), continued to remain part of The Works throughout the 18th century, and was included in at least 20 different printings. In early January I delivered a conference paper at the annual meeting of The British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, suggesting that the inclusion of 'The Cabinet' may help to explain the immense popularity of this miscellany, which is in our top three list of the most reprinted miscellanies in the period. 
On Thursday morning we issued a press release with details of 'The Cabinet', suggesting ways in which it encourages us to think further about the role miscellanies played in 18th century culture. The response from the media has been impressive - although I'm in no doubt that the potential to publish a story with words like 'porn' and 'dildo' in the title enhances the public marketability of such a finding! Clearly, sex still sells today.
I particularly enjoyed the articles by Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian and Rob Hastings in The Independent. An article by Jack Malvern also appeared in The Times, although this laid claim to tens of thousands of copies of The Works sold in the 18th century. Such a claim is difficult to support since we don't have records of the numbers involved in these print runs, and it's unfortunate that in relation to 18th century culture, we seldom do. But the fact that The Works went through more than 20 editions does suggest its bestselling status in comparison to other books of the day.
The Daily Mail placed an interesting spin on the story, stating that 'the poems are too explicit to be reproduced in a family newspaper even in today's permissive society, so one can image the furore they conjured at the time.' I wasn't approached by a Daily Mail reporter for comment, but when asked about this by other journalists, I made the point that whilst some 18th century readers may have been shocked by the poems, many surely wouldn't have been. 'The Cabinet' is far from the only text of this nature being written and read in the period. I was a bit surprised that The Daily Mail felt that the passages from 'The Cabinet' reproduced in other papers were too explicit for public print - clearly I, and the rest of the broadsheets, have missed a drastic recent heightening in censorship levels! In light of their stance, I was rather surprised to see that on Friday morning The Daily Mail did reproduce PETA advertising images of a naked Hana Nitsche with absolutely no nod to the fact that this might be unsavoury content for 'a family newspaper'.  
Yesterday afternoon the BBC picked up the story, and it then went on to become the main arts story of the day. Clearly the 18th century still holds some interest for the contemporary British public, especially when accompanied by images of Johnny Depp as the Earl of Rochester! I was amused to see that The Spectator had given me a job promotion from researcher to 'Oxford Don' - not bad for a day's work! 
I guess it is inevitable that as a story such as this rolls out it loses some of its accuracy, and it's hard to stay on top of that story when it starts hitting the French, Italian and Greek press. But it has been heartening to see that findings like 'The Cabinet', which offer a small but significant glimpse into the complex world of 18th century culture, remain of interest to readers today. And, having read all the articles published in the last 36 hours, I'm left wondering if 'the furore' they have caused today is maybe much greater than they would have done in the 18th century itself. 

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