J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, April 05, 2018

“Very silly questions very foolishly answered”

At All Things Georgian, Sarah Murden has shared some amusing extracts (part 1 and part 2) from a 1759 book titled The Gentleman and Lady of Pleasure’s Amusement: In eighty-eight questions, with their answers, on love and gallantry.

Murden likens the book’s format to “agony aunt” letters or, as we in the U.S. of A. call them, advice columns. The extracts cover such topics as unexpected pregnancy, being in love with two sisters, whether to read a spouse’s mail, and what gender the Devil is.

The snarkiness of the queries and replies got me curious enough to look for an online copy of this book to verify its existence. The postings did appear around 1 April, after all.

I failed to find one, reflecting how few copies of The Gentleman and Lady of Pleasure’s Amusement made their way to and stayed in university libraries. (Harvard has a copy that was never digitized by Google Books. Another is at the University of Pennsylvania, donated by Prof. John C. Mendenhall.)

I did find an assessment of the book in The Critical Review, Or, Annals of Literature, edited by Tobias Smollett. The questions and answers were printed along with a couple of equally risqué novellas called The Adventures of Sophia and The History of Frederick and Caroline. The reviewer sniffed:
The first and larger part of this curious performance is, it seems, a hachis [i.e., hash] from the Athenian oracle, consisting of very silly questions very foolishly answered. Of these we shall say nothing further than that our author does by no means seem qualified to reanimate the dead. We might observe, that the Athenian oracle is not only silent and dead, but damned likewise: for that reason, perhaps, it is deprived of rest, and walks—But, a word to the wise, de mortuis nil nisi bonum [don’t speak ill of the dead].
Another magazine, the Monthly Review, said straight out that those questions and answers were “Purloin’d, as the purloiner indeed honestly confesses from two old dull books called the Athenian Oracle and the British Apollo.” The first of those books was in print by 1703, the second by 1726. Together they came in several volumes and promised more than “two thousand answers to curious questions.”

The Monthly Review evidently thought the content of The Gentleman and Lady of Pleasure’s Amusement came out of those earlier books, but my test samples didn’t find any overlap. So it’s possible that the later book was a parody, or hash, of the established genre with a more modern attitude.

The Critical Review’s critical review of the novellas was:
The latter part, which, if we may believe the editor, contains two genuine stories, is a heap of dull absurdities, without invention, humour, or probability. In the first dialogue, a woman of the town relates to her companion, as how she was debauched by the master of a ship, married to a Spaniard who lived at La Vera Cruz not far from Acapulco, shipwrecked upon a desolate island in the South Sea, which proved to be the seat of a powerful empire, ravished by an Indian, promoted to the rank of favourite sultana to the emperor, afterwards wedded to a nobleman of that country, and finally found by accident and brought back to England in a ship commanded by the same man who had deprived her of her virginity.

The second story relates to a young gentleman who met with his own sister as a lady of pleasure, and did not recognize her until they had passed the night together. The sister drowned herself in despair: the brother lost his wits, and the author has none to lose——Judge then if this production is worth three shillings.
This item appeared in the December 1758 issue of the Critical Review. Likewise, the Monthly Review notice was in the November issue. Since The Gentleman and Lady of Pleasure’s Amusement is evidently dated 1759, the printers must either have slipped an advance copy to the magazines or had such success that they quickly issued a second edition.

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