Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Noelle Gallagher's "Itch, Clap, Pox"

Noelle Gallagher is Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Historical Literatures: Writing About the Past in England, 1600-1740.

Gallagher applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Itch, Clap, Pox: Venereal Disease in the Eighteenth-Century Imagination, and reported the following:
It was great fun to participate in the experiment of reading page 99 from Itch, Clap, Pox—not least because I suffer from the commonplace writer’s fear of opening my newly-published book to discover a spectacularly flagrant typographical error (“pubic” for “public,” “busty” for “busy”—that sort of thing). Fortunately, page 99 is typo free. It appears midway through a chapter on the relationship between representations of venereal disease and representations of prostitution in eighteenth-century literature and graphic art. In this section of the book, I discuss how prostitutes’ memoirs, graphic artworks (like Hogarth’s 1732 series Harlot’s Progress), and eighteenth-century novels (like Tobias Smollett’s 1748 Roderick Random) ultimately provide a more sympathetic and nuanced portrait of the infected prostitute than we might expect from the imaginative works of this period. In the chapter on “Pox and Prostitution,” I argue that while satiric texts like Swift’s “A Beautiful Nymph Going to Bed” attack the figure of the “pocky whore,” works like Hogarth’s and Smollett’s invite us to see the infected prostitute as an object of sympathy. Just as the heroine of Hogarth’s series, Moll Hackabout, is an innocent Yorkshire lass lured into prostitution and subsequently abandoned to a painful death from venereal infection, so the character of Miss Williams in Smollett’s Roderick Random speaks eloquently on her plight: forced into prostitution by financial necessity after she is abandoned by her lover, Miss Williams contracts venereal disease after years of mistreatment and abuse by cruel—and in some cases criminal—male clients. Smollett’s novel takes care to identify Miss Williams as the equal of the novel’s hero, Roderick, in her resourcefulness and intelligence. As Roderick himself points out, they differ in their fortunes only because of the greater economic and social opportunities afforded to men.

In relation to the text as a whole, page 99 forwards the book’s aim of using imaginative representations of venereal disease to examine some of the broader cultural anxieties at work in eighteenth-century Britain. I argue that literary and artistic depictions of venereal disease ultimately tell us less about the grim realities of infection (indeed, in some cases, imaginative depictions contrast what we know about the realities of infection), and more about attitudes towards prostitution, masculinity, immigration, globalization, racial and religious difference—all concepts that were strongly associated with venereal disease in the literature and art of this period. Each of the book’s four chapters considers a prominent association around venereal disease, with the first chapter, “Officers and Gentlemen,” exploring how and why venereal disease became connected with elite male power and sexual virility; the second chapter, in which page 99 appears, examines the longstanding relation between infection and prostitution; the third chapter considers the foreignness of “the French disease” (as it was sometimes called); and the fourth and final chapter examines the weird and wonderful cultural life of the disfigured syphilitic nose in eighteenth-century literature and art.
Learn more about Itch, Clap, Pox at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue