Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus Reviews The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catharine Arnold.
Arnold’s Sexual History of London boils down to a history of prostitution, pornography, and sexual scandal, with not much besides. Although she notes her sources, there are only about a half-dozen of these for each chapter, and this book really falls in the category of “entertaining non-fiction” rather than scholarship. It is happily full of thumbnail biographies of colorful characters, even if it does at times give the impression that sex is an activity reserved to prostitutes, their clients, and homosexuals.
Although the primary organization of the book is chronological, the author has a tendency to jump back and forth in her pursuit of selected subtopics, and her ostensible “medieval” chapter is loaded up with anecdotes from the Renaissance. Her later treatment of the Whitechapel murders of “Jack the Ripper” seemed to strike a reasonable tone, but I thought there was just far too much of it on its own terms, and not enough done to tie it back into the central topic of sex and sexuality.
Arnold’s narrative voice is pleasant and easy to follow, although she has a recurring tendency to ape the diction of her sources, as when she references (without quotation marks) “base and filthy lucre” (87) and “actors … whipped at the cart’s arse” (89). The book shows sympathy for the historical individuals whom it covers. It reads quickly, but there is quite a lot of it, so it can make a pleasantly extensive reading project for someone looking to read it straight through.