Archive for October 13th, 2010

13/10/2010

Too much smutty

Between a work crisis and some access issues, I’m currently a bit behind on my reading / writing. I’m just drawing near the end of a marathon work of non-fiction, which I’ll probably post about on the weekend; Agatha hasn’t arrived yet, although she’s cetainly imminent; and I’m holding off on beginning the next step along my Chronobibliographical road for reasons I’ll get into when they’re no longer relevant. If that makes sense.

What I will do in the meantime is say a little about my next scheduled author, the apparently aptly named Richard Head (which, nota bene, is as much as I’m going to allow myself in the “stooping to the obvious joke” department). Head was Irish by birth, but spent much of his life in London, scratching a living as a writer and bookseller, although a lifelong gambling addiction meant that his income rarely exceeded his expenditure even when he found success, as he did in 1665.

Head’s most successful work, indeed, one of the most successful works of this period, and one of the few English publications to be successful across Europe, was The English Rogue Described In The Life Of Meriton Latroon, a satirical account of the criminal and sexual escapades of its title character. Notoriously, when the first version of Head’s tale was submitted to the censor in 1664, it was rejected for being “too much smutty”. A bowdlerised edition was resubmitted successfully the following year.

I may say that I am yet to find anyone who has read The English Rogue who doesn’t react by exclaiming, “If this is the bowdlerised version – !?”

(More 17th-century pornography? You betcha.)

We have touched already about the English habit at this time of claiming even obvious works of fiction to be true stories. Head’s approach with The English Rogue was to hint, not merely that it was true, but that it was autobiographical. Scholars today agree that certain aspects of Latroon’s life do coincide with that of Head, particularly the account of the early years of his life; but beyond this there is little evidence that it is not a work of fiction. Be this as it may, Head’s intimations that he and Latroon were one and the same backfired spectacularly when the readers of The English Rogue took him at his word. Deciding that Head was an unmitigated scoundrel, they treated him accordingly.

Thoroughly exasperated by this outcome, and in spite of his perpetual financial difficulties, Head turned a deaf ear to the pleadings for a second volume of Latroon’s life from the publisher / bookseller Francis Kirkman, to whom the rights to The English Rogue had passed upon the death of Head’s original publisher. Kirkman’s response was to cash in on the situation by writing a second volume himself, which was published in 1671. It is generally agreed to be an inferior work to the original, and was not as successful. Whether Head was irritated by what Kirkman had done to his story, or whether it was simply a matter of financial necessity, it seems that in time he gave in and collaborated with Kirkman on two further volumes, published in 1674 and 1680. Head and Kirkman then had a falling out, with Head declaring publicly that he had had no hand in writing the third and fourth volumes, although surviving documentation suggests otherwise.

The end of the fourth volume of the life of Meriton Latroon promised a fifth, which never eventuated – or at least not as planned. In 1688, an abridged edition of the four volumes was released “to which is added a fifth part”. However, by 1688 Francis Kirkman and Richard Head were both dead. There is no record of who wrote this belated sequel, which is short, a mere tying up of loose ends; an obvious cash-in by whoever had acquired the rights to the whole.

The difficulty with The English Rogue, then, is deciding just “when” it was published. If we take only the first volume as the “true” edition, its publication date of 1665 puts it beyond my self-imposed cut-off. (Which I’ve already violated once, but never mind.) If we accept the Head / Kirkman volumes as part of the whole, then we go with 1680; while a one in, all in attitude lands us in 1688…which is what I’ve decided to go with, despite my discovery – made with a mixture of horror and delight – that the academic library I frequent has a copy of 1928 Routledge edition of The English Rogue, which contains the first three volumes of the story, for open borrowing.

Anyway…in the meantime, next on my reading list are two other works by Richard Head, which finds him entering into the popular 17th-century game of shamming with two pamphlets, published in 1673 and 1674: The Floating Island  (reprinted as O-Brazile; or, The Inchanted Island) and The Western Wonder; or, O-Brazeel. Those of you reading along can go ahead. I’ll…catch you up.