An Essay On Women

Boswell knew Wilkes by sight when, on May 5, 1763, he went to The Tower of London to watch his release from prison (he was too late, as it turned out). At this time he was also a frequent reader of The North Briton, which he mailed each week to West Digges in Edinburgh. They may have met as early as November 26, 1762, when Boswell accompanied Lord Eglinton to a dinner in the Beefsteak Club, of which Wilkes was also a member, but from the journals it would seem as if they weren't actually introduced to each other until they met at Bonnell Thornton's on May 24, 1763. Although Boswell isn't explicit about it in his journal, it is evident from letters to William Temple and David Dalrymple that he met and became better acquainted with Wilkes in the ensuing months, and on the day before going into exile in Paris, Wilkes let Boswell have a number of "franks" (i.e. free postage given to Members of Parliament). In a letter to Dalrymple dated August 2, 1763, Boswell writes that "[t]he truth is, Wilkes is a most agreeable companion. He is good-humoured and vivacious, and likes the Scots as well as anybody; only he considers the abusing that nation as a political device, which he must make us of. [...] Wilkes and I are exceeding well, when we meet."

Boswell and Wilkes met again in in Italy during Boswell's grand tour. On January 9, 1765, shortly after his own arrival in Turin, Boswell discovered that Wilkes was passing through that city as well. He therefore sent Wilkes a curious invitation to dine with him:

Sir, I am told that Mr. Wilkes is now in Turin. As a politician, my monarchical soul abhors him. As a Scotsman I smile at him. As a friend I know him not. As a companion I love him. I believe it is not decent for me to wait upon him. Yet I wish much to see him. I shall be alone and have a tolerable dinner upon my table at one o'clock. If Mr. Wilkes chooses to be my guest, I shall by no means oppose it. I may venture to syay he shall be very welcome, and do promise hima a fest of most singular and choice conversation. BOSWELL.1

Wilkes was not at home when the invitation arrived, but later called on Boswell who was, by then, out of his lodgings. In the evening, Boswell went to the opera in the company of Mme. de St. Gilles, and there spotted Wilkes sitting high up in a box, but without being able to talk to him. So, once back at his lodgings, Boswell sent Wilkes another note:

Since Churchill's death, I have had a serious sympathy with you. Has it not made you pause and reflect a little? Might we not have an interview, and continue the conversation on the immortality of the soul which you had with my countryman Baxter many years ago at Brussels? [...] To men of philosophical minds there are surely moments when they set aside their nation, their rank, their character, all that they have done and all that they have suffered in this jumbling world. [...] John Wilkes, the fiery Whig, would despise this sentiment. John Wilkes, the gay profligate, would laugh at it. But John Wilkes, the philosopher, will feel it, and will love it. [...] Perhaps you may come to me tonight. I hope at any rate you will dine with me tomorrow. 2

Unfortunately, Wilkes had gone to bed. They met again on February 15 that same year, when Boswell arrived in Rome and saw Wilkes at the customs. Boswell reports having "[s]eized him, embraced [him]" after which they went to a gloomy café discussing philosophical and other issues.

Their meeting in Rome marked the true beginning of their friendship, and on February 25 Boswell followed Wilkes to Naples, where Wilkes was going to stay for some time with his mistress Gertrude Corradini. They frequently dined together, and on March 14 they ascended Mount Vesuvius. The journal contains numerous extracts of their many conversations in Italy, although some have been difficult to reconstruct from Boswell's notes.

A letter from Boswell to Wilkes from Rome on April 22, and Wilkes reply from Naples on April 27 are telling of their, by then, intimate friendship and intellectual attraction to each other. Boswell wrote, among other things, that "[t]he many pleasant hours which we passed together at Naples shall never be lost. The remembrance of them shall inspirit this gloomy mind while I live." Wilkes returned the compliment by writing in his reply that "I thank you very much for your most friendly letter [...] and still more for the many agreeable hours you favoured me with here [in Naples]. You have made me know halcyon days in my exile, and you ought not to be surprised at my cheerfulness and gaiety, for you inspired them."

The pair met again in Paris almost nine months later on January 19, 1766. Since they had taken leave of each other in Naples, Boswell had travelled with Lord Mountstuart, had an amourous affair with Girolama Piccolomini, and he had, not least, travelled to the island of Corsica where he met an befriended the leader of the Corsican independence movement on the island, Pasquale Paoli. Therefore, Boswell did not feel the same awe for Wilkes, when they met again, writing in his journal that "[y]ou felt yourself above him."3. They soon resumed their friendship, however, and it was in Wilkes' lodgings in Paris, that, on January 26, Boswell received the news about the death of his mother a few weeks earlier, when he saw a notice of it in St. James's Chronicle.

Boswell stayed in Paris until January 31, and - as one of his last actions in Paris - he took leave of Wilkes on the night before. Wilkes comforted him and told him to "[c]onsider how you have avoided the pain of seeing mother dying, and how you'll go back and comfort father, and amuse him by talking of all you've seen."4

After having been back in his ancestral Scotland for a few months, Boswell wrote again to Wilkes, beginning his letter "I shall never forget your humane and kind behaviour to me at Paris, when I received the melancholy news of my mother's death. I have been doing all in my power to comfort my worthy Father, and I thank God He is now greatly recovered. [...] Indeed I never admired you more than when you tried to alleviate my afflicition; for whether it be from self interest or not, I set a higher value on the qualitys of the heart than on those of the head." Boswell ended the letter my saying, that as he not sure whether Wilkes would receive it at the address to which he would send it, "I think it would be improper for me to write to you with our usual freedom, till I am sure that my letters can go safe."5

[Entry to be expanded with the later stages of their friendship]

Apart from the royal birth – in Paddington, giving rise to concerns that the prince may turn out to be a marmalade-eating bear – the only news this week is the Prime Minister’s war on pornography, which is a genre of licentious writing and/or images available on the internet and elsewhere, often criticised for its below-average artistic merit. No doubt this new war will be just as successful as the wars on drugs, poverty, terrorism et cetera.

Of course, our interest in the precise details of this or that particular public policy is close to zero, it being generally recognised that the people who devise them are a sorry lot of ill-dressed mediocrities whose relationship with both focus groups and the media might well be metaphorically represented in the kind of images now facing a ban. It is, however, a good opportunity to revist the famous scandal of the Essay on Woman, John Wilkes’ lewd parodic poem which, when it fell into the hands of the authorities, came closer to destroying him than any of his political writings.

In 1752, Wilkes had met Thomas Potter, the fashionable and debauched son of the Archbishop of Canterbury who is chiefly remembered for a an act of bestiality. Although Wilkes was never the vulgarian rake that Potter certainly was, he briefly became Wilkes’ political mentor as the second MP for Aylesbury. More fatefully, apart from politics, Potter’s other hobby was the young wife of a Dr William Warburton, who owned the rights to Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man.

A combination of beer and loathing inspired Potter to begin an obscene parody, An Essay on Woman, including mock footnotes to satirise Warburton’s pompous annotations to the original. It has been called the dirtiest poem in the English language,[1] and when Wilkes inherited the manuscript on Potter’s death in 1759, he modified and completed it.

It appears that Wilkes conceived the idea of a private print-run for the amusement of like-minded friends while with the militia in Wiltshire in 1762. Certainly he got as far as designing a particularly eye-watering image for the frontispiece and coming up with the fictional name Borewell for the author – not only for the double entendre but also to mock Welbore Ellis, the other MP for Aylesbury and a follower of Lord Bute. At the time, however, he could not find a printer willing to take on the job.

The offending item.

A year later, following famous the raid on his house on April 30th 1763 after the publication of Number 45, the manuscript was taken by the King’s Messengers, Carterett-Webb and Stanhope. Fearing that they would publish it and reveal him as the author in order to put him on the wrong side of the law, Wilkes lighted on one of those ideas whose chutzpah amounting almost to genius so characterised the man and which will always endear him to us despite all his manifest faults – he put this notice in the Public Advertiser:

“Speedily will be published by Philip Carterett Webb and Lovel Stanhope, Esqrs, An Essay on Woman.” 

Nobody alive would have dared publish the Essay while their names were linked to it in the public domain, and indeed the manuscript was returned to him along with his other effects – but without the title page or a series of letters referring to it.

It was at this point that he made “the mistake of his life”:[2] as the printers for the North Briton were hanging around with nothing to do in the aftermath of the Number 45, he instructed them to run up twelve or thirteen printed versions of the Essay for his friends in the Medmenham Hellfire Club. Rather like Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library or the Clay Sanskrit Library, Pope’s original was to be printed on one side and the parody on the other, so that they could be compared line by line.

The work was never entirely completed, so only fragments remain – which is probably just as well – although one completed section certainly included a libellous if remarkably well-turned couplet about Lord Bute’s anatomy. Nevertheless, through a serpentine and bizarre series of events, including being used to wrap somebody’s lunch, part of the print-run made its way into the possession of an anti-Wilkite publisher called McFaden and thence to the Secretaries of State. Once again turning to Carterett-Webb, they set about to prosecute Wilkes for blasphemy and libel: because it was now printed, and not merely the manuscript which Carterett-Webb had seen before, he now sought to make the case that Wilkes had ‘published’ the work, transforming it from a perfectly legal private document into an libellous public one.

The state, meanwhile, reached for those charming tools with which, in the modern world, we are once again familiar. Not content with merely using the Essay as “the basis of a character assassination of Wilkes for attacking the King’s government”,[3] it bribed, bullied and intimidated a printer called Michael Curry into handing over the proofs and testifying against Wilkes, and Lord Sandwich, now Secretary of State, tried to use the issue to blackmail Wilkes into giving up his civil rights litigation against the government, offering to drop any actions over the Essay if he desisted, which Wilkes immediately refused.

Going still further, Carterett-Webb inserted a forged line into the final stanza of a particularly obscene section – the subtle addition of a reference to the Holy Trinity transformed the piece from merely smutty into blasphemous. To complete the picture of paranoid overreaction by a frightened government, the ministry caused Faden to print two more copies of the Essay to give a false impression of wider publication.

The minister devised a two-pronged attack: Wilkes would be tried in the House of Commons for libelling the King in Number 45, and in the House of Lords for libelling Warburton, now sitting in that rarefied chamber as Bishop of Gloucester. On November 15th 1763, therefore, Sandwich proceeded to read out the poem in the House of Lords, causing a sensation in which one peer nearly fainted.

The Earl of Sandwich denouncing sin.

The sight of Lord Sandwich, one of the most prominent whoremongers and vulgarians of the period, abusing the poem for obscenity was so absurd that Lord Le Despenser, no longer a friend to Wilkes by this time, noted that he “never before heard the devil preach a sermon against sin”. Sandwich, in fact, had his own agenda: “Apart from the obvious political motives of pleasing his sovereign and winning his ministerial spurs, there was the personal incentive of the discovery among the Wilkes papers…of a ribald lampoon on himself”,[4] thus following in the great tradition of impartial parliamentary statesmanship.

Still, as this was the eighteenth century and therefore excellent, many noble lords cried for the poetry recital to continue, and nearly drowned out the squeaking Warburton with laughter, not least because they knew very well that the poem had been started by Potter to amuse himself in between bouts with the bishop’s wife.

In spite of this absurdity and the turpitude of the ministry’s methods, the motions against Wilkes carried in both Houses. Not that it did them any good in the country – as Horace Walpole noted:

“The plot so hopefully laid to blow up Wilkes was so gross and scandalous, so revengeful and so totally unconnected with the political conduct of Wilkes, and the instruments so despicable, odious, or in whom any pretentions to decency, sanctimony or faith were so presposterous that, losing all sight of the scandal contained in the poem, the whole world almost united in crying out against the informers.”

Indeed, it was at this point that the London mob famously prevented the public hangman from ceremonially burning Number 45, instead burning effigies of the Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, although the simultaneous law suits in the aftermath of Number 45 – most famously Entick v Carrington – had put an end to general warrants and arbitrary arrests, Parliament contrived in this way, by circumventing the courts and the jury system, to cause Wilkes to flee to France on December 23rd 1763, where he would remain in exile for five years until his triumphant return in 1768 to set the establishment on its head again in the Middlesex election controversy.

Far be it from us to suggest that there are admonitory parallels to bear in mind when we consider the current trend of legislation in the areas of privacy, censorship and the means available to modern governments for the destruction of stubborn opponents. Even in those occasional instances in which governments have honourable motives, they can inflict massive collateral damage on innocent parties, as Nick Cohen reminds us in The Spectator this week with reference to the Simon Walsh case. As Wilkes observed at the time, “Even as a juvenile performance I claim only candour and indulgence. No man has the right to inquire into my private amusements if they are not prejudicial to society”.

Mr Cohen’s most pertinent observation, however, is that legislation designed to protect us always appears “reasonable until you remember it gives more powers to police and prosecutors. The record shows they cannot be trusted to use them justly.” Clearly, little has changed since 1763.



[1] Cash, A.H. John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty. Yale University Press (2006), p.31.

[3] Thomas, PDG, John Wilkes: A Friend to Liberty. Clarendon Press, Oxford (1996), p.4.

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