In this day and age I suspect most of us are numb to the concept of pornographic or highly erotic written material. Some may clutch their pearls and reach for the smelling salts, but I’d wager that is 99% theatrics! For good or ill, such material is so commonplace that we tend to presume it has been around for centuries. Fingers are pointed to the Kama Sutra as an ancient example, however this is inaccurate. The Indian Sanskrit text dating to before the turn of the century was written as a guide to the art of living well, the nature of love, finding a life partner, maintaining one’s love life, and other aspects pertaining to pleasure-oriented faculties of human life. Its chapters discuss methods for courtship, training in the arts to be socially engaging, finding a partner, flirting, maintaining power in a married life, the philosophy and theory of love, what triggers desire, what sustains it, and how and when it is good or bad. To sum up, the purely sexual portions of the Kama Sutra are minor and not meant to titillate or give cheap thrills.
Therefore, leaving aside erroneous examples such as the Kama Sutra, or even the Biblical Song of Solomon, books published with straightforward sexual, lewd, raunchy content are a relatively new phenomenon. This brings me to the book that shocked poor Samuel Pepys.
In the spring of 1655, Parisian printer Louis Piot agreed to compose and publish 300 copies of a book titled L’Escole des Filles (The School for Girls). The manuscript was edited by Jean L’Ange and Michel Millot, although both denied being the author. To this day, the truth of who wrote the naughty book is unknown.
I’ll give a synopsis of the book in a bit, but rest assured it was of such a scandalous nature that L’Ange (who was a squire to King Louis XIV) was arrested. Millot, also employed by the king as auditor of taxes, managed to flee and was never found. All of his properties were seized, including every copy of the book, which were destroyed. In fact, a concerted attempt was made to destroy ALL copies. Today, no copies of that 300 first edition printing have survived, however there were volumes which evaded confiscation efforts at the time. An English translation was secretly published in 1680 under the title The School of Venus, or the Ladies Delight. Over the following decades there were numerous republications in French particularly, but also in Dutch and Belgium. Not until the 20th century was the novel legally published in France or elsewhere. It has since earned a place in French literature history as the first known erotic novel.
While indisputably a bawdy read even by today’s standards, the novel would barely raise the eyebrows of some and likely be viewed as hilarious more than shocking. Nevertheless, changes in perspective over erotic literature were unfathomable to readers in the mid-17th century. . . at least as far as would be admitted publicly! As noted above, copies did survive, a few treasured and enjoyed within the French Court, in fact.
The roughly 150-page novel recounts the sexual initiation of the young female character Franchon. Robinet, the son of a merchant, is in love with Fanchon, but cannot approach her because of her naivety. He then convinces Susanne, his older cousin, to explain to Fanchon his feelings and also arouse his desire. From there the plot is fairly predictable. I personally have no desire to read the text, but by all accounts it is astoundingly explicit, leaving literally nothing to the imagination.
Diarist Samuel Pepys came across one of the rare non-confiscated French copies at a London bookseller in 1668, believing based on the innocent-sounding title that it would be an edifying read for his French-speaking wife. As he is famous for, Pepys chronicled his interactions in his diary—
January 13, 1668: ….stopped at Martin’s, my bookseller, where I saw the French book which I did think to have had for my wife to translate, called L’escholle des Filles, but when I came to look into it, it is the most bawdy, lewd book that ever I saw, rather worse than Puttana Errante [an infamous 16th. c. Italian erotic book] – so that I was ashamed of reading in it.
Now, one would think if Pepys was so scandalized by the bits he rapidly perused, that would be the end of it. Oh, contraire!
February 8, 1668: Thence away to the Strand to my bookseller’s, and there stayed an hour and bought that idle, roguish book, L’escholle des Filles, which I have bought in plain binding (avoiding the buying of it better bound) because I resolve, as soon as I have read it, to burn it, that it may not stand in the list of my books, nor among them, to disgrace them if it should be found.
Ah! So Pepys buys the book in order to burn it and save anyone else from possessing such a disgraceful book . . . How noble! . . . but only after reading it first. LOL!
February 9, 1668: Lord’s Day. Up, and at my chamber all the morning and in the office, doing business and also reading a little of L’escholle des Filles, which is a mighty lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself in the villainy of the world… [later that afternoon] I to my chamber, where I did read through L’escholle de Filles a lewd book, but what doth me no wrong to read for information sake but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to decharge; and after I had done it I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame; and so at night to supper and then to bed.
I suppose Pepys’ “read for information sake” is the equivalent of modern-day “reading Playboy for the articles”! As for Pepys admission of how the book effected him physically, I trust this requires no elaboration. Ha-ha!