Warren Chernaik. Sexual Freedom In Restoration Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. xii+268 pp. ISBN 0 521 464 978 Cloth.
Andrew P. Williams
North Carolina Central University

Williams, Andrew P. "Review of Sexual Freedom In Restoration Literature." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.2 (September, 1997): 5.1-6 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/03-2/rev_wil1.html>.

  1. Any frank discussion of Restoration-era sexuality must adequately address the issue of the libertine ethos as a troubling political and cultural posture that privileged gender inequity and stratification all in the name of pleasure. In his Sexual Freedom In Restoration Literature, Warren Chernaik deftly explores the code of the libertine where the pursuit of pleasure and complete sexual freedom regularly manifests itself amidst a literary framework that projects the nature of true libertinism as elusive and often contradictory. Focusing on the works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester and Aphra Behn, Chernaik identifies the libertine ethos as one struggling against competing desires for order and the need to rebel. The vacillation between order and rebellion provides a core, discursive framework for Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature as Chernaik demonstrates the libertine's inability to resolve this conflict within "a single predictable pattern" (2).

  2. Chernaik begins by positing libertinism within an historical context firmly rooted in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. For the libertine, Hobbesian doctrine became a "way of interpreting human conduct" (24). However, this interpretive strategy led to the appropriation of Hobbes as libertines such as Rochester routinely modified or ignored Hobbesian thought to suit their purposes. As a result, the literary expression of libertinism during the Restoration often revealed a lack of unifying philosophical principles, and instead, redirected the center of the libertine pursuit of total freedom into a narrowly defined absorption of the individual self.

  3. Central to Chernaik's analysis of the libertine ethos is the presence of a fundamental paradox in its advocacy of certain incompatible principles. Namely, the libertine's aggressive pursuit of total freedom, especially in regards to the instinctual attainment of bodily pleasures, can never be obtained, due in part to the restlessness of the human condition which makes impossible the perfect compatibility of human desire and the fruition of that desire (32). Restoration literature, as Chernaik points out, identifies the locus of this unobtainable desire primarily within a Hobbesian psychology of the marketplace. Eschewing the Epicurean tranquillity of mind,"Hobbes' emphasis on the perpetual conflict between desire and fruition serves to commodify sexual freedom and fulfillment within a market suffering from "permanent conditions of scarcity" (34). As a result, the libertine ethos expressed in such works as Etherege's The Man of Mode and Congreve's The Way of the World reveals a world in which the "desire for possession is infinite, but the rewards limited" (35).

  4. The primary value of Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature to the student and scholar of the Restoration is Chernaik's discussion of numerous examples of Restoration Literature, especially the works of Rochester and Behn, which clearly demonstrate the frustration and ennui implicit within the libertine ethos. The libertine's pursuit of true sexual freedom routinely manifests itself in an uncomfortably sterile and nonpleasurable preoccupation with the physical self where "lust becomes indistinguishable from rage" (71). Chernaik's analysis, especially in regards to Rochester, presents the libertine male as trapped within an ethos of impenetrable contradictions, specifically, the libertine's simultaneous assertion and denial of complete human freedom (81).

  5. Whereas Rochester's works such as "I Rise at Eleven" and "A Ramble in St. James's Park" posit the contradictory nature of the libertine ethos within the scope of the physical self and its contesting desire for and loathing of a wholly amoral and nonproductive sexuality, the expression of the libertine ethos in female writers of the Restoration, especially Aphra Behn, remains intently affixed to larger issues of competitive political and domestic manipulation. Though insisting that an equal degree of sexual desire exists between the sexes, Behn's work routinely critiques the inherent inequality of the libertine ethos where the sexual freedom of the man is usually purchased by the sexual enslavement of the female. Behn's poetry often calls into question certain core assumptions of the libertine ethos, especially the traditional boundaries of gender" which "privilege one sex over another" (183). In poems such as "An Ode to Love" and "To Lysander at the Musick-Meeting," Behn retains the libertine spirit of sexual freedom but inverts the traditional objectification of the female body, and instead, offers an erotic yet "androgynous ideal of beauty" which asserts the ability and right of the female poet "to revivify tradition" (174). Behn's response to the challenge of the male libertine to female sexual freedom was not confined to the construction of a desirable, yet nondescript sexual ideal; Behn's dramatic works consistently questioned the commodification of female sexuality, especially in the confines of marriage, where sexual consummation becomes a "means of asserting ownership" (190). Behn's female heroines routinely become active agents for their own sexual freedom, as in The Widow Ranter where "the breeches role" not only disguises the title character, but is also reflective of her libertine "inward nature" (195). Chernaik ably demonstrates Behn's strategic response to the libertine ethos as a condemnation, not of libertinism itself, but of the social double standard which subjugates female sexual liberty. By making the "pursuit of sexual pleasure by women" a central issue in her work, Behn embraces the libertine's desire for complete sexual freedom, but she does so without condoning the aggressive and often violent expression of sexual power and control which often accompanied the libertine ethos (202).

  6. Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature is an informative and succinct examination of the contesting ideologies of the libertine ethos and its place in Restoration Literature. Chernaik not only defines the historical and philosophical antecedents of Restoration libertinism, he situates it within a social context which considers the private, psychological and public, political ramifications of this ethos. Sexual Freedom in Restoration Literature is a well researched and engaging text which exposes the ultimate contradiction of the libertine ethos; the advocacy of complete sexual freedom is advocacy of an illusion. Unfortunately, as Chernaik points out, the pursuit of an illusion can result in exploitation, corruption, and violence.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

© 1997-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(PB, LH, RGS, 15 September 1997)