The gasp divine, th'emphatic, thrilling squeeze,
The throbbing panting breasts and trembling knees,
The tickling motion, the enlivening flow,
The raturous shiver and dissolving, oh!

The Essay on Woman was a parody of Alexander Pope's Essay On Man, written by Thomas Potter around the year 1755 with the assistance of John Wilkes1. Potter, the son of John Potter, a former Archbishop of Canterbury was a compulsive womaniser and drunk, described by some as "Wilkes' evil genius" and others as the man responsible for leading Wilkes astray by introducing him to women of easy virtue and Jewish moneylenders. Whether John Wilkes needed such guidance is debatable, but Potter was certainly a friend of Francis Dashwood and a member of the Monks of Medmenham Abbey and was responsible for introducing Wilkes to that particularly infamous body of men and women. Indeed it seems probable that the Essay on Woman was written to provide some entertainment for the gatherings at Medmenham Abbey.

As a parody of a famous work the Essay on Woman is not a work of great originality since its composition seems to have largely consisted of altering every other line of Pope's work to refer to a something graphically sexual. What Alexander Pope wrote as;

O blindness to the future! kindly given,
That each may fill the circle marked by Heaven:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world

Thomas Potter rewrote as;

O blindness to the future! kindly given,
That each may enjoy what fucks are marked in Heaven:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
The man just mounting, and the virgin's fall,
Pricks, cunt, and ballocks in convulsions hurled,
And now a hymen burst, and now a world

Unfortunately it appears that only fragments of the work survive, although attempts have been since been made to reconstruct Potter's original conception.2


Thomas Potter died in 1759, after which John Wilkes arranged to have the work printed and bound in a small edition of twelve or thirteen copies, which was clearly intended for private circulation only. By this time John Wilkes had fallen out with a number of his former friends and associates (most likely due to their failure to find him a place in government) and had taken to lampooning and attacking them in the pages of The North Briton, a periodical he had established specifically for that purpose. In issue No 45 of The North Briton which appeared on the 23rd April 1763, Wilkes was considered to have libelled king George himself, and the government issued orders for his arrest. Unfortunately for the authorities, when Wilkes was brought before the court it was held that parliamentary privilege prevented Wilkes from being charged at all. The prosecution collapsed and Wilkes sued the authorities for damages relating to his false arrest and prison.

Wilkes's fellow Medmenhamite John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich now held the post of Secretary of State and was keen to silence his former acquaintance. Certain papers relating to the publication of the Essay on Woman had been found when the authorities raided Wilkes's house whilst the proof sheets had been acquired by John Kidgell, chaplain to the Earl of March3 who promptly handed them over to the Earl of Sandwich. Thus Wilkes's involvement with the work now provided the government with the ammunition they needed to strip him of his parliamentary privilege and bring him down.

It was not so much the content of the Essay on Woman that was to prove so damaging, but its presentation, as the title page of Wilke's edition proclaimed that the work included "a commentary by the Rev Dr Warburton". In truth the libidinous commentary was written by Wilkes himself, whilst the real Dr William Warburton, who was actually the Bishop of Gloucester, became apoplectic with rage when he discovered that his name had been linked to a work of obscenity and proclaimed that "the blackest fiend in Hell would not keep company with Wilkes".

This was bad enough, but the same title page also bore an engraving of an erect penis which bore the legend 'Saviour of the World' in Greek, and a Latin inscription which read "From the original most frequently in the crutch of the Most Reverend George Stone, Primate of Ireland, more frequently in the anus of the intrepid hero George Sackville." thereby impugning the characters of two further individuals.4

When the 4th Earl of Sandwich brought the work before Parliament on the 15th of November 1763 the House of Lords had no doubt that the Essay was "a most scandalous, obscene and impious libel" and the only question remained was the name of the person responsible for the outrage. The Lord Sandwich claimed that Wilkes was the author, but the House decided to allow John Wilkes the opportunity to prepare a defence to this charge, and gave him two days. However, the following day Wilkes fought a duel with Samuel Martin,5 was shot in the groin and ended up in hospital. Perhaps in his weakened condition he felt unable to do himself justice and so he fled to France where he remained for the next four years.

During his absence the House of Commons decided to expel Wilkes on the 20th January 1764, thus removing parliamentary privilege and allowing him to be prosecuted. On the 21st February 1764 he was found guilty of a seditious libel in respect of issue no 45 of the North Briton and an obscence and blashempous libel in respect of the Essay on Woman.


NOTES

1 Some sources claim it was written by Thomas Potter alone, some that the work was co-authored by Potter and Wilkes. Given that Thomas Potter was a poet (albeit a mediocre one) it seems likely that he had the greater part in the creation of the work.
2See particularly: An Essay on Woman by John Wilkes and Thomas Potter. A Reconstruction of a Lost Book, with an Historical Essay on the Writing, Printing and Suppressing of This "Blasphemous and Obscene" Work. Edited and with an Introduction by Arthur H. Cash (AMS Studies in the Eighteenth Century, No. 36)
3 Being the individual known to history as William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry who as at the time simply the 3rd Earl of March.
4 George Stone was reputed to have unusual sexual procilivites and George Sackville was considered by some a coward for his conduct at the battle of Detingen. This is what passed for satire in Wilkes's mind.
5 Samuel Martin was the Secretary of the Treasury and had been described by Wilkes as "the most treacherous, base, selfish, mean, abject, low-lived and dirty fellow, that ever wriggled himself into a secretaryship". For some reason Mr Martin objected to this characterisation and demanded satisfaction.


SOURCES

  • Matthew Parris and Kevin Maguire Great Parliamentary Scandals (Robson Books, revised edition 2004)
  • Gerald Suster The Hell-fire Friars: Sex, Politics and Religion (Robson Books, 2000)
  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for WILKES, JOHN

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