Thursday, 23 April 2009

Aristotle's Masterpiece

Londoners, by Maurice Gorham, published in 1951, with beautiful illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, is a charming, if sketchy, portrait of the life of the city as it was in what now seems a historically remote past, so many changes have there been. Reading the chapter on 'Buying Books' ('Shopping for books is known to differ from any other kind of shopping. For one thing, it brings out the shopper in men...' That's still true) is to realise how much less of a presence the book trade is in today's London. Back in 1951, the trade encompassed 'every gradation from the rare books at Sotheby's to the tattered fragments on the twopenny stalls, from the smooth volumes of Wigmore Street to the wild miscellany of the railway bookstalls [railway bookstalls!], from the dubious goods of Praed Street to the eclectic erudition of Foyle's [!]'. Bumpus's, purveyor of gilded and tooled volumes to the gentry, still stood on Oxford Street, and the giant, genteel Times Book Club on Wigmore Street. At the other end of the trade, Gorham notes the recent arrival of 'American sex shockers' with titles such as 'Blondes Die Dumb'. 'Their lurid jackets,' he writes, 'have brightened those dubious bookshops in Praed Streeet whose stock used to consist of a dingy selection of Balzac [!], books on flagellation, the complete works of Aristotle (what a fate for the Stagyrite!) and Marie Stopes.' Yes, the 'complete works of Aristotle' - but nothing to do with the Stagyrite. The work in question, which came in various shapes and forms, often under the name of Aristotle's 'Masterpiece', was a remarkably long-lived clandestine publication that served as a manual (often lurid and wildly misleading) of sex instruction, childbirth and midwifery. There's a short account of it here, with references to the 'Masterpiece' made by rather more distinguished authors. Inevitably, it gets a mention in Ulysses - is there anything that doesn't, somewhere in that most compendious, all-encompassing fiction? I picked up a copy of 'Aristotle's Complete Masterpiece' myself years ago, but it must have disappeared in one of my library clear-outs - a pity; it's a fascinating specimen of the kind of unofficial literature that throws unaccustomed light on the past. The past beyond even Gorham's distant, long-lost London.


  1. I've never been much of a fan of all those victorian smut books. The quality of the writing in them is absolutely abysmal. In fact the word 'erotica' fills me with gloom - as in the case of those books, and a lot of 'erotic' art, the tits and arse seem to be used to direct the eyes away from what's lacking elsewhere..

    but I did like your evocation of London's seedier days, I think it's a shame that the whole place has become so homogenised now

  2. Ha! You must have read a lot of them to reach that judgment Will - hope yr eyesight hasn't suffered...
    Frank Harris's My Life and Loves is a rather wonderful read - if for all the wrong reasons. Walter's My Secret Life is utterly unreadable. Aristotle's Masterpiece is just weird, more 'instructive' than erotic, and its origins seem to lurk somewhere in the 17th century. Shows how little was available if it counted as a dirty book...

  3. It is very interesting to come across this. I was looking for the Times Book Club because I got an old book, Maugham's _Cakes and Ale_, with the label at the back. It must have been a library book there once. Thanks for the post.