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Hogarth’s Harlot: Sacred Parody in Enlightenment England
Ronald Paulson
Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
$49.95, 418 pages, 0-8018-7391-6.

Min Wild
University of Exeter

This is a massive book: massive in scope, weighty in content, and fairly hefty to hold in the hand as well. Ronald Paulson is a highly distinguished scholar, whose art-historical work on Hogarth has been inspirational to many, and whose careful and fruitful work on eighteenth-century satire is also highly valued by literary scholars. When a man of Paulson’s academic stature publishes a new volume, eighteenth-century scholars tend to cluster round to see what he has conjured up—and this time he has produced something of an amiable monster.

Hogarth’s Harlot, to begin with, is interdisciplinary from preface to index. In the book Paulson—who claims to be primarily a “literary historian” [p. xx]—is concerned with art (paintings, engravings, drawings and sculpture) and literature (poetry), in the wider context of the history of ideas. Most specifically, though, these ideas are Christian ones: this book will be casting some of its seeds on stony ground if theologians do not take up the challenges it presents, and grant Hogarth’s Harlot its rightful place as an important intervention in the history of Christian practice in the Enlightenment era. Almost anyone who has an interest in the above-mentioned forms of art, in the British enlightenment (yes, there was one), in British eighteenth-century culture and politics, or in the history of the Christian church should find something to stimulate, to enliven—and to outrage—in Hogarth’s Harlot.

Paulson’s basic thesis is simple enough: he claims that Hogarth’s sequence of paintings entitled The Harlot’s Progress has a specifically Christian message to impart—one of atonement. “Moll Hackabout,” whose arrival in London, descent into prostitution and eventual death from venereal disease is narrated in the series, is intended by Hogarth to be taken as a type for Jesus Christ, Paulson claims. Via a complex discussion of the history and provenance of the theological ideas of atonement, sacrifice, redemption and incarnation, Paulson traces the shift in orthodox Christianity, which, he says, was away from the harshness of atonement and sacrifice, towards redemption and gentler mediation or negotiation in the quest for God’s mercy. Involved in this shift were moves towards increasing secularisation, and towards the understanding of aesthetics as a gesture towards the sacred.

Literary scholars of the eighteenth century are used to the idea that much political writing of the period—for instance, the great anti-Walpole periodical The Craftsman—works on two levels. So indeed does much celebrated satire, and those literary modes which require to be read with double vision infest eighteenth-century texts: parody, irony and, most particularly, allegory. Thus, most will be perfectly happy to accept that visual art can carry dual meanings in much the same way. Graphic allegory, too, is hardly a foreign concept to art historians, and Paulson has made yet another important contribution to eighteenth-century studies in his explanation of A Harlot’s Progress as a picture with a double meaning. The version everyone is familiar with is that this is visual satire, a comment on the immorality, cruelty and corruption of modern life in the capital, a companion to the Rakes Progress and Marriage A-la-mode. So it is, of course, but Paulson says it was executed with ideas close to graphic blasphemy in mind.

Here’s how Paulson’s explanation works. The Reverend Thomas Woolston, between 1727 and 1729, published six Discourses on the Miracles of our Saviour. He was not a traditionally reverent reverend, for in these shocking tracts, Paulson tells us “he burlesqued the story of Jesus from Nativity to Resurrection.” Woolston explained that the stories of the miracles “imply Improbabilities and Incredulities, and the grossest Absurdities, very dishonourable to the name of Christ" [pp. 49-50]: they were not intended as truth, but as allegories. Woolston was found guilty of blasphemous libel and imprisoned in 1729—he died four years after this, still in prison. In 1730 Hogarth was working on the Harlot’s Progress, which was first published as engravings in 1732. In the first version of Plate 2 he included a portrait of Woolston (which he later removed, as too explicit), and Paulson’s case is that Hogarth was broadly sympathetic to Woolston’s "deistic" approach, and that the Progress should be read as a rough visual equivalent—the figure of Christ is transformed into Moll Hackabout, an erring victim of the secular and religious Law, who atones by her death for the lust, greed and cruelty of the “great Men” of contemporary London. The laws on blasphemous libel only concerned written or spoken, not graphic, material, and so Hogarth, says Paulson—adducing a great deal of his usual customary meticulous and perceptive evidence—succeeded in producing a kind of justification of Woolston which was not liable to prosecution.

This argument is persuasive, although one might be a little unhappy about the word parody: Paulson does not explain why this very specific literary mode is favoured in his title over the more accurate “allegory.” There is more evidence to support his case, which he does not mention, in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s 1784-1796 Commentaries on Hogarth’s Engravings (London, 1966). This genial friend of Hogarth and shrewd commentator shied away from being explicit—although he hints at an obscure and, to him, discreditable mystery—about the portraits in Plate 2, saying that “a more courageous interpreter could and would say more.” Paulson is that “more courageous interpreter,” and his exposition of A Harlot’s Progress is fascinating, illuminating and enormously important to Hogarth studies, and to historians of both art and theology.

There is much more to Hogarth’s Harlot, however, than this remarkable exegesis of the series. It is in the “much more” that eighteenth-century scholars may find less convincing analogies, links and assertions being made. Working with an astonishing range of art and literature, from the sculpture of Roubiliac to the poetry of Stephen Duck, from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell to Pope’s Dunciad, Paulson links text after text to Christian ideas of redemption and incarnation, always moving back to Hogarth as the scarlet thread in the rope of correspondences.

Paulson seems so very convinced about everything: yet some will balk at some of the consequences of his arguments about the poet as “maker and redeemer”—the poetic voice of The Rape of the Lock as “a Jacobite version of the poet created by Milton in Paradise Lost,” for example [p. 85]. Others might find it hard to see how the Dunciad can be understood as a poem of redemption [p. 189], or question his simultaneous dismissal and co-option of Smart’s “journeyman work”—the wrongly named Mrs Midnight’s Journal [pp. 315, 303]—into his Hogarthian reading of the Jubilate Agno.

One might, I think, be justifiably wary of certain stretched analogies and links that don’t bear much rigorous examination. Is the “process” wherein “types”—a link here to La Bruyère and Theophrastus—are redeemed by the visionary poet from officially encrusted orthodoxy really “ostensibly much the same with Chaucer in medieval England, Hogarth in the 1730s, Fielding in the 1740s, Smart in the 1750s and Blake in the 1790s” [p. 348]? Sometimes, in other words, the theory requires some Procustean hacking about to fit what arguably are very dissimilar and historically diverse cases.

Ultimately however, Hogarth’s Harlot is an incomparably rich and suggestive book, which can afford to use material worthy of whole volumes—for instance, Paulson’s brief comparison of the sensibility of Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty and Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry [p. 281]. It should be required reading for all those scholars of the eighteenth century—from whatever discipline of the humanities—who are interested in ideas and the widening of horizons.

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