The image above is from a newly digitized book containing two 18th century editions of Essay on Woman, by John Wilkes and Thomas Potter. Click on the image to view the entire book.
Essay on Woman is an explicitly sexual parody of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man. It was written by Wilkes and Potter in the mid-18th century, and circulated among their friends as a manuscript for many years. It was initially written as a joke, but in 1763, it became the center of a debate about the freedom of the press in England.
In the 1760s, Wilkes was writing and publishing a political serial called North Briton, which frequently mocked Lord Bute, a Minister favored by King George. North Briton no. 45 contained a particularly scathing attack on a speech written by Bute and given by King George, and for this, Wilkes was arrested and charged with seditious libel. However, he was at the time a member of Parliament, and the court determined that his arrest violated his Parliamentary privilege. Wilkes was a strong believer in the importance of the freedom of the press, and in his anger at the charges against North Briton, he chose to print 12 copies of Essay on Woman. This act gave his political enemies enough ammunition to charge him with obscenity, for which he was tried and convicted. He was expelled from Parliament, and fled to Paris to avoid incarceration.
During this time, Wilkes’ popularity among the British public grew. North Briton had been a popular periodical, and the obscenity charges were obviously created to prevent Wilkes from publishing more political material. He returned to England in 1768, and was jailed in the King’s Bench Prison. This led to demonstrations and riots on the streets of London, which culminated in several deaths in a clash with British soldiers. Wilkes was released from prison in 1770, and was re-elected to Parliament in 1774. He spent the rest of his political career campaigning for the freedom of the press and other individual liberties.
The book pictured above is probably not one of the 12 original copies of Wilkes’ 1763 edition of Essay on Woman. Arthur Cash, Wilkes’ biographer and author of the book An essay on woman by John Wilkes and Thomas Potter; a reconstruction of a lost book… asserts that there are no extant copies of the original, and that this copy is a facsimile created by those who prosecuted Wilkes. There is only one other known copy of this “government edition,” which is housed at La Bibliothèque nationale de France. The most interesting element of the copy pictured above is the extensive marginal annotation, made by a contemporary of Wilkes who was obviously amused by the book. It is bound with a 1774 edition which was heavily edited for more delicate sensibilities.