The Joy of Sex

Share this

In the late 1780s the librarian at the Bohemian castle of Dux, fifty miles from Prague, was trying to finish his autobiography. His employer, Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, chamberlain to the Emperor, was an amiable man, but in his absence his jealous major- domo Feldkirchner made the librarian’s life a misery. The servants disregarded his orders, the cook served him cold, inedible meals, dogs were encouraged to bark outside his room at night, and during the day a hunting horn with a peculiarly unpleasant tone was sounded at intervals. Everyone in the castle was encouraged to laugh at the elderly man’s over-meticulous manners and old-fashioned dress. All in all, it was remarkable that Giacomo Casanova succeeded in completing his masterpiece – though despite its enormous length it still ends so abruptly that there might have been a few more pages to come.

The Story of My Life is arguably the most honest and self-revelatory autobiography ever written, and also a colourful and highly entertaining picture of eighteenth-century Europe. The detail is extra- ordinary – so vivid and immediate that one might doubt its accuracy. But apart from the fact that Casanova seems to have had almost perfect recall, throughout his life he left packets of notes containing his immediate impressions and reactions to events and personalities with friends dotted throughout Europe, which he collected for his project at Dux. So when he writes of social life in Venice or Fontainebleau, Vienna, Warsaw or Constantinople, St Petersburg or London, we can count on the detail being true to the life of the time; and when he records conversations with Catherine of Russia or Frederick of Prussia, Voltaire, Goethe, Mozart or Benjamin Franklin, it’s with the help of notes made within a few hours of the event, so their voices can reliably be heard.

Casanova’s autobiography in the great modern English translation by Willard Trask runs to 3,700 pages and 6 volumes, so to

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

In the late 1780s the librarian at the Bohemian castle of Dux, fifty miles from Prague, was trying to finish his autobiography. His employer, Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, chamberlain to the Emperor, was an amiable man, but in his absence his jealous major- domo Feldkirchner made the librarian’s life a misery. The servants disregarded his orders, the cook served him cold, inedible meals, dogs were encouraged to bark outside his room at night, and during the day a hunting horn with a peculiarly unpleasant tone was sounded at intervals. Everyone in the castle was encouraged to laugh at the elderly man’s over-meticulous manners and old-fashioned dress. All in all, it was remarkable that Giacomo Casanova succeeded in completing his masterpiece – though despite its enormous length it still ends so abruptly that there might have been a few more pages to come.

The Story of My Life is arguably the most honest and self-revelatory autobiography ever written, and also a colourful and highly entertaining picture of eighteenth-century Europe. The detail is extra- ordinary – so vivid and immediate that one might doubt its accuracy. But apart from the fact that Casanova seems to have had almost perfect recall, throughout his life he left packets of notes containing his immediate impressions and reactions to events and personalities with friends dotted throughout Europe, which he collected for his project at Dux. So when he writes of social life in Venice or Fontainebleau, Vienna, Warsaw or Constantinople, St Petersburg or London, we can count on the detail being true to the life of the time; and when he records conversations with Catherine of Russia or Frederick of Prussia, Voltaire, Goethe, Mozart or Benjamin Franklin, it’s with the help of notes made within a few hours of the event, so their voices can reliably be heard.

Casanova’s autobiography in the great modern English translation by Willard Trask runs to 3,700 pages and 6 volumes, so to describe it as ‘a book’ might seem a touch disrespectful. It is really a great series of anecdotes, of almost cinematic scenes: adventurous, farcical, romantic, supernatural, erotic, disgraceful. He makes the most of them all.

Born in Venice and completely neglected by his actor parents, he was 9 when his grandmother packed him off to the University of Padua, which he left at 12 with a degree in clerical law. Back in Venice he spent the briefest possible time in a seminary, took minor orders, became an abbé (the least significant order of the Church) and acquired a rich Venetian senator, Matteo Bragadin, as a patron – until he was discovered in less than ecclesiastical discussion with the senator’s mistress. Thrown out of the palazzo, he decided that the world would become his oyster. And so it did.

The escapade which made him famous throughout Europe was his escape from the Leads, the Venetian prison from which no prisoner had ever escaped before. He was thrown into it in 1755, when he was 30, condemned to five years’ imprisonment for blasphemy and ‘affront to decency’ (both accusations, one has to say, amply justified). One night he and an accomplice broke out through the roof of the gaol to sit for a moment astride the ridge, looking down on the moonlit city, then lowered themselves on a rope made from torn sheets to crawl perilously along the broken, rotting gutter, smash through a window into the throne-room of the Doge’s palace and stroll down the grand staircase to freedom. Little wonder that Casanova dined out on the story all over Europe before making a small fortune from a published account.

His honesty as an autobiographer is underlined by the fact that he never hesitates to reveal himself as a lying, bragging, scamming rogue – for instance in his account of an incident at Mantua, where he met a foolish, rich gentleman farmer who boasted of possessing the dagger with which St Peter cut off the ear of the High Priest’s servant at Gethsemane. Casanova assured him he could supply him with the sheath, which would greatly improve the relic’s value. This he made from a piece of old leather, selling it to the farmer for a considerable sum before going on to scam the man further by promising to use occult spells, involving the man’s own daughter, to reveal the where- abouts of buried treasure. (I’ll spare readers the details, except to say that Casanova never hesitated to underline the fact that during occult experiments the presence of a naked virgin was obligatory.)

Avoiding, or perhaps just keeping quiet about, the erotic pages, historians have ransacked Casanova’s autobiography for the details of eighteenth-century life he noted shakily down on odd pieces of paper as he bumped across Europe in frowsty, crowded coaches over dreadful roads. During his relatively short time in London he attended the highly fashionable assemblies given at Carlisle House by the society hostess Mrs Cornelys, formerly Teresa Imer, whom he had known years earlier in Venice (she had thrown her infant child out of bed in order to make room for him). Though society queued around Soho Square to attend these events, inside Carlisle House Casanova noted the ‘promenades of scantily clad young women’ which suggested that the assemblies were less sedate than the social columns suggested. He was received at court, where, though the King (George III) spoke in such a low voice that he could only reply with a polite bow, he flirted delightfully with Queen Charlotte, who was clearly taken with him.

It was in London that he reached the low point of his erotic life, standing on Westminster Bridge with his pocket full of lead balls, contemplating suicide because a courtesan whom he found irresistible had robbed him of his dignity and huge sums of money without ever allowing him into her bed. Sex was certainly the driving force in Casanova’s life, and his success with women at every level of society was such that a single rejection was unbearable. Rescued by a passing Londoner, however, he was taken off to a sort of strip club and decided to live another day.

Casanova’s private life and escapades are so engrossingly entertaining that other aspects of his truly astonishing career tend to be neglected. He was interested in mathematics, philosophy and medicine (his advancement in Venetian society was due to his saving Senator Bragadin from an almost fatal heart attack). His fascination with the theatre led to adventures as an impresario. He ran a successful silk factory and a very profitable French lottery. He was highly paid for advice on the French fleet during the Seven Years’ War. And he wrote successful plays and satirical pamphlets. Indeed, the Great Panjandrum had nothing on him.

An allegedly complete Story of My Life was published with considerable brouhaha in the 1960s (after the appearance of 400 expurgated editions). This, I seem to remember, was a surprise – the survival of the manuscript had been kept very quiet. The twelve bundles of foolscap pages, covered on both sides in Casanova’s unmistakable hand, had originally been carried off to Dresden after his death by Carlo Angiolini, the husband of a niece who had cared for the dying Casanova. His plans to publish the Life were scuppered by the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1821 Carlo’s impoverished family sold the manuscript to Frederic-Arnold Brockhaus, the founder of a distinguished German publishing firm.

Brockhaus published editions in German and French, heavily edited and sometimes falsified; but at least the firm kept the manuscript safe. When in 1943 the Nazis closed the company, it’s said that Brockhaus’s descendant himself carried it off to a Leipzig bank on a bicycle, and that it later reappeared outside his office, thrown on to the back of an American army truck. If so, this was casual treatment for a manuscript which in 2010 was presented to the French National Library by a donor who is said to have bought it from the Brockhaus family for 7.2 million euros. It is claimed that the French language edition published between 2013 and 2015 is the most accurate and complete yet.

The Story of My Life is not in any way a pornographic book – it is an autobiography in which Casanova records his sexual adventures with frank, open delight in the pleasure he both received and gave, in language completely free of obscenity. The result, dare I say, is a great deal more successful than coarser texts in defining what might be called the joy of sex. Abridged versions which attempt to ‘clean the book up’ – including the Penguin Classics edition – are like an omelette made with powdered egg.

Though in terms of today’s attitudes some of Casanova’s amorous exploits are far from acceptable, a modern reader will still find it a difficult book to put down. Casanova is too good a storyteller for that. When he was 15, a proud young abbé, angelically handsome with beautifully curled, scented hair falling to his shoulders, he preached a sermon in a Venetian church. The church was crowded with women; the collection purse contained the equivalent, today, of over £2,000. Now read on.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Derek Parker 2021


About the contributor

Derek Parker’s biography, Casanova, was published in 2002, and his Conversations with Casanova in 2019.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Distraction-free
reading mode