What’s the dirtiest book you’ve ever read? Writers’ research can lead to awkward places. “Oh yes?” says my wife, glimpsing a passage of Walter’s My Secret Life on my screen. “You’re ‘researching’ again, are you?”
Private Case, Public Scandal by Peter Fryer was the peculiar tome that pointed me to the explosion in the Victorian erotic book trade and the penumbrous underworld of the mysterious Walter.
When we write about the past, we pack moral conundrums into tidy boxes. We pat ourselves on the back for our progressive thinking: here are things we no longer condemn; here are outrages we wouldn’t countenance today. For example, we don’t confiscate erotic literature; we do lock up sexual predators. Yet morality shifts with time. The morality of sex and writing about sex is especially mutable. The more I’ve researched Victorian erotica and prostitution, the more uncertain I’ve become.
I began with only a cursory knowledge of Victorian erotica (periodical The Pearl) and prostitution (from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor). One of my characters is an erotobibliomaniac. I began listing erotic classics through the ages. Peter Fryer’s Private Case, Public Scandal discusses the long tradition of erotica. De Duobus Amantibus (About Two Lovers) was a bestseller, to the discomfort of author Aeneas Piccolomini when he became Pope Pius II. In 1524 I Modi (The Sixteen Pleasures) paved the way for illustrated sex guides. Other hits include Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery, Erotopolis, and Fanny Hill.
My era, the swinging 1860s, was particularly fruitful. Two proofs of this erotic explosion? Legislation and collectability.
The Obscene Publications Act 1857 suggests moral panic. Lord Chief Justice Campbell called pornography “a poison more deadly than prussic acid” (an analogy used to condemn subsequent books, such as 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness). Even at the time, the bill was contentious. Beside the crazes of sensation fiction and new-fangled detective fiction, erotica offered illicit titillation.
Was this law enforced? Erotic publishers William Dugdale and John Camden Hotten had books seized, premises closed. I had fun writing a scene where my detective visits the infamous Holywell Street (pictured above, promptly demolished). Sergeant Lawless threatens arrest to elicit information about their sources.
Was erotica really seized and its purveyors imprisoned? Well, Hotten began presenting new books such as Lady Bumtickler’s Revels as reprints, thus less inflammatory. (My editor and I argued over genuine publication dates for Rosa Fielding, Victim of Lust.) Mingling commercialism with salacity, Hotten’s business thrived (becoming Chatto & Windus.) Dugdale died in the Clerkenwell House of Correction, deprived of books.
Collecting. Collectors began publishing clandestine lists of erotica, notably the Index Librorum Prohibitorum by Pisanus Fraxi (pseudonym for Herbert Ashbee, the Latin for “ash-bee” – “fraxinus-apis” – erogenously rearranged).
Simultaneously the British Museum Library established its Private Case, following the example of the Naples Museum’s Camera Secreta, to house erotic works. Peter Fryer suggests that the Library accepted these 15,229 works in order to secure Ashbee’s first editions of Don Quixote: a fascinating deal. A later head librarian said, “We are keepers of books, not morals.”
Fryer’s Private Case, Public Scandal (1966) is partly detective work to unearth the clandestine works excluded from the Library catalogue. It is partly protest: requesting such books, he was interviewed to ascertain whether he was a suitable applicant. Today’s BL website declares: “Special conditions have been removed; a few individual items are restricted owing to value or fragility.” Rumour has it that there are still items only viewable in private rooms, watched by a librarian.
I dipped into many such novels. From Phoebe Kissagen to The Adventures of an Irish Smock by Terence O’Tooleywag, I found recurring tropes, familiar from Mayhew’s insightful interviews: country girl seduced by city toff; ruination upon vain promise of marriage; prostitution; or transformation into a lady.
Mayhew laments these immoral daydreams:
The ruin of many girls is commenced by reading the low trashy wishy-washy cheap publications…about the sensualities of the upper classes…in the habit of imbibing for maidens of low degree “whose face is their fortune”.
Though at times lamenting their prose style, I was impressed by their creative perversity and sense of fun. Who can forget, in Rosa Fielding, the Fukkumite islanders and their crotchless underclothing?
But it is magnum opus My Secret Life that scales heights of perversity and depths of degradation. This is the book guaranteed to embarrass anyone reading it over your shoulder on the train. It’s hard to read without judgement. Even Judith Flanders, Victorian scholar extraordinaire, is apologetic about Walter’s epic. By turns racy, turgid, obsessive and perverse, it is one of the dirtiest books you’ll read, yet an extraordinary source of Victorian life and language.
The mysterious ‘Walter’ was a gentleman obsessed by sex. His identity is still debated (Ashbee the most convincing candidate). Today we would call him a sex addict. He documents his manifold encounters over the mid Victorian decades. His memoir was privately published in eleven volumes from the 1890s.
My Secret Life differs from erotic fiction in its attention to detail, its unromanticised presentation of everything from chamber pots to brothel negotiations to sex. It mingles the sensual and the sordid, romantic trysts and coercion that is reprehensible, if not criminal. Walter’s repeated forcing of cooks, cousins, ladies and prostitutes makes for uncomfortable reading.
Yet he recounts rebuffs as often as conquests. He tells of teenage years peeping up skirts; of jealousy seeing prostitutes with other men; of disgusting hours in French toilets; of longing for cocottes and countesses; and of love.
De Sade may shock, but he intends to; Apollinaire and Henry Miller are irrepressible; Batailles delights in degradation. Yet Walter’s degradations are full of pathos, the ecstasies touching. My Secret Life feels too detailed to be fiction. Whether all true, all fantasy, or somewhere in between, we will never know.
His unflinching honesty fascinates, outstripping those well-known debauchers Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Walter paves the way for socio-sexual memoirs from Anais Nin to today’s confessionals, Belle de Jour, Paid For and Diary of a Call Girl. Biographers delve into Dickens’ infidelity, as well as his novels, to evaluate Victorian mores. Walter’s anecdotes place Little Emily’s ruination in a wider context; they make Collins’ eccentric matrimonials seem commonplace, and Lady Audley’s secret less shameful.
These are hints of a grimy underworld all “flash gents” knew but few wrote of. When Mr Hyde is seized for “trampling” a girl, Stevenson’s knowing readers knew he meant attempted rape. Trafficking caused another panic. Mayhew lamented the “disgraceful, horrible and revolting importation of girls into England”. Journalist WT Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette wrote about buying a thirteen-year-old girl, an exposé recognisable years later to Pygmalion’s audience. Walter’s portraits include such girls, prostituted by friends, sisters and mothers.
Yet he also tells of Yellow-Haired Kitty, insisting she was no prostitute but sold herself for “pies and sausage-rolls”; Camille, the quiet French prostitute who enjoyed telling him of lesbianism and sodomy; and every class of encounter from penurious alleyway gropes to persuasively lecherous travelling ladies. Walter considers any woman fair game. Now, in Collins’ Armadale, I can read into the hero’s wooing of Miss Milroy the same shadow of ruination that Walter senses seeing a woman drop her handkerchief in the street.
I’ve tried to imbue my Victorian streets with this sense of moral relativity: the sliding scale between the lady seeking marriage and the street woman seeking trade.
When your research shocks, you’re researching the right areas. In Lawless and the Flowers of Sin, I’ve explored the creation of the Private Case and My Secret Life, and the relationship between erotica and prostitution. Our preconceptions of the Victorians are wrong: they are not prudish, but as dirty-minded as any era.
The moral issues confound me more than ever. I’d love to consign Walter’s behaviour to the past. I’d love to believe pornography has no link to disrespect and coercion. But I wonder. I wonder if today’s socio-sexual scandals have the same basis as Walter’s behaviour: sexual inequality; financial inequality; male impunity; collusion in laying blame on women.
I distrust censorship. The BL’s Private Case seems laughable today. But the panic behind it was real – as real as our fears about internet safety. Walter defended his amatory memoir as rekindling his own pleasure while offering inspiration to sensual adventurers. But those adventurers enjoyed the impunity of a time when prostitutes were dispensable, the poor inconsequential, and wives their husbands’ chattels.
The Georgians feared gothic novels’ immoral influence, the Victorians sensation fiction and erotica. Reading is today elevated to a moral good. Instead, we ask if computer game violence leads to killing sprees. We blame outrages like the Stanford rape on imbecilic internet pornography. Moral panics shift.
Yet I wonder if we’re right to worry. Today’s sexual mores can still surprise, even shock. Thought censorship cannot resolve anything, internet sites and computer games reflect how we are, just as the values of literature reflect society. And, however we congratulate ourselves, our society remains not so different from Walter’s.
- Holywell Street
- Frontispiece for Lady Bumtickler’s Revels
- Walter’s My Secret Life
- Shop at the sign of the Half Moon on Holywell Street.