What does Ballykissangel have in common with the dirtiest book of the Victorian era? This coincidence I stumbled upon while researching the counterculture of London’s swinging ’60s – that is, the 1860s.
What happens offstage, behind the action, in the Victorian novels we know so well? I sought specifics: where did Dorian Gray go that so withered his spirit? Why did Dr Jekyll need his alter ego? What were the guilty secrets of Steerforth (and indeed of Dickens himself)? Wouldn’t Fagin’s sidelines have interested Operation Yewtree?
Interviews with London street folk in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor give only a meandering overview of criminality, prostitution and the subculture. But they are journalistic: they have a stagy feel, as if the lowlifes are acting up in the hope of a good tip.
Then I remembered My Secret Life:
‘Boldness is one of the most essential qualities in getting women. Not much harm can result from it, if not good. A man can but be refused, and women don’t tell of sexual requests to them.’
I’d stumbled on Walter’s My Secret Life through Peter Cryer’s Private Case, Public Scandal (an exploration of the British Library’s secret catalogue). I picked up one dog-eared paperback volume long ago in a Hay-on-Wye bookshop, but I’d never read the whole 1000-page epic. This erotic memoir of a Victorian gentleman, the pseudonymous Walter, is the longest book of its kind. My internet searches quickly uncovered the complete text.
In frankness and detail, it has less in common with contemporary pornography than with Pepys’ diaries or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s obsessive memoir My Struggle. Indeed, James Wood’s observation in the New Yorker might equally apply to Walter: “There is something ceaselessly compelling about Knausgaard’s book; even when I was bored, I was interested.”
The variety of encounters offers a kaleidoscopic insight into Victorian society. The explicit language is unparalleled. (The word ‘frig’ appears 1,299 times and the c-word 5,357 times.) The number of sexual experiences is mind-boggling. It would seem beyond credibility, but for the unrelenting integrity with which Walter tells his tale – whether it reflects upon him well or badly.
The Longest Audiobook Ever
More fascinating still was the discovery of mysecretlife.org. BEWARE: visit at your peril, and certainly not while at work.
Dominic Crawford Collins’ epic project promises to be the longest audiobook ever recorded. A leading film and TV composer, he counts among his hours of broadcast television Ballykissangel and BBC Natural World. Not the obvious background for a pornographic endeavour.
“I was seeking an epic project as a vehicle for my music,” says Dominic. Thinking back to the copies passed around in his youth, he remembered My Secret Life as an emancipation. Rather than a dirty book, it was a clarion call to sexual exploration and liberation.
“As a composer, the ability for music to interpret aspects of Walter’s character and bring emotions to the fore was what attracted me to the project; that along with a long-term love of the book and the erotic exploits of this marvellously idiosyncratic character.”
My Secret Life is gargantuan. It was privately printed in 1888, in eleven volumes, limited to six copies sold privately for high sums. (Allegedly Aleister Crowley acquired a complete set, and Harold Lloyd.) Over one million words long, its 184 chapters remained banned for nearly a century until the Grove Press selections of the 1960s. It was finally published unexpurgated in the UK in 1995; a Bradford printer who published it privately in 1969 received a two-year sentence.
The book is an astonishing resource for Victorianists, from historians and sociologists to novelists. It remains strangely unappreciated by academics. Peter Fryer discusses it in detail; Fern Riddell quotes it in A Guide to Victorian Sex. Yet Judith Flanders sounds embarrassed to have researched it for The Victorian City, as if sullied by its relentless encounters. It makes pornography of the age seem sensationalist, evasive or plain silly. It makes Mayhew seem prissy (he claims any woman who sleeps with a man outside marriage can be termed a prostitute). It illuminates the corners where novelists avert their gaze, from fashions in underwear and contraception to practicalities of station toilets. Just how much ankle may a lady show, before she is no longer a lady?
Dominic’s mission is ambitious: to record the unabridged work over the next decade as a fully scored audiobook, releasing chapters at bi-monthly intervals.
“My enduring passion for this extraordinary work reflects a burning personal ambition to create something of lasting value and by enhancing the dramatic narrative with my music, to have created a legacy that will entertain and engage an audience for years to come.” It’s working: Dominic’s ongoing recordings are archived by the British Library and by The Kinsey Institute.
Awestruck by the audacity of this venture, I’ve invited him to appear in my Portsmouth Bookfest panel, Guide to Victorian Sex. Alongside him, I’ll quiz top academics of the history of sexuality, Dr Kate Lister (Leeds Trinity University, thewhoresofyore.com) and Dr Fern Riddell (advisor on Ripper Street).
The book is extraordinarily affecting.
“I was surprised at how many of my listeners are women,” says Dominic. “I was amused to learn how some of them were getting themselves off to the sound of my voice, wonderfully described by one as like the scent of an aftershave or cologne on a woman.”
We readers – or listeners – are drawn to reflect on our own amatory careers. To relive our initiations. To recall highs and lows; delirium and failures. Today we might call Walter a sex addict. He is voracious and persuasive. At times, he finds his own actions reprehensible; he could certainly be investigated under today’s laws. Yet he is repeatedly tender to women of all classes. He is curious about his own sexuality. It’s not appropriate to quote swathes of his prose here, bursting with elaborate propositioning and intimate sexual detail. You may look for yourself: you’ll find him unjudgemental of human foibles, imperfections and preferences. Just as the #MeToo phenomenon has provoked invaluable debate, My Secret Life invites us revisit our own history: to interrogate our own desires, judgements and repressions; to ask ourselves whether we have ever coerced, or been coerced.
“I was fascinated to learn,” Dominic reports, “how one woman felt able to talk about the subject of her own abuse after listening to Walter’s description of being abused by his nursemaid as a young boy, and the role that the music had played in creating an atmosphere that put her at sufficient ease to do so.”
The book makes us re-examine our own sexuality. Walter sensed this, as he agonised over where to burn the manuscript or publish:
‘Has anybody but myself faithfully made such a record? It would be a sin to burn all this, whatever society may say; it is but a narrative of human life, perhaps the every day life of thousands, if the confession could be had.’
And the identity of ‘Walter’? Many have guessed he was erotobibliomaniac Henry Spencer Ashbee, creator of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Dominic thinks this unlikely; he believes it was William Haywood, surveyor, engineer and collaborator on Bazalgette’s London sewerage system. But the unending fascination of what he wrote is greater than the puzzle of who he was.
I’m looking forward to our panel during Portsmouth Bookfest. We will doubtless discuss slang (inspired by Whores of Yore’s notorious word of the day) from rag-splodgers to “sneezing in the cabbage”; flirtation with fans and parasols; #MeToo and #EverydaySexism; appliances from Edward VII’s love chair to the VeeDee Vibrator; though we shall doubtless leave the last word to ‘Walter’ himself:
Not one virtuous woman in a hundred would tell anyone but a confidential female friend if a man said to her, “Oh! I’m dying to f– you,” and she’d feel in her heart complimented by his desires—though she wouldn’t tell that.
William Sutton is involved with further anti-Valentine’s events in Portsmouth Bookfest: Premature Articulation and Valentine’s Day Massacre. Lawless and the Flowers of Sin is published by Titan Books.
See also: Merkins and masochists: a brief history of sex by Jemahl Evans