Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Victorian pornography -- Part 1: the background

Some time ago, when discussing John Preston's My Life as a Pornographer, I said that I wasn't actually interested in modern gay porn, in itself, but that, if anyone cared, I was interested in Victorian heterosexual pornography. Whereupon, Konrad West wrote in and said that I would have to write a piece about that, then, wouldn't I? Heh heh heh.

Well yes. Indeed. But Victorian pornography is a rather large subject, so we are going to need several attempts at it, and even then we shall only explore the outer suburbs, so to speak. And to begin with, we had better lay down a few ground rules and definitions.

First, the term Victorian. The adjective is derived from the name of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, and all the rest of it, who reigned from 1837 to 1901. This is an exceptionally long period of time in human terms, and makes her England's longest-serving monarch. So for our purposes the Victorians will be regarded as the English men and women who lived during Victoria's reign.

Next pornography. Well, pick your own definition, from the dictionary if you must. But John Preston, whose book prompted the request for this series of posts, thought of gay pornography as written work which was designed to give gay men an erection; plus, if possible, an irresistible urge to masturbate.

This is not a particularly elegant or tasteful definition, but it's not a bad one. So pornography in general, as opposed to the gay sort, may reasonably be defined, and will be defined for the purposes of this discussion, as written work which is designed to arouse lust. Usually in the male, because there are good reasons for supposing that Victorian porn was read principally by men; but not exclusively so. If it arouses lust in females too, or instead, I don't suppose many men would object.

In any discussion of Victorian pornography we also need to consider the prevailing morality of the Victorian era. And here we come up against a curious paradox. On the one hand it is absolutely undeniable that the Victorians have a well established and long-standing reputation for prudery, and on the other hand we have equally undeniable evidence that, in certain respects, they were markedly uninhibited and in sexual matters often enjoyed a free-for-all which might have shocked a 1960s hippie.

Let us take the established reputation for starters. Type "Victorian prudery" into Google and you get 11,700 hits, which is enough, I think, to make the point. The Concise Oxford Dictionary says that Victorian means 'relating to the attitudes and values associated with this period, especially those of prudishness and high moral tone.'

Historians will doubtless point out that these attitudes were far from new: if anything they were more pronounced during the Puritan ascendancy in the seventeenth century. But for our purposes, all we need to note is that, in Victorian times, there was an almost total ban on any sort of written description of sexual passion or sexual acts. This ban was imposed both by the force of the law and in other ways by those who favoured reticence on these matters.

In particular, this ban on sexual descriptions and references applied to fiction. And it applied to fiction, as indicated above, both because the law enabled descriptions of sexual acts to be prosecuted and punished by long terms of imprisonment, and because those who largely controlled the commercial side of orthodox publishing chose to eliminate almost anything remotely sexual from the marketplace.

First, the law. From 1802 onwards, there existed a Society for the Suppression of Vice, which dedicated itself, among other noble aims, to the elimination of obscene books, prints, et cetera, not to mention snuffboxes, which often had 'indecent and obscene engravings, highly finished', inside the lid and which enjoyed, it seems, 'a large and ready market in Boarding Schools for Young Ladies.' Ah yes, the young ladies. You just can't trust 'em, you see.

In 1856, for example, the Vice Society, as it became known, pounced on the publishers of a magazine called Paul Pry. Mr Robert Martin, publisher, and Mr William Strange, distributor, were both sent to jail for selling an obscene publication: the offending article was a graphic account of the seduction of a servant girl by a Mr Filthy Lucre.

The case was tried before the Lord Chief Justice, and his Lordship expressed himself deeply shocked that the magazine should be sold for one penny. Selling these things at a high cost was, he implied, not nearly such a serious offence; but to sell them cheap...

In 1857, the Society and those who supported it were much heartened by the introduction of the Obscene Publications Act, which was designed to destroy the pornography trade, then centred on Holywell Street.

By 1872, the Society was able to report that within the last two years it had 'been the means of bringing to punishment, by imprisonment, hard labour, and fines, upwards of forty of the most notorious dealers, and within a few years has seized and destroyed the following enormous mass of corrupting matters : 140,213 obscene prints, pictures, and photographs; 21,772 books and pamphlets; five tons of letterpress in sheets, besides large quantities of infidel and blasphemous publications; 17,060 sheets of obscene songs, catalogues, circulars, and handbills ; 5,712 cards, snuff-boxes, and vile articles; 844 engraved copper and steel plates ; 480 lithographic stones ; 146 wood blocks ; 11 printing presses, with type and apparatus; 81 cwt. of type, including the stereotype of several works of the vilest description.'

They were nothing if not keen, those chaps.

Above all, however, the forces of prudery were led by two men who dominated the commercial publication of fiction: a Mr Smith and a Mr Mudie. The two men, described by one historian as 'hymn-bawling Nonconformists', were proprietors of the two most successful commercial lending libraries; and the libraries were huge buyers of fiction.

Publishers soon learnt that it paid to give very close attention to what Mr Smith (yea, verily, founder of the W.H. Smith chain) and Mr Mudie wanted. And what they wanted was, first and foremost, no sex; Mr Mudie was anxious to ensure that nothing available through his library could possible offend a sensitive young woman. Secondly, Smith and Mudie wanted long books, in three instalments, which would require the reader to pay three fees instead of one to find out what happened to their favourite characters.

This double whammy -- draconian law coupled with the power of commerce -- combined to ensure that Victorian men and women were unable (at least legally) to read fiction which in any way touched upon sexual reality. Any allusions to sex, love, marriage, childbirth and the like, had to be so sanitised as to be entirely incomprehensible to anyone who did not already know the facts of life. And it is very largely those bowdlerised novels which give us our picture of Victorian society today.

Hence we think of the Victorians as prudes. In actual fact, they were just as randy as the English folk of any other era; perhaps more so, because of the forbidden nature of much run of the mill entertainment and humour.

The list of works captured and destroyed by the Vice Society demonstrates that pornography was in ample supply. William Dugdale, perhaps the most active publisher, was imprisoned nine times (and eventually died in prison), but when free was indefatigable; he made sure to visit Oxford and Cambridge at least twice a year. His close rival was a Mr Edward Duncombe, who had six convictions. But the profits were so substantial that these men were not deterred.

Every other sort of sexual material and service was also in demand in Victorian London. In 1857, the medical journal The Lancet estimated that the capital could offer over 6,000 brothels and about 80,000 prostitutes: one woman in every sixteen -- of all ages -- was a whore.

So, there we have it. In Victorian times there was, as ever, a strong interest in matters sexual. There was no legal way in which a desire for accurate sexual information, much less entertainment of an erotic nature, could legitimately be obtained. Hence the pornography business went underground. And it is to the written aspects of that trade that we will devote our attention in part two of this occasional series of posts. But don't hold your breath. It won't be tomorrow.

23 comments:

Anne said...

Michael, this is a very interesting post, very informative.

Anonymous said...

Is there a direct correlation between randiness and tools to aid that randiness? Are people lustier when there are fewer books and pictures and so on to satisfy their lust? If, as you say, Victorians were perhaps more randy than English folk of other era because so much entertainment was forbidden, what happens in societies and cultures where sexual expression is more ruthlessly suppressed? I'm talking, of course, about strict Muslim states, which make Victorian Britain seem like modern-day Denmark. Perhaps in these days of the internet there's no need for underground printing operations, but how do people satisfy their urges if they haven't got broadband?

Francis Ellen said...

Anonymous - it's worth remembering that our view of what a 'strict Muslim state' is may be somewhat skewed.

Watching telly, Iran looks like a bunch of guys with beards burning American flags but in Iran they have state-run brothels. (And decent Americans should be the ones burning the stars and stripes anyway.)

In the state brothels the prostitutes and clients are 'temporarily' married. This enables everyone to bypass the 'strict' Muslim rules that force men to sign what we would call a pre-nuptial agreement; wherein men are required to pledge a dowry that is supposed to be paid on divorce (in reality the women often have to forego the dowry in order to kick the guy all the way to the curb — a bit like here when men decide not to pay alimony).

It's really something that we 'modern', 'enlightened' countries should perhaps take on board ourselves. I am of the opinion that proper places where creeps can do their stuff, and where women (and men) can make money safely for providing such services could go a long way to keeping those people away from the innocent.

But let's face it, nothing much has really changed in our culture since Victorian times, has it?

State brothels!!! Never!!!

Andrew said...

A cheer for the Victorians--they had their porn and still tipped their hats to the ladies. Today we have Rap.

pornstudent said...

Nice post. I'll be back to read part two.

kitty said...

Puritans promoted sex within marriage.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Thanks for the insight into Victorian literature. Leaving aside the law a moment your delineation of the material rewards of publishing sexless literature reminds me of the U.S. textbook publishers who denude their pages of anything that would offend the Christian-right dominated school boards of Texas (like Evolution, say, or mention of the gay civil rights movement). The publishers aren't going to produce two different textbooks -- one truthful and one Christian-safe. Even if you live in a non-Christian-obsequious part of the country your public schools are probably buying Texas-approved textbooks.

Susan Hill said...

This thread lets you down, Michael.

Clive Keeble said...

Naughty Michael daring to post such disgusting trivia ; you deserve a good smacking for publishing such an article - (ooh, yes please) ; one would never find such words within the diaries Rev Francis Kilvert.

I just knew that you would give some good ladies a touch of the vapours !!

Susan Hill said...

No, not the vapours. I just find it degrading and unworthy of this blog. Sarcasm, leering and finger-pointing scorn ditto.

JonathanM said...

Blimey Michael, Blog Police alert! You've been caught by the fuzz, so to speak.

Francis Ellen said...

"I just find it degrading and unworthy of this blog. Sarcasm, leering and finger-pointing scorn ditto."

Finding it so is a private thing. Saying so... now that's finger-pointing scorn, no? (Actual sarcasm?)

If this blog was worthy I'd never read it.

Surely Michael isn't responsible for the thread? Perhaps you could weed out the distasteful verbiage for him?

You're a writer. Why not explain why you believe the thread 'lets him down' instead of offering cheek? Otherwise it feels like you've simply slighted everyone who made a comment. And that's not very nice is it? Nobody was actually addressing you personally, were they? I mean, you could have foregone all the bother of actually informing everyone of your disapproval and still disapproved. That way, I wouldn't have felt offended at all.

I feel like I've been caught having a wank.

You see, I read the article and the thread and I cannot see what bits might have offended you so. (Am I allowed to say 'bits'?)

Anyway, I went to your site and I'm intrigued. Do those competitions work? How many people entered (is that a secret?)? I'm thinking of blogging myself and any advice would be welcome.

Mind you, there are those who might say that running competitions to plug your novel is a bit degrading, but I'd do it in a second if I thought anyone could be arsed answering three questions to win my novel. (Not a proper novel I hasten to add; in case Wee Willie Winkler decides to spill the beans.)

On your blog you say that someone sent you an abusive e-mail. That is dreadful. But seriously, when I post a comment and then someone comes in with a scattershot, sniffy remark it feels a bit like the kind of abuse you talk about on your site.

I know you mean what you say but saying what you mean is much more courteous than asides.

Clive Keeble said...

The following webpage written by Patrick John Kearney author of "The Private Case" a bibliography of erotica holdings in the British Library might prove useful for "students" looking for further background data. This webpage would cover all periods of erotica printings

http://www.sonic.net/~patk/SS_Collection.html

As with most full-time booksellers I detest censorship.

Susan Hill said...

I should clarify - I meant that the comment by Clive Keeble was the 'finger pointing scorn..' at me. It was the thread on pornography that I found degrading because pornography is. It degrades the human spirit. I was not meaning to be personally abusive to the GOB. Mr Keeble was being unpleasantly sarcastic to me and it was his comment to which I was replying. Apologies for the confusion. I`m amused that my webmaster`s competition to win one of my books is thought to be demeaning though. I will tell him. I don`t deal with that side of the website. It is only sales and marketing. Not entirely sure why that is demeaning. I`m afraid that is where books are 'product' and sold/marketed/promoted via things like competitions. I don`t disapprove of that- though this could continue to a debate about capitalism, objections to which are many and various. And

Clive Keeble said...

Trying to deal with customer sales as well as posting here can at times be challenging.

The link I passed should have been for Patrick John Kearney's homepage apologies for the previous error: this page is worth bookmarking

http://www.sonic.net/~patk/index.html

Perhaps I move in strange circles but I have often found that ladies read just as much erotica as do men.

francis ellen said...

Susan; than you for graciously clarifying your statement. I entirely agree that pornography is demeaning.

I didn't actually read the article until I saw the post alluding to other cultures' attitudes; 'our' views of which I do find interesting.

Of course, on the competition; I was being a smart arse but I am intensely interested to find out what kind of response you get.

When I was at the London Book Fair last year I could hardly get a second look but as soon as I walked away from my little stall people were trying to half-inch the book all over the place and now I regret not letting them get on with it.

If indeed I do join the blogging throngs I'd love to find a way to park my book(s) in front of eyes. I suppose if I had someone 'in the middle' doing it for me I'd feel fine about it, but the prospect of not being able to give it away is depressing.

Apologies for jumping the gun. I think I've turned myself into that knight from Python's Holy Grail who still wants to fight after he's had all his limbs chopped off.

Konrad West said...

How long are you going to make us wait for part 2?

Lozzie said...

I'd like to say well done! a great insight into how hypocritical the Victorians were!

Also very brave of you to post, I have no problem with the discussion of pornography and personally don't find it demeaning(yes and I am a woman), but I have read some comments that do, well done for sticking to your guns!

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