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.