Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Victorian pornography -- Part 2: Pisanus Fraxi

Some people are just never satisfied. They ask for something about Victorian pornography, and you give it to them -- see Part 1 of this series -- and then ten minutes later they demand to know where Part 2 is.

Oh, very well...

Let us suppose, just by way of argument, that you read Part 1 of this series and said to yourself, Hmm, wouldn't mind having a look at this Victorian porn stuff. Where can I find some?

You might start, if you were very naive, at your local library. And, if you do, you will soon discover a disagreeable fact: namely that, even in this day and age, many of the English live in abject terror of all forms of human sexuality.

Go down to your local library and ask for a copy of Das Kapital or Mein Kampf, books which resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent people, and you will be greeted with a friendly smile and rapid co-operation. But ask for a copy of The Lustful Turk, or The Romance of Lust, and you will be greeted with a frown, the drumming of fingers on the counter top, and a quick call to the police. ('We seem to have some sort of pervert here, Officer. Claims to be a blogger... No, blogger.')

Aha, you say. That is all very true of the provinces. But we have in England an institution known as the British Library (formerly the printed books section of the British Museum, established in 1753). And all publishers are required by law to give the British Library a copy of every book ever published, so naturally they will have a complete collection of all Victorian pornography, and will be more than willing to provide enlightenment.

Alas, no.

The British Library, you see, is staffed by bookish people. And bookish people tend to be of a timid disposition, not keen on confrontation, rows, attacks, and difficulties of any sort. And the staff of the British Library very soon caught on -- especially in Victorian times -- to the fact that pornography was seriously bad news. Dirty books would attract criticism of the most deadly, terrifying kind. Caught handling that stuff, a chap could lose his job. And pension.

That being the case, the British Library adopted, at a very early stage in its existence, a policy towards pornography. It would pretend that porn did not exist. The Library would accept a pornographic book into its care, if it had no alternative. Because it was a library, after all, a library designed to be complete and whole. But they would pretend that they never had it. Deny all knowledge of it.

The staff would catalogue the book, naturally. Because it is a sin not to catalogue books. But the cataloguing of porn was invariably entrusted to an elderly man who had long since forgotten what an erection felt like. Furthermore, he was so old that his short-term memory was gone too, so that, a mere twenty-four hours after writing up the details of The Lustful Turk, he would forget that he had ever clapped eyes on it.

All pornographic books were so dealt with at the British Library throughout the Victorian period, and for most of the twentieth century. Any book with even the most remote risk of being regarded as sexually explicit was hidden away.

Here are a few examples of the British Library's attitude, drawn from memory. The details may be wrong, but the drift of it what I have to say is sound.

About 30 or 40 years ago, the Times Literary Supplement published an article by a Swinburne scholar complaining bitterly about the difficulties placed in his way when he sought to read some of Swinburne's poetry which was lodged in the Library's care. (It may have been Professor Lang, of Yale.) The papers, which dealt with Swinburne's obsession with flogging, were carefully wrapped in brown paper and sealed, if you please, so that no employee could take a casual peek at them.

Today, if you're so inclined, you can read Swinburne's flagellatory poems in The Whippingham Papers (out of print, but findable).

Some 20 or 30 years ago a writer (Colin MacInnes, I believe) gave an account in one of the weeklies (?New Statesman) of how he and two friends, knowing that the British Library contained some Japanese 'pillow books' deliberately tried to gain access to them, in order to illuminate the Library's attitude to such things. The Library is, after all, there for the public benefit. After enormous effort, these three perfectly respectable gentlemen were allowed, grudgingly, to spend an afternoon perusing the Japanese erotica. It was possible, but by God it was hard work.

Gradually, in the face of public criticism, the British Library modified its view. This change largely came about, I understand, in response to Peter Fryer's 1966 book, Private Case -- Public Scandal. Today, it is believed, the British Library does include its collection of pornographic books in the general catalogue. If you search the current catalogue for The Lustful Turk, you will find the 1893 edition listed, together with several later ones. And ditto for The Romance of Lust. But it was not always so.

(A convenient way to search the BL catalogue, by the way, is to go to COPAC, where you can search several major UK university libraries as well.)

Even today, however, there are those who have dark suspicions that not all is revealed. For some insight into the problems, go to Patrick J Kearney's valuable Paste and Scissors site and read his essay on The SS (Suppressed Safe) Collection of the British Library. It is, however, a rather depressing read.

So -- the dogged and earnest researcher, who desires nothing more than to get the taste and flavour of Victorian pornography, will receive only limited help from officialdom. Where, then, does he turn?

Answer, he turns to Pisanus Fraxi.

Happily for those of us of an inquisitive turn of mind, there was in the nineteenth century a scholarly fellow who made it his business to track down, and write about, a copy of every dubious book that he ever heard or read about. Naturally, given an interest of this sort, he was unable to reveal his name to the public, and therefore he was obliged to use a pseudonym. His real name was Henry Spencer Ashbee, and when he wrote about sexual matters he sometimes used the cognomens Fraxinus (Latin for ash) and Apis (bee). Ash-bee, get it? As far as his gigantic bibliography of erotic books was concerned, he combined the two names into Pisanus Fraxi.

Ashbee was a passionate book collector, and one must not fall into the trap of assuming that he was some sort of sex maniac. He had, for instance, what was perhaps the world's most extensive collection of Cervantes. But he also acquired several thousand volumes of pornography in several languages.

When he died, in 1900, Ashbee left his entire collection to the British Museum (forerunner in this respect of the British Library), with the proviso that the mucky stuff had to be accepted along with the other material. In view of what has gone before, you will not be surprised to hear that the Trustees of the Museum managed to find a loophole in the will which enabled them to destroy some of the erotica. 'I think I never saw a will,' said one fellow bibliographer, ' that seemed to me to do everything it ought not to such an extent as this one.'

During his lifetime, Ashbee published three bibliographies of erotic works (see the Wikipedia entry for details): each of these was given a Latin title to hide the nature of the contents from the uneducated. Ashbee is also suspected, by the way, of being the author of an alleged Victorian pornographic classic: My Secret Life, by 'Walter'. The latter book was originally published in eleven volumes -- Walter, it seems, was a very active fellow who screwed anything that moved.

Should you wish to acquire your own copy of Fraxi's bibliographic masterwork, you can do so relatively easily. In the UK, Sphere published Index of Forbidden Books in 1969; though out of print, it can be found cheaply. But a much better buy, I think, is Forbidden Books of the Victorians, from Odyssey Press, 1970. Both books are out of print but can be found easily enough.

The latter book has a helpful (and, as you would expect, immaculately researched) introduction by Peter Fryer. He says that it has been prepared 'mainly for the non-specialist reader who wants to know something -- as all educated persons should -- about the forbidden books of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.' Precisely, in other words, what readers of this present article are after.

Fryer reproduces Ashbee's own introductions to each of his three bibliographies, and astonishing stuff they are too. The object, says Ashbee, is to describe each book 'in such a way that the student or collector may be able to form a pretty just estimate of their value or purport.' In other words, try before you buy -- at least to some extent.

And by the way, although it has nothing whatever to do with pornography, I cannot forbear to mention one man described by Ashbee, the Rev. William Davy. In 1786, Davy began writing A System of Divinity, in 26 volumes. He could not find a publisher, so he printed it himself, setting the type, and running off each page, one copy at a time; he also bound the books by hand. It took him twelve years to produce fourteen copies of his 26 volumes, 'an amount of toil without remuneration which staggers belief.' Davy hoped to the last for a favourable verdict from prosperity, 'though even the existence of his magnum opus -- magnum in size only -- is probably not known to ten men in Great Britain.' You see? Writers were just as nuts then as they are now.

But I digress. What, exactly, does Pisanus Fraxi offer?

Well, he offers a detailed description, and I do mean detailed, of every book he could find. He makes every attempt to be 'terse' as he calls it, but he usually gives us several hundred words, too long for any descriptions to be quoted in full here. The Mysteries of Verbena House, for instance -- a book which we shall return to in Part 3 of this occasional series -- receives the best part of four closely printed pages, probably 2,000 words or so.

Now. Once you have a copy of Ashbee's masterwork in your overheated little hand, you are in a position to go further. You may notice, for example, that Ashbee refers to a periodical called The Pearl. This monthly journal claimed -- as part of the fun, of course -- to have been printed by the University of Oxford Press. (In Victorian times, printers did not usually put their name and address on pornographic material for fear of a visit from Inspector Knacker of the Yard.) You might might decide that you would like to read a copy.

You could, if you have unlimited means, go to abebooks or some similar antiquarian site and try to find a copy of The Pearl. But there is no need to go to so much trouble. A few clicks on Google will show you that the magazine is available in ebook form from Renaissance E books. And at $4.99, or less, it is not going to break the bank.

A word of caution, however. The Renaissance web site is being rebuilt, after a transfer from ebookad.com, which went bust. As a result, many of the Renaissance publications are not yet listed on the new site. And, for those that are, many of the useful facilities, such as the ability to read an extensive extract, are not yet available. However, in due course they will be. And to give you a taster of their full range, see the description of erotic classics.

If you prefer a printed book to reading on screen, you can find various compilations from The Pearl. Carroll and Graf issued one in the US, for example. And in 1980 Hodder & Stoughton, in the UK, issued three volumes from the same source. Be warned, however: I read an article in The Bookseller a few years ago, in which a well known erotica writer (?Somebody Levy) explained that, the firm finding itself a bit short for three full volumes, he had stepped in and written some fake stuff to pad it out.

Perhaps we should close this modest survey of the work of that great English scholar and gentleman, Henry Spencer Ashbee, aka Pisanus Fraxi, by quoting, as he does, from the text of The Mysteries of Verbena House. That curious novel was written by one who called himself Etonensis -- which I take to mean a former pupil at Eton.

Etonensis had something to say about ladies' underwear. In modern times, the absence of knickers is often taken for a sign of depravity, but for Etonensis the reverse was true.

The greatest enemy to a woman's chastity is contact.... Nuns don't wear drawers.... Peasant women, who are chaste enough as times go, don't wear drawers.... But the bigger the whore -- professional or otherwise -- the nicer the drawers she wears.... I positively knew a woman once who not only repudiated drawers herself, but would not allow her daughters to wear them. 'They were immodest,' she said. And so they are.
As I think I said only yesterday, times change.

13 comments:

Bill Peschel said...

Grumps:

Both "The Pearl" and "My Secret Life" were published in paperback in the U.S., so finding a copy shouldn't be too difficult.

Paul Perry said...

I have read "My Secret Life" (in the modern two volume edition, under the watchful eye of a university librarian!) and I believe it is a genuine autobiography. It's certainly internally consistent, and where its observations are contrary to the accepted beliefs of Victorian times, they are in accord with modern research. But... I can't believe Ashbee was Walter. The personalities simply don't match at all.
I wish the textual analysts who waste their lives on the question of the authors of St Paul's letters would solve this one, once and for all.

JOSHUA S BLACK said...

This is my position on pornography of any kind:

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

My friends, would you sell your right eye for $1 million? How about both of your eyes for $100 million? Then why on earth would you trade your soul for a fleeting glance at a woman? Please, turn from your sins today that God may grant you everlasting life through Jesus Christ His Son. Then read your Bible daily and obey what you read. God never fails to keep His promises.

Stranger said...

Joshua:

You are perfectly enititled to any belief you choose but please refrain from attempting to force your morality onto the rest of the world. Worry about your own sins and let the rest of us worry about ours. As Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." He was telling us to not tell others how to behave but to be responsible for order in our own lives and no one elses and to stop trying to run other peoples lives for them.

Most of the problems in the world are caused by people like you who are more interested in telling everyone else what to do and trying to run other's lives in a way that's acceptable to their point of view, irregardless of how the other people feel about it, instead of figuring out how they should be running their own life. Probably so that they don't have to take responsibility for themselves and their own imperfections, I don't know.

If you want to preach, find your own pulpit somewhere else and stop pointing fingers, unless you are going to start pointing them at yourself first.

Of course, your type hides behind the faceless internet and never takes responsibility for what they say by standing up and saying this is me, like a real man would.

I am a grown man in my early 50s who has been running my own life for better or worse for over 35 years now and the second you try to take control to run it in a way that suits you then we are going to have serious problems. I fought for my country in 2 conflicts, being wounded 4 times, and now no one has the right to tell me how my life should be run that I haven't at least had the chance to vote into office. I put my life on the line and bled to insure that worms like you are still entitled to your opinion, no matter how much of a waste of our time they are. After you thank me, and pray for the souls of my friends who came home in body bags, then you can fold up your position, shut up and leave, please.

Find a place that cares about what you have to say filled with people who might let you force them to live the way that would make you happy and preach all you want to them and have fun running their lives for them like the little demigod you seem to want to be.

Stranger said...

Joshua:

You are perfectly enititled to any belief you choose but please refrain from attempting to force your morality onto the rest of the world. Worry about your own sins and let the rest of us worry about ours. As Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." He was telling us to not tell others how to behave but to be responsible for order in our own lives and no one elses and to stop trying to run other peoples lives for them.

Most of the problems in the world are caused by people like you who are more interested in telling everyone else what to do and trying to run other's lives in a way that's acceptable to their point of view, irregardless of how the other people feel about it, instead of figuring out how they should be running their own life. Probably so that they don't have to take responsibility for themselves and their own imperfections, I don't know.

If you want to preach, find your own pulpit somewhere else and stop pointing fingers, unless you are going to start pointing them at yourself first.

Of course, your type hides behind the faceless internet and never takes responsibility for what they say by standing up and saying this is me, like a real man would.

I am a grown man in my early 50s who has been running my own life for better or worse for over 35 years now and the second you try to take control to run it in a way that suits you then we are going to have serious problems. I fought for my country in 2 conflicts, being wounded 4 times, and now no one has the right to tell me how my life should be run that I haven't at least had the chance to vote into office. I put my life on the line and bled to insure that worms like you are still entitled to your opinion, no matter how much of a waste of our time they are. After you thank me, and pray for the souls of my friends who came home in body bags, then you can fold up your position, shut up and leave, please.

Find a place that cares about what you have to say filled with people who might let you force them to live the way that would make you happy and preach all you want to them and have fun running their lives for them like the little demigod you seem to want to be.

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SkipChurch said...

I am delighted to find someone else has been on the lookout for "The Mysteries of Verbena House". I have had no more success with Verbena than with "Lady Bumtickler's Revels", "Madame Birchini's Dance", "The Romance of Chastisement", or even the noble G.A. Sala's 1858 "Twice Around the Clock" (which I expected to be easier to find). As to the exact location of Verbena House, perhaps "The Swell's Night Guide" would offer a clue. I don't know how long this useful "peep through the Great Metropolis" continued in existence, but it surely was around in 1846.

Maggs said...

Pearls a gift of love which she will adore and pass down the generations. Give her pearls for Christmas!

Tom said...

Thanks for the Peter Fryer recommendation! I've been interested in Ashbee for yonks but had no idea that another popular edition of his bibliographies besides the Sphere one existed. A copy has just turned up at my desk (nice and cheap from Amazon) and, even from a cursory glance through it, I can see why you rate this as the superior edition.

I've just re-read the Gibson biography of Ashbee and was disappointed that I didn't have much more to read about him, so you've made my week. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Stranger.

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Anonymous said...

I love "The Pearl" and all Victorian erotica. "The Pearl" is the best and its descriptions of father-daughter incest is very horny and sexy.

Karen xxx