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.
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.