Thursday, November 17, 2005

Book binding for beginners

Warning. This post contains material which some will find distasteful. (And if you're thinking that all posts on this blog do that, then this one more so than most.)

Maud Newton commented on an item in the Literary Saloon which was based on an article in The Record, which describes itself as the independent newspaper at the Harvard Law School. The article in question is a learned disquisition upon the art of binding books -- and other objects -- in human skin. Books so bound are said to be examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy.

You can read the article for yourself, if you wish, but the purpose of this post is to record one notable omission: or at any rate a case of enthusiasm for this rare craft which The Record failed to note.

In the nineteenth century there was a well known distributor of pornography called Frederick Hankey (1828?-1882). Hankey was a profoundly unattractive person, both physically and morally. For example, he once attended a public hanging, with a friend, and took along two girls so that he and his friend could have sexual intercourse while witnessing the event. Hankey was probably inspired in this action by the incident recorded in Casanova's memoirs: Casanova noticed two couples doing the same thing at the execution of Damiens, the would-be assassin of Louis XV of France.

Hankey was resident in Paris, then the centre of the porno business, and he used couriers to import forbidden material into England. Sometimes the books were carried in the diplomatic bag (Hankey had a friend in the Paris embassy), but the best of his couriers, Hankey maintained, was Mr Harris, the manager of Covent Garden; he was adept at transporting books in the bend of his back.

It was Hankey's oft-expressed ambition to own books which were bound with human skin. To Richard Monkton Milnes he spoke of his desire to see a girl hanged and to have the skin of her backside tanned to bind his Justine with. And when the explorer Sir Richard Burton passed through Paris Hankey asked him to try to obtain the skin of a Negress (preferably torn off a live one). Burton promised to try to get him one, but failed. Burton wrote to Richard Monkton Milnes from Dahomey with the sad news: 'I have been here three days and am grievously disappointed. Not a man killed, nor a fellow tortured. The canoe floating in blood is a myth of myths. Poor Hankey must still wait for his peau de femme.'

A fuller description of Hankey can be found in Ronald Pearsall's The Worm in the Bud. Also see Ian Gibson's immaculately researched book The English Vice. And, if memory serves -- it is forty-odd years since I read the book, and I don't have a copy to hand -- Hankey is mentioned in Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony. Hankey can be found too in various biographies of Swinburne, with whom, naturally, he was acquainted. Swinburne called him 'the Sadique collector of European fame. His erotic collection of books is unequalled upon earth -- unequalled, I should imagine, in heaven.'

As indicated by the public-hanging incident, Hankey's sadistic taste was not confined to books. When in London he patronised a flagellant brothel run by Mrs Jenkins, who provided facilities for flogging girls of 13 or so. Hankey also stuck needles into the girls. But not very far, he said, indicating the tip of his finger.

The brothers Goncourt met Hankey in Paris, describing him in their journal (in translation) as 'a madman, a monster, one of those men who live on the edge of the abyss.' Through him, they wrote, they had a glimpse of 'a terrible side to a wealthy blase aristocracy -- the English aristocracy -- who bring ferocious cruelty to love and whose licentiousness can only be aroused by the woman's sufferings.'

Thus Hankey may, for all I know, single-handedly be responsible for the the coining of the French term 'le vice anglais'.

Finally, Hankey appears as a minor character in my novel The Suppression of Vice (written under the pen-name Patrick Read).


Anonymous said...

That doesn't sound at all like Burton, unless he was being ironic, or trying to shock for his own amusement, which he often did, in which case there would be no seriousness in his claim to have attempted to provide Hankey with the requested skin. May I ask what your source is?

Anonymous said...

"Frederick Hankey, whose library of ertoic literature in Paris was even more compressive than Houghton's, told Burton that his copy of Marquis de Sade was bound in human skin, but as it had not been stripped from "a living victim" the outside did not match the contents of the book. Richard laughingly agreed to bring him back the skin of a young girl from Africa. It was not a promise Burton took seriously. See Swinburne's Letters, vol. II: p. 20fn"

A Rage to Live, Mary S. Lovell, 1998, p. 846

Anonymous said...

Brodie's biography of Burton "The Devil Drives" p196 quotes a letter from Burton to Milnes stating that he had failed to obtain a skin for Hankey, however given Burton's character it is likely that he was treating Hankey as a source of amusement rather than being serious.

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