Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Victorian pornography -- Part 3: George Augustus Sala

Parts 1 and 2 of my occasional series on Victorian pornography -- 28 June 2006 and 11 July 2006 respectively -- caused a certain amount of dismay. Well, if you joined Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells in condemning those learned if unseemly essays, then you can safely avoid this one, and remain beautifully uncontaminated. The rest of you might, perhaps, be interested; if only to discover what a wicked and sinful lot those outwardly respectable Victorians actually were. Couldn't happen these days, of course.

In particular, I want to pose for you a question. It is one, I admit, which will interest only the most dedicated researcher into the darker corners of Victorian literature, and answering it will undoubtedly involve many hours of labour in dark, dusty rooms in long-undisturbed libraries. But if you ever come across the answer, do let me know.

At the end of yesterday's post about William Powell Frith, I said that he had some unusual friends, and, indeed, he painted formal portraits of some of them, and included others in his larger paintings. Take a look for instance at Frith's 1881 work, Private View at the Royal Academy. You can zoom in, a little, on the image provided by the Mercer Art Gallery.

The sixth figure from the right, in a silvery waistcoat, is a man named George Augustus Sala. Immediately to the left, in front of Sala, is a woman in a black coat and red skirt, accompanied by a small boy. The man in the top hat, immediately behind the boy, is Oscar Wilde. Almost everybody else in the picture is a famous name, including Mrs Langtry (mistress to the Prince of Wales), the actress Ellen Terry, and others. Frith himself lurks at the back, only his head visible.

And who, you may reasonably ask, was George Augustus Sala?

Well, he was a minor figure in the late nineteenth century, but he crops up in various histories of the period, usually in slightly dodgy circumstances. Born in 1828, he died in 1896. And he sticks in my memory as the author (strictly co-author) of a book called The Mysteries of Verbena House; of which, more in a moment.

Vernon Lee described Sala as 'a red, bloated, bottle-nosed creature', and that is exactly what he looks like in Frith's picture: a determined toper if ever I saw one. (Vernon Lee, by the way, was the pen-name of Violet Paget, a woman given to passionate attachments to other women, but who seems never quite to have understood that she was a lesbian.) More kindly, the historian Ronald Pearsall has described Sala as 'one of the greatest journalists of the age'.

In part 2 of this series, I discussed the work of the indefatigable bibliographer of pornography, Pisanus Fraxi. And it is from Fraxi that we learn of the existence of the 1882 publication called The Mysteries of Verbena House. The subtitle is 'Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving', which, if you know anything about Victorian porn, speaks for itself.

The book was published privately, in a print run of 150 copies. The price was four guineas, a sum which you can probably multiply by 100 to get today's equivalent price (perhaps US$600). This, of course, placed it far beyond the reach of the vulgar crowd.

The Mysteries of Verbena House is a rare book indeed. I have never seen a copy advertised, though I did once have the offer of a French translation of it. You will not find the book listed in the catalogue of the British Library, which is not surprising, given its nature. But the BL does tell us that one G.A.S. (tentatively identified as Sala) was the author of a posthumous 1905 publication featuring the Good Fairy Fairfuck. And the G.A.S. in question is also identified as the creator of the Verbena House story.

Fraxi himself does not tell us the real name of the author of The Mysteries of Verbena House, who is listed in the book itself only as 'Etonensis' -- a term which means an Old Etonian, i.e. someone educated at Eton College. But he does tells us that the book had two authors.

The first part of the book describes a fashionable Brighton seminary for young ladies, and tells how Miss Bellasis is detected as a thief. Her punishment, of course, is to be stripped naked, tied down, and whipped with the traditional birch -- because what we have here is a classic Victorian flagellation novel.

Fraxi tells us that, 'after wading through so many dull, insipid, if not absolutely repulsive books', it is a relief to come across one that is well written. At least for the first 96 pages. The original author was, however, 'unable to complete the tale, in spite of his prodigious industry and astonishing facility for work', and so it was brought to a conclusion by another gentleman. This second man was in fact James Campbell Reddie, with whom Fraxi worked closely.

Fraxi gives considerable detail about the author of the first part of The Mysteries of Verbena House, and the identification of Sala as that man comes to me from Peter Fryer, whose edited edition of Fraxi is the one I normally refer to. Whether Fryer took the British Library catalogue as his authority I know not.

Why didn't Sala finish the book himself? I don't know that either, but I suspect he may have got bored with it. After all, he had lots of other distractions. He was fascinated, for example, by the fashions adopted by young female horse-riders in Hyde Park, and took to posing as one such in composing letters to the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. In that journal he described the amazing sensations which are afforded by the wearing of tight corsets, and riding trousers in chamois leather. He was a versatile chap, there is no doubt about it.

But what, you may be wondering, is this question which I mentioned earlier, and which I am so keen to have answered?

Ah. Now the facts are these.

Sala was certainly known to perhaps the most famous poet of the late nineteenth century, Algernon Swinburne, and Swinburne is said to have admired him greatly. And Swinburne was yet another Victorian who, as a result of his experience at Eton, was totally obsessed by flagellation. Though in his case his interest was masochist rather than sadistic; his sole sexual interest was in being the slave of a beautiful, violent woman.

We know for certain that, in the late 1860s, Swinburne was a regular visitor to a flagellant brothel in St John's Wood. Here he was able to act out his fantasies. According to Edmund Gosse, writing in 1919, ten years after Swinburne's death, the brothel was staffed by 'two golden-haired and rouge-cheeked ladies'; there was also an older woman, who welcomed the guests and took the money.

During the course of a discussion about whether to include such sordid details in an official biography, Gosse wrote to various interested parties and asked them what should be included and what left out. And it is in the course of this correspondence that the poet A.E. Housman is said to have 'let slip' that the name of the brothel was Verbena Lodge. The correspondence between Gosse and the others is stored in the British Museum, and one scholar says that few people have been privileged to see it.

Now we come to the point. It is one which troubles me, as I lay awake, late at night, and ponder the wickedness of the world.

Where did Housman get his information? He is, so far as I am aware, the only source of the claim that the late 1860s brothel was called Verbena Lodge. Did Housman, writing in 1919, have a memory of it himself? Or was he, as I strongly suspect, simply making an analogy with Sala's flagellant novel, and misremembering House as Lodge?

Come to that, why did Sala choose to give his seminary for girls the Verbena name? Was he, in 1882 or thereabouts, remembering what Swinburne had told him fifteen years earlier?

A careful reading of the Gosse papers in the British Museum papers might resolve these matters. Or one could, perhaps, go to old maps and Post Office directories for enlightenment. We certainly know the brothel's address, though when I went to look at it I found that the nineteenth-century house was long gone, and had been replaced with some very undistinguished building of a later date.

In any case, as I say, much poking around in dark corners is necessary, and it is a matter best left to those who have an academic career to build. But, if you ever find the true explanation for the mystery of Verbena House/Lodge, do let me know.

And by the way -- before we leave this subject -- you may care to know that Miss Bellasis, for all her sins, is not entirely forgotten. Indeed she is risen from the dead. And she has created a new career for herself, as a purveyor of nipple tassels. And she still lives at Verbena House, although it has been transported to Brighton. She even features on MySpace, where she has friends called Titmore and Asspley.

No, dear friends, I am not making this up. Would I ever?


Anonymous said...

I would never accuse His Grumpiness of making such things up--though it can't be denied he's taken some delightful liberties with fact in the past. I do fear, however, you might go quite mad trying to figure all this out and become "The Deranged Old Bookman."

Dave Fragments said...

oh, creepiness abounds. It's like the question "Does insanity run in your family" being answered by "no, it veritably gallops."
A "classic Victorian flagellation novel" kinda reminds me of Valley of the Dolls updated into Desperate Housewives and Girls Gone Wild. eeeeeuuuuuw!

savannah said...

incredible! literary mysteries or as it's said you can't make up stuff like this now, if only someone would pitch this as a reality tv are, sugar, one of the most delightful and facsinating reads on my blogroll!

Thersites said...

It's as well to remember that Housman had a malevolent sense of humour and a low opinion of Gosse's scholarship.

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Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable post - thanks! If you are interested in The Mysteries of Verbena House, it is available as an e-book from Birchgrove Press:

Anonymous said...

Just how Sala became a flagellant in the first place is an interesting discussion.

Unlike Swinburne, Sala had not attended Eton where, in the early 19th century, the brutal and disgusting method of corporal punishment in use was enough to corrupt and ruin the awakening sexuality of many yound boys whilst in the throws of puberty and adolescence. Flogging with the grotesquely large and heavy Eton birch was applied to the naked buttocks of the victim whilst kneeling and bent over the 'Flogging Block', denuded of his breeches and underwear. Each flogging consisted of several dozen strokes, after which the whole of the victim's buttocks and upper thighs, including the anoperineal sphere, would be a mass of utterly raw, bloodied and lacerated flesh. Most boys who had gone through this system ended up either as flagellants (as did Swinburne), or otherwise completely de-sensitized, hardened and habituated to both witnessing and receiving this vile method of corporal punishment.

Sala was in fact birched as a young child between the ages of 5 and 10 on at least 5 or more occassions . He wrote in his memoirs "every one of those chastisements burnt into my soul as though I had been torn with red hot pincers or seared with a branding iron". It seems that those experiences, although occurring at a pre-pubescent age, had strangely corrupted his sexuality for life.