In the introduction to my copy of My Secret Life—here I mean the book subtitled An Erotic Diary of Victorian London, not A Friendship With God—editor James Kincaid ventures that Henry Spencer Ashbee “knew more about printed erotica than any man who ever lived.” What is certain is that Ashbee (1834-1900), a wealthy City merchant and family man, albeit in the expected mold of the aloof Victorian paterfamilias, led a double life as a uniquely assiduous bibliographer of smut. As far as anyone can tell, his devotion to this pastime was kept from his family (though some scholars imagine that its discovery precipitated his separation from his wife after 30 years of marriage), but shared with a clutch of similarly preoccupied hobbyists that included the first Baron Houghton, Richard Monckton Milnes; and Sir Richard Burton—here I mean the Orientalist who enlivened the spicier sections of The Book of Lists, not the actor with the pear-shaped diamond in The Guinness Book of World Records.
Anagrammarians will recognize the name “Pisanus Fraxi” as containing the Latin for “ash” (the tree, that is) and “bee,” and a slash through the middle of “Pisanus” is all that is required to bring its naughty English connotations to light. Under that pseudonym appeared, between 1877 and 1885, the holy trinity of Victorian dirty bibliography, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“Index of Books Worthy of Being Prohibited”), the Centuria Librorum Absconditorum (“A Hundred Books Worthy of Being Hidden Away”), and the Catena Librorum Tacendorum (“String of Books Worthy of Being Silenced”), each of which is filled with multipage annotations describing the publication and contents of such delicacies as The Mysteries of Verbena House; or, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving and Reasons Humbly Offer’d for a Law to enact the Castration of Popish Ecclesiastics. Though once it was disputed, there is little disagreement now that Fraxi is Ashbee, an identification reaffirmed by Ian Gibson, biographer of Dali and Garcia Lorca, in his recently published The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee. Gibson further attempts to make the strongest case yet that, as has long been suspected but never proved, Ashbee is the anonymous author of My Secret Life.
The first two-thirds of Gibson’s book attempt to reconstruct Ashbee’s life story, their primary source material consisting largely of his sporadically produced but voluminous diary, which has gone unpublished because large sections of it make for what the biographer himself admits is “pretty dreary reading.” There are comic interludes, to be sure, as when the petulant Ashbee, ever the Ugly Imperialist on his many tours abroad, threatens to thump any ruffian who dares act in accordance with outlandish local custom. And, for his part, Gibson sketches brief likenesses of Ashbee’s circle, the most vivid being that of Frederick Hankey, whose sexual fantasies wouldn’t be out of place on Ed Gein’s kitchen counter yet who, to Burton’s scorn, “could not be persuaded to try the sensation of f…g a Muscovy duck while its head was cut off.” But much of the biography is joylessly prosaic, reading as though Gibson were working from a day-planner and an expense log rather than a journal. Not for nothing is our latter-day correspondent reduced to limning a picture of the litterateur as bookkeeper, and not for nothing did Ashbee find fortune as a businessman. He was blessed with a bean counter’s soul, as manifested by notes later plundered for Travels in Tunisia:
At 2 we passed a small kooba to the left, and in another quarter of an hour after passing over some entirely ruined Roman remains found ourselves on a desolate plain. At 2.30 we crossed a dry ouied and found Roman remains to left. At 3.30 we passed over barren rocky hills covered with stones, a wild and desolate country, a ruined Roman post on top of a hill to left and a few gourbies in the valley. It was now 4 o’clock.
Ashbee’s sexual travelogue is little better. In fact, it’s all but nonexistent, confining itself to half-scandalized, half-admiring appraisals of performances by flamenco dancers, belly dancers, and the like. He may have found erotic adventure at home (unlikely, given his strained marriage) or abroad (more probable, considering the license of the traveler), but he never committed any of it to his diary. True, a biographer has to play the hand he’s dealt, but the reader shouldn’t be reduced to scanning a book called The Erotomaniac in vain for the good parts.
My Secret Life presents no such problem; virtually every page—at least in the heavily edited but still stout Signet Classic edition—bursts with the magical incantations of its protagonist, “Walter”: “cock,” “cunt,” “fuck.” In its original form as a lavish, small-run vanity publication, 11 volumes, each in the neighborhood of 380 pages, brimmed with descriptions of assignations with whores and shopgirls, governesses and chambermaids—not to mention accounts of forays in our former public schooler’s quest for birch.
Because the last third of The Erotomaniac is devoted to providing textual evidence establishing Ashbee as the likely author of My Secret Life, Gibson resorts to pairing its more idiosyncratic organizing structures and turns of phrase with like from the diary and the bibliographies. However impuissant “Walter”‘s narrative powers, they are completely unmanned by Gibson’s insistence that we examine long lists of similar sentences for the author’s syntactical crutches. Germanic construction may not be foremost in your mind when you read, “We both washed – then at her cunt I looked more tranquilly…,” but you hop to when Gibson starts cracking the whip.
In addition to carefully documenting the enthusiasm for le vice anglais of both “Walter” and Pisanus Fraxi, Gibson expends great energy averring that My Secret Life is not a work of autobiographical nonfiction, efforts that would be superfluous did not so many filthy-Victorianists believe the opposite. How anyone could fail to see through the charmingly persistent and ham-handed protestations of factuality that start the book—a stock novelistic device, as Gibson notes—is beyond reckoning.
Gibson has in common with his poignantly wishful colleagues, though, an inability to fully appreciate My Secret Life as informed but fantastical fantasy. He seems intent on using what is patently pornographic hyperbole in My Secret Life as evidence that “Walter” has little experience with actual sexual activity. He rails against both the ubiquity of female ejaculation among “Walter”‘s partners and the regularity with which “Walter”‘s formidable manhood makes cervical contact. It isn’t really clear why Gibson so vigorously and categorically denies a phenomenon that sexual advisers from Tristan Taormino to Dr. Drew confirm is experienced by some women. As for the reality of hitting bottom, let’s face it: Some pairings make it possible and some don’t. Besides, it’s a time-honored pornographic conceit; check out all the “kidney prodders” and “bowel disrupters” in Tijuana Bibles. It can’t all be guesswork—even slavering cartoonists and buttoned-up Victorians got laid now and then.
Gibson most preposterously insists that “My Secret Life is not an essay in pornography,” at all. “It is an attempt to argue the case for uninhibited sex in a society in which ‘this act of mighty power and eternal endowments’ is termed ‘foul, bestial, abominable!’ and ‘may not be mentioned or talked about.’” But surely there are more efficient, more public, less controversial, and—let’s face it—less distracting means by which to broadcast among one’s contemporaries the desirability of private “freedom.” Despite virulent outbursts against social hypocrisy and religious authority, the bishop subjected to the most abuse was likely “Walter”‘s own. Any way you slice it, 4,200 pages of smut makes for a healthy amount of palm Mary.
Ultimately, Gibson’s attempt at nailing down credit for the book falls short of persuasion. He himself writes, “The case for Ashbee’s authorship of My Secret Life is entirely circumstantial, it must be admitted: there is no trace of the manuscript of the book, and no confirmatory written documentation of any kind has come to light.” Gibson has scoured Ashbee’s library—the bulk of which ended up in the British Museum via what Kincaid calls “a brilliant piece of satiric blackmail” effected by Ashbee’s will—for his marginalia, but what of the scribblings of his cronies? I don’t know much about the state of Victorian-erotica-attribution studies, but I’d guess there’s much work to be done if nobody has turned up in the books and private papers of men of Ashbee’s acquaintance or inclination some indication as to the authorship of My Secret Life.
Not that Gibson’s penchant for conjecture doesn’t rub off on the reader, nor that the biographer hasn’t foreseen this development. He cannily, coyly fulfills his obligations to those who have assisted him only after the main body of his text. What are we—newly roused to suspicion of literary taxonomists of outwardly unruffled mien—to make of the following acknowledgment of the solicitousness of Ashbee’s granddaughter, Felicity? “I remember with deep pleasure our animated conversations and, among other sorties, an adventure-packed outing to the Ashbee homeland in Kent.” Or this, apropos of one of her relations? “Ken accompanied Felicity Ashbee and me down to Kent and will, I am confident, remember with amusement a little mishap that befell us.” Or this, concerning the late erotica historian Gershon Legman, whose surname must have seemed a token of destiny itself? “Meeting him at his unconventional Valbonne home in 1977 was an occasion that neither I nor my family are likely ever to forget.” Or this? “I am grateful to Alan Crawford, biographer of Charles Ashbee, Henry Spencer’s son, for his helpful response to my periodical cries for assistance.” Or finally this? “At the British Museum, Nicolas Barker, David Clements and, much more recently, John Goldfinch were extremely obliging.” CP