In my previous post, I discussed how I came to be interested in the study of Victorian pornography. In this post, I’d like to talk a little more about the topic itself. We’ll start from the beginning, then, shall we?
Right, so, this dour face is what many usually think of when thinking about the Victorian period. Rightfully so, since things from the period of her reign (1837 – 1901) has been named after her. She is not simply a monarch, but an era. (As an aside, I fully anticipate the period from December 1980 until my death at an unspecified date to be retrospectively called the Justinian). All sorts of things are happening in that face right there: it is the face of the most successful empire on Earth as well as the most prudish and repressed population that ever lived. In fact, it is a mystery to this day how more Victorians were even created since nobody in the period had sex ever. They were so proper and repressed that it is uncertain whether they even knew they had bits that fit into other bits.
This, of course, is a bold-faced lie. This lie is what Michel Foucault termed the “repressive hypothesis” in The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Foucault was interested in “account[ing] for the fact that [sex] is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak” (11) in the service of interrogating historical ‘fact’ and power structures. Foucault’s repressive hypothesis stems from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century with a large focus on the Victorians. You don’t have to read the entire text to understand that the Victorians were absolutely mad for a little action — they were human, after all — they were just better at discretion than we’re used to. So sexual were these Victorian people that some of them actually wrote about sex (fictional and otherwise) for the purpose of others’ consumption of such material for various purposes. I am being deliberately coy with this construction since a bunch of what would have been considered obscene (or pornographic) was not expressly created as such. In fact, there were plenty of legitimate science and medical texts that were lumped in the same categories of obscenity with titles such as The Romance of Lust (1873), Indecent Whipping (1885), and The Story of a Dildoe (1891). Of course, all of this depends on what definition of pornography you are using and that, my friends, is another post altogether not to mention a debate far from being settled.
My point is this: the Victorians were into sex and they had porn. Even before the internet, they had porn. This means that the opinion likely held by many about the Victorian era as a staid and virtually sexless era is wrong. Somebody at the time, as you might expect, knew this and took advantage of the fact. In this brief look at the era, that somebody (or rather somebodies) was the bookseller. The trade in what we would call pornographic books began well before the high Victorian era. Perhaps the most well-known of these books is Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure written by John Cleland in 1749. It is something of a ‘classic’ in pornographic literature and went through various reprints throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, ass well as today. There is now a Penguin Popular Classics Edition, a fact as confusing as it is wonderful.
The trade in pornographic books was big in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Fine. But it was something of a side business for a lot of legitimate booksellers. The production and sale of pornographic books really hit its stride in the Victorian era, presumably coinciding with the rise of popularity of the novel and the affordability of printed materials, and hit something of a peak late in the century. The place to get these books was Booksellers’ Row in Holywell Street, which housed a great number of, you guessed it, booksellers.
The booksellers, however, were not the only folks involved in this trade. Far from it. There were also the writers, producers, printers, and — perhaps most importantly — a customer base with the means to purchase these books. This is not to mention the various personalities that may have been the influence for some texts. In some cases, to be sure, all of these roles were filled by one person. In upcoming posts, I will examine further the various groups involved in the London pornographic book trade as well as the overseas producers and printers who were used to skirt British law and some delicious conjecture about the identities of some ‘Anonymous’ writers of pornographic texts.