This is, as evidenced from the title, the third in my series on Victorian pornography and my research. You can read the first two parts here and here to get an idea of what I’ve said thus far. Don’t worry, you don’t really need to know what’s in those first two parts to get the rest of the story. This isn’t as complex a narrative as the Police Academy or Weekend at Bernie’s movies, after all. Those were brilliant.
This week’s blog about Victorian pornography will focus on the production of pornographic texts. First, a couple of caveats: 1) my research is primarily focused on pornographic texts rather than images or other media. Though Victorian pornographic images and photographs are something worthy of study in their own right, they are not of much concern to me at this point. 2) you and I may disagree on a definition of pornography. I don’t have a good working definition, but for the purposes of this blog post and any information contained here you can simply trust that what I will be talking about is pornographic. In fact, the definition of just what is ‘pornographic’ is something that is up for debate even (and especially) within the field. Sometimes it is so frustrating that I just want to pull a Potter Stewart and declare “I know it when I see it”.
Now that we’re on the same page, so to speak, about pornography, I’ll start with the assumption I made in my last blog post: the trade in pornographic texts in Victorian London coincided with the rise in popularity of the novel (and literacy) from the 18th century onward. This is a somewhat reductive way about things, though not entirely without merit. What this meant was that booksellers had an opportunity to make money trading in the burgeoning business of pornographic books. Many booksellers took on a few licentious titles as a supplement to their more mainstream business of selling novels and other forms of writing, while others would turn their major focus onto selling pornographic texts.
What this post is really about, however, is who was producing the materials available for booksellers to offer to their clientele. As you may or may not be aware, material deemed obscene was subject to censorship and prosecution. Before the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, however, there was no statute in British law governing what could and could not be published or sold. I have neither the time nor desire to go into a deep history of obscenity in British history. Here is what I will say, however: ‘obscene’ and ‘obscenity’ are legal terms on par with the similarly nebulously-defined legal category of ‘sodomy’. You will find that the terms we take for granted in our everyday lives, like those mentioned above, are more complex than is at first imagined. This is why I invoke the delightful simplicity and ignorance of Potter Stewart at the beginning of this post. If only I were allowed to take such a stance in my research, it would make such an easier time of things.
Onto just who was making this stuff, however. It was largely someone called Anonymous. As you can imagine, nobody wanted to be sent to a Victorian prison with hard labour for writing or selling a dirty limerick, after all. Secrecy was of the utmost importance in the production of pornography in the Victorian period, of course. Although there are plenty of apocryphal stories about famous Victorian writers composing pornographic texts — the most famous arguably Oscar Wilde’s involvement in the production of the homosexual romance Teleny (1893) — it is nearly impossible to prove definitively one way or another who wrote what. What we can do, however, is trace a number of other threads about who was involved in producing pornography. This is when we begin to look to the publishers.
Thankfully, a good deal of Victorian pornographic material still exists in the British Library and other collections around the world, public and private. The collection in the BL is by far the most comprehensive and most of that was destroyed in the early part of the twentieth century. You see, there was a fellow in the nineteenth century called Henry Spencer Ashbee (alias Pisanus Fraxi) who was a prolific collector of pornography. He literally wrote the book(s) on Victorian pornography bibliography with his three-volumes that cataloged pretty well everything in existence up to 1885 in the world of text-based porn. Upon his death in 1900 (timely, in conjunction with Wilde and what I view as the real end of the Victorian period) his entire collection was left to the BL. You’d think they would have been thrilled to have all this amazing pornography, right? Wrong. The only reason they took it was because it was a condition set out in Ashbee’s will if they also wanted to get their hands on his one-of-a-kind Cervantes collection. In a sense, Ashbee’s pornography collection was like that one kid your mom made you invite to your birthday (even though he’s weird and only drinks yak’s milk!) so you can enjoy it with the rest of your real friends at laser tag.* After the BL acquiesced to taking Ashbee’s collection in its entirety, the pornographic contents made up what was referred to as The Private Case collection. Much of this collection was inaccessible until the mid-twentieth century and many items deemed poor quality or duplicate had already been destroyed. This means, then, that an untold number of pornographic works are simply gone. The bright side of all this is to focus on what remains. Using the BL’s extensive collection (among others) and doing some fabulous bibliographical sleuthing Peter Mendes wrote the modern-day bible for pornographic text scholars. His Clandestine Erotic Fiction in English 1800 – 1930 (1993) is the go-to resource for researchers hoping to solve innumerable mysteries about who was producing and distributing pornography in the Victorian period (as well as a little before and after).
I am ending this installment of Victorian Pornography here, so as to keep it readable. I will resume with part 3.5 on the pornmakers next time.
*The moral of this story is that that kid who only drank yak’s milk and you deemed too bizarre to attend your party ended up being the head of a multi-billion dollar social media company and the most interesting person on your Facebook friends list. Meanwhile, the rest of your childhood friends have simply made poor life choices by opting for more subwoofers in their 1998 Daewoo over independence from their parents.