Can roman numerals even have decimals? Who cares? You didn’t click here to learn about antiquated number systems. You’re here because you wanted to get to the good stuff. Well, here it is, the continuation of my series on Victorian pornography and the concluding installment on the pornmakers. If you’re new in town, have a look at my previous posts: Part I, Part II, Part III.
I ended my last post with a discussion of the key bibliographers of Victorian pornography, Henry Spencer Ashbee (1885) and Peter Mendes (1993), and what extant copies of the works they documented still exist. This post is going to shift the focus onto the Victorian period figures who were producing this stuff but, as previously mentioned, it is difficult to say for certain who was doing what since many preferred to work anonymously.
The figure I’m going to focus on is the publisher Leonard Smithers, who is perhaps best known for publishing Oscar Wilde post-conviction when nobody else dared touch the Wilde name. Smithers is famous for declaring that he would publish anything “that others [were] afraid of” (qtd. in O’Sullivan 113) and, it seems, he was a man of his word. He published Teleny, the gay romance novel putatively penned by Wilde, in 1893 and Richard Burton’s lascivious translation of the Orientalist classic The Thousand Nights and a Night (1885). Smithers was also responsible for printing and collaborating with other well known Victorian figures who straddled the lines of decency, such as Aubrey Beardsley (see photo) and Arthur Symons.
Smithers was indeed a pornmaker, as it were, but he was by no means the only or the most prolific. He makes a good case study because he is seemingly the most transparent of the lot of pornmakers. He was unabashed and I am naturally drawn to characters like this, especially those who flout the law.* Smithers would have continued success after Wilde’s death in capitalizing on the scandal associated with the name and publishing a good many forgeries and translations he claimed were by Wilde’s hand. Even though this is a borderline evil thing to do, I can’t help but have a certain amount of respect for the guy. For more on Smithers’ career and his forgeries, see Nelson below.
The other intriguing figure I’d like to say something about is William Lazenby. Lazenby was a publisher responsible for releasing or rerelasing a number of ‘classics’ of pornographic literature. His output notably included The Romance of Lust, Sins of the Cities of the Plain, and its sequel Letters from Laura and Eveline (an upcoming edition of which I have edited), among many others. Lazenby was also responsible for publishing (and perhaps writing) the periodicals The Pearl and The Cremorne, which were collections of various kinds of pornographic and erotic writing. They are notable for also publishing My Secret Life, the Victorian erotic memoir par excellence. While Lazenby’s reputation as a publisher is well established and does not need to be gone over here, what makes him a star in the world of Victorian pornography is what we don’t know about him. We know that he published a bunch of porn under a bunch of names, but what we don’t know — or at least what we can only speculate — is what he actually wrote. Henry Spencer Ashbee, the bibliographer, mentions that Letters from Laura and Eveline was “from the pen of its publisher” meaning, of course, Lazenby. It is also surmised that Lazenby was the writer of a number of the works he also published; this is speculation, however, since there is no documented or internal evidence that points to Lazenby as the definitive writer of anything he published. Proving authorship is nowhere near as easy as proving publishership.
I will conclude this post by saying a few things about authorship of pornography. I’ve stated earlier why it would be in an author’s best interest to publish anonymously in the Victorian period if they were writing pornography. There has been plenty of speculation about just who these authors were and, indeed, some well known names appear over and over again. The problem with much of this speculation is that it cannot go definitively beyond that. The most famous and ongoing speculation is the authorship of Teleny, which was supposed to have been written, at least in part, by Oscar Wilde. The only shred of ‘evidence’ in this theory is the story of bookseller Charles Hirsch who claims Wilde came into his shop in London’s Coventry Street with the manuscript of Teleny and used his shop as a rendez-vous point for a coterie of other (forgotten) authors. The problem with Hirsch’s story is that he offers nothing to corroborate and he does not publish the story until his own 1934 French edition of Teleny, presumably to capitalize on the notoriety of the Wilde name. Nevertheless, this account from an untrustworthy source has been enough to fuel debate over Teleny‘s authorship even today. I am in two minds about the debate: while I would love for the novel to be Wilde’s long lost work, I would also be saddened if he in fact were its author because it would be the poorest example of Wilde’s writing we have.
Half the fun of studying Victorian pornography — or any textual pornography — is speculating about its authorship and the people involved in producing it. The contents take a much further backseat to the cultural study for me. You may disagree, but the pall of the repetitive descriptions of genitalia and copulation all meld into one big mass of cliche after roughly 5 pages of just about any of these books. The detective aspect of these texts keep them exciting long after the money shot.
*Plug for an upcoming post about Jack Saul, the “professional sodomite”. Stay tuned, Graduable readers.
O’Sullivan, Vincent. Aspects of Wilde. London: Constable, 1936. Print.
Nelson, James. Publisher to the Decadants: Leonard Smithers in the Careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson. Penn State UP: 2000, Print.