Hunt for the erotic Walter goes on

The Erotomaniac
June 15, 2001

This is a curious book about far more "curious and uncommon books"; kruptadia , forbidden erotic literature "of an incandescent kind". The secret life in its subtitle refers to My Secret Life , printed in 11 volumes in Amsterdam, a centre of the erotic book trade, between 1888 and 1894. Purporting to be the detailed journal of a well-to-do Victorian, "Walter", who claimed to have had intimate sexual relations of various kinds with at least 1,200 women, mainly serving girls and prostitutes, it has sometimes been taken as fact, not fiction. Only five copies of it are now known to exist.

Ian Gibson became interested in the authorship of My Secret Life more than 20 years ago and now puts forward the strongest case that he can - even "incontestable" - that the author was Henry Spencer Ashbee, a Victorian businessman who figures in the Dictionary of National Biography , who, we know, lived a double life and was passionately interested in collecting, classifying and indexing erotica.

Rich enough to live and spend as he wished, Ashbee published a trilogy of volumes, sumptuously printed, the first of them Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877) under the scatological pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi. Bibliography was as much of a passion for him as erotica, and under his own name he became recognised as an outstanding scholar in the bibliography of Don Quixote. Spain, where Gibson lives, is the connecting link in the tangled story of the writing of this book.

The Erotomaniac is something more and less than a biography. Gibson has written it not as a professional historian, but as a searcher after secrets. He has had access for the first time to real and acknowledged diaries kept by Ashbee that passed into the hands of a surviving member of the Ashbee family, Felicity, Ashbee's granddaughter, to whom the book is dedicated. Before he read the diaries, however, he was aware of the work of other researchers on My Secret Life , notably Steven Marcus, Gershon Legman and Peter Mendes. (The last of these, like some other characters in the book, including Ashbee's DNB biographer, are never adequately identified.) Gibson's book-list, which would never stand up to Ashbee's bibliographical scrutiny, mentions few of the books, old or new, which would now appear in any university book list on gender and society.

It is doubtful whether any professional historian would take My Secret Life for fact. Few of them, however, have explored the international market for 19th-century erotica of the kind Ashbee searched out and catalogued laboriously, as devotedly as Gibson has done. It did not need an internet to draw the collectors together. The Societe des Amis des Livres did it for them.

The most extraordinary revelation for me in Gibson's book was the part played in the story by Notes and Queries , the history of which obviously requires further examination. Ashbee contributed to it frequently under his own name, his pseudonym and numerous other names. Whatever other games he played, he loved devious games with words.

Gibson's insights are often illuminating, but in concluding incontestably that Ashbee, apart from all his other pursuits, including running a business and travelling through the world, wrote the 4,200 pages of My Secret Life , he does not fully convince. Like all previous writers on the subject, he recognises that the evidence is circumstantial. His own last two disarming sentences leave lingering doubts. "I believe that the man who wrote My Secret Life was Henry Spencer Ashbee. If he didn't who on earth did?" Fortunately, interpretations of the sexual attitudes and mores of the Victorians do not depend on finding the correct answer.

Lord Briggs is president, Victorian Society.

The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee

Author - Ian Gibson
ISBN - 0 571 19619 5
Publisher - Faber
Price - £12.99
Pages - 285

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