Secret Life is a parade of genitalia, pornographic writing
of the most explicit and lascivious kind, often banal and repetitive.
Yet it was reissued by Wordsworth Classics as part of their
Wordsworth Classic Erotica series. The episodes are related
in a chronologically unstable fashion, with almost no character
development or explanation. Some episodes are fascinating, some
are repellant, some are bizarre, but all are obscene. What then,
has made this book a classic?
The book is
the ostensibly true-life chronicle of Walter, a Victorian gentleman
of moderate means and a truly obsessive desire for sexual experiences,
a passion that is the thread on which the stories in the book
are strung. My Secret Life was originally issuedprivatelyin
eleven volumes, but Wordsworth has issued only the last three,
cutting the original 2,360 pages of hardcore romping to a mere
624. This is actually quite enough, as the actions areas
Walter himself ownsbasically the same after a certain
point, and "the preliminaries alone vary."
One of the reasons
(apart from the obvious titillation value) is its age. The idea
of the overdraped Victorians frolicking in bedrooms seems to
be universally intriguing, even though scholars have by now
drawn a more balanced picture of those times. Sociologists and
historians have turned to My Secret Life for glimpses
of a part of society that was, however, covert during Victorian
times. The book is frank and informative about prostitution
and sex amongst the lower classes. Most of the women Walter
has sex with are prostitutes, or "gay women," as he
calls them, as well as lower class, a fact one can see by the
authors reproduction of their accents. Class or social
history is, of course, not Walters main topic, but he
discusses quite casually the way women fall into prostitution,
and knows just exactly how he can banter with a countryside
girl about her "charms." Without thinking much of
it, along the way he paints a picture of the harsh realities
for poor girls. He pays a few times for virgins, a situation
poverty makes easy. One is a servant of Nell, a prostitute he
frequents. "Her mother a poor charwoman quite knew Nells
occupation, but said that . ..she could not keep her, indeed
could scarcely feed her younger children. Thats the usual
way poor people push their children off.... I asked her to get
me the girl, and tempted enough, she said she would but would
not guarantee her being a virginhow could she? for she
had been in service at ***** more than a year." Later,
after another successful deflowering, he philosophizes to himself
on the morality of buying virgins: "Verily a gentleman
had better fuck them for money, than a butcher boy for nothing.
It is the fate of such girls to be fucked young, neither laws
social or legal can prevent it.Given opportunitieswho
has them like the children of the poor?they will
copulate." The tidbits of information in My Secret Life
are revealing, but the book has relevance too for the study
of pornography as a social phenomenon.
is universal across both time and cultures is accepted. Yet
an interesting point to be made about My Secret Life
is that it could have been written for todays audience.
The same fantasies available on any newsstandvirgins,
watching "lesbian" sex, voyeurism, sadomasochism,
to name a fewpropel Walters hundred-year-old narrative.
And in My Secret Life are the same problems, the same
aspects of pornography that fuel the debate today. One of the
most disturbing aspects, if the book be taken straightforwardly,
is Walters self-deception about his sexual partners. Clear
enough about the mercenary motives of prostitutes, he is convinced,
it seems, that although they are professionals, he can make
them "want it." Walters proud boasting about
this makes him look foolish, but the fantasy itself is one of
the more dangerous aspects of pornography, the "no means
yes" illusion. And in fact this plays out more explicitly
in certain episodes, when "Noyou mustnt"
is completely ignored, or rather only encourages him. Walters
rather inelegant prose is useful here. He almost thinks out
loud, and we can watch the process of his rationalizations.
After taking the virginity of a woman of his own class, he felt
"a feeling of regret, a feeling similar to that which I
had when I fucked my married cousin Hannahthat Id
injured herand felt deeply sorry. But the thing was done,
and after all she was as much to blame as me. What other woman
in such social position, had ever entered into such relations
with a man as she had?Must she not have expected to be
tailed?These thoughts comforted me." This ability
to rationalize his actions highlights a main danger of this
kind of pornography. The object of desire exists in the mind
of the desirer, which is how it can be shaped to fit a fantasy.
But this ignores the existence of the objecthere the womanin
reality, ignores that she has an existence of her own.
is not always a self-deceived semi-rapist. Hewhoever he
actually wastruly adored womens genitalia and giving
and receiving pleasure. He is not much of an analyzer, but he
has a few firm ideas on sexual pleasure that are far ahead of
their time. Although the argument that "its natural"
is no longer new, in his time such an attitude was radical.
Anticipating criticism, he asserts that "many who have
not tasted our sexual pleasures will call them beastly. They
are not....The couples blest with imagination, they who by various
excitements of which a mere animal is not capable, bring fucking
to intellectual height, make it a dream of the senses, make
lust and love in its sensuous elevation ethereal, a poetic deliriumthey
are not the beasts....H*l*n and I after a time laughed to
scorn the crude notions of those animal idiots, who think that
all is beastly excepting simply putting a cock into a
cuntwhich is what beasts usually alone do."
Occasionally Walter admits to feeling embarrassed or ashamed,
but always later takes a standhe is aware that he is a
creature of his culture, but he is determined to transcend it.
When the book
first circulated, there was great speculation as to who had
authored the series. Suspicion fell on various people, but Walter
has succeeded in remaining anonymous. There is also debate as
to whether this is, in fact, a real autobiography. Of course,
it is spicier if each episode is truebut we have passed
the point in memoir writing where readers expect the unsullied
objective facts of a persons life. We have accepted that
subjectivity, while perhaps blunting the edge of a telling fact,
is what chisels the design in the first place. Walter may or
may not have had sex with a woman from Marseille with two vaginas,
as he relates. Whether or not the book is autobiographical,
it is informational and based on fact. The author of the book
researched his subject well.
The index, clearly
compiled at the time of printing, is perhaps the only hilarious
index this reviewer has ever read. As the introduction to the
index points out, the list "presents almost at a glance
the large number and variety of amusements which the sexual
organs afford to both men and women, from early childhood to
extreme old age." The section on "fucking" covers
three pages and has novel subsections such as (in order) "dear;
cheap; on credit; a man hit whilst; a prick hit by hail whilst,"
informational subsections such as "muscular motions of
body when; number of thrusts before spending; time occupied
by spending; quantity of sperm spent," and rather endearing
sections on "pleasure of is paradisical; thoughts during;
Life is unusual as a surviving piece of hardcore Victorian
pornographic writing, and as such is worth being reissued. Yet,
on the whole, the book is monotonous. If its read with
scholarly or salacious intent, then the whole narrative takes
on a new dimension, but otherwise the mass of details becomes
simply overwhelming. But read for whatever reason, the main
thing to be learned from My Secret Life is that people
are people, no matter how many layers of clothing they wore.
Sex is sex, and is, as Walter says, "the great law of nature."
The author of My Secret Life was brave enough to set
that forth in writing in a less open age, and without shame.
For that he should be remembered.