Wordsworth Editions Limited
ISBN: 1 85326 633 7

My 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 issued–privately–in 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 are–as Walter himself owns–basically 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 author’s reproduction of their accents. Class or social history is, of course, not Walter’s 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 Nell’s occupation, but said that . ..she could not keep her, indeed could scarcely feed her younger children. That’s 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 virgin–how 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 opportunities–who 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.
        That pornography 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 today’s audience. The same fantasies available on any newsstand–virgins, watching "lesbian" sex, voyeurism, sadomasochism, to name a few–propel Walter’s 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 Walter’s 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." Walter’s 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 "No–you mustn’t" is completely ignored, or rather only encourages him. Walter’s 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 Hannah–that I’d injured her–and 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 object–here the woman–in reality, ignores that she has an existence of her own.
        Walter, though, is not always a self-deceived semi-rapist. He–whoever he actually was–truly adored women’s 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 "it’s 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 delirium–they 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 cunt–which is what beasts usually alone do." Occasionally Walter admits to feeling embarrassed or ashamed, but always later takes a stand–he 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 true–but we have passed the point in memoir writing where readers expect the unsullied objective facts of a person’s 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; idealities whilst."
        My Secret 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 it’s 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.