Table of Contents
"My Secret Life
is by far the most famous and the longest sexual autobiography written in the nineteenth century. It has in it invaluable material for social and cultural historians, literary scholars, students of manners and morals — and it has more of what we might call ‘encounters’ than any narrative ever penned in English.”
— From the Introduction by James Kincaid
The anonymous author of
My Secret Life
has never been identified. Rumors have suggested he was a prominent scholar, the eccentric son of an earl, even a titled woman. All we do know is evident in the text: He was raised by servants and educated at a good boarding school. His young adulthood was spent not in learning a trade, but in exploring the world of sex and recording every encounter.
is Aerol Arnold Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of
Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture,
as well as books on Dickens, Trollope, and Tennyson.
is George Reed Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and director of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell University. The author of
Ruskin’s Poetic Argument: The Design of the Major
Works, he is a noted scholar of the Victorian age.
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Published by Signet Classics, an imprint of New American Library,
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First Signet Classics Printing, April 1996
First Signet Classics Printing (Sawyer Afterword), November 2007
Abridgment copyright © Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 1996
Introduction copyright © James Kincaid, 1996
Afterword copyright © Paul Sawyer, 2007
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eISBN : 978-1-101-00390-9
is by far the most famous and the longest sexual autobiography written in the nineteenth century. Its eleven fat volumes contain invaluable material for social and cultural historians, literary scholars, students of manners and morals — and I believe it has more of what we might call “encounters” than any narrative ever penned. Since the book’s publication around 1902, this astounding document — narrated by the otherwise anonymous “Walter” — has been notorious as an energetic, entertaining narrative of one man’s tireless sexual activity.
Since only scholars and the mentally tangled could read the original in its entirety, nearly everyone who knows
My Secret Life
has read it in an abridged form. These abridgements have generally taken care to present a somewhat expurgated and sanitized image of Walter, a Walter who (apart from his insatiable sexual appetite) is a safe, agreeable, and somehow recognizable individual. None, until now, has shown us Walter in anything like his full range of poses and postures. But the Walter in the volume you are holding, much more like the Walter who grinds through the original eleven volumes, is a more varied, indiscriminate, and often disturbing protagonist. This new Walter is not simply rollicking through life but also, we will see, raping; reveling not only in flesh, but in pain; not only in lust, but in fear. Take care.
The Walter presented here seems to me also the first Walter who has behind him a coherent story, who can be said to be recognizable as a man with a background and a life. This version actually has something like a plot; not much of a plot, to be sure, since even our more well-rounded Walter seems only to do one thing. Like a good Victorian, he has listened to the sage Thomas Carlyle: “Find your work and do it.” Walter has found what he’s good at — sex — and he is determined to lunge into it and never leave off, which may not be exactly what Carlyle had in mind. But it’s probably what readers of
My Secret Life
have in mind; otherwise, they’d do as well reading Carlyle, where at least they’d not find things like:
“ ‘Oho — oho’ she said with a prolonged sigh, ’do — oh, take away — oh — your hand, Walter dear, — oh I shall be ill, — oho — oho.’ ” As descriptions of such things go, this seems conventional enough — though we ourselves may never have found “oho” coming so often to mind when we reached for the perfect word on such occasions.
My Secret Life
contains so little of what we have learned to recognize as conventional for writing on sexual activity that it may seem more like a journal than fantasy, more social history than pornography. There is less panting, sighing, and swooning than there is sweating, flopping, grunting, elbowing, washing, and attending to unromantic bodily details: “ ‘Get up love, I want to piddle,’ said she. I rolled off her belly.” Walter takes such pleasure in absolutely all things bodily — after skidding off her belly, he probably goes and watches her piddle — that he can’t get enough of it. “I liked flesh,” he says agreeably; “a woman’s bum could not be too big for me.” A bum the size of the Ritz: that’s his dream.
He nearly finds it in one of his sweetest partners, Big Sarah: “Her bum was vast, but she was thick up to her waist, and had large breasts as firm as a rock. Her thighs were lovely, but her knees so big, that no garter would remain above them.” Sarah is no Harlequin heroine, and not just in appearance. She is desperately poor but generous, not easily shocked but sadly innocent. Walter likes her so much and is so appreciative of that lovely, boundless flesh that he gives her a ten-pound note. Sarah had never in her life even seen a bank note, and she asks Walter just what it can be. When he tells her, Sarah, large in heart as in body, vows to share some with her old mother, and goes off into the night, calculating the exact extent of her delight: “I had two pounds, and now I’ve twelve.”
With all this emphasis on class, and money, and on who has the power to do what to whom, Sarah starts to look like a heroine from Zola or Stephen Crane. We may begin to wonder what kind of book we have entered. My Secret Life may be seen as pure social history, absurdist (or erotic) fantasy, or some mixture of the two. It has but one subject, the oft-repeated and remarkably successful search for and the performance of sexual intercourse or something like it; yet this is no hack-work piece of porn. Single-minded as it is, it presents us with a mind capable of reflecting on the world about him, those with whom he comes in (very close) contact, his own obsessions, even his follies. One thing is clear: This strange and compelling book, perhaps the strangest to come down to us from those mysterious, devious Victorians, is unlike anything else produced then-or now.
Secret Life, probably written in the 1880s, made its inaugural public appearance as a tease, the first six chapters being published in 1901 as The Dawn of Sensuality by the publisher “Charles Carrington,” who followed this up the next year with a catalogue announcing the whole book, a whopping eleven volumes, for sale. According to Carnngton, who seems never to have said a truthful thing in his life if he could help it, the work was printed in Amsterdam around 1880 in an edition limited by the author to six copies (though more may have been run off by an unscrupulous printer, Carrington claimed). Since that time the work has been issued in many different forms and titles, some of which have been seized by police and, predictably, made the subject of periodic legal/moral battles. Imitations have appeared, and also “Supplements,” one nearly as long as the original written for an Oklahoma oil-baron whose thirst for new matter was such that he needed a couple of hundred fresh pages a week and was willing to pay what it took to get them. All in all,
My Secret Life
is hardly a pure text, which would have pleased the decidedly impure “Walter.”
But who is Walter? As with most other things connected with this book, the question of its authorship wallows in the land of rumor. We will never know who wrote this; who (if anyone) experienced all, some, or any of these adventures; who chose to publish such intimate accounts (or lies) and why. There is an intriguing possibility, floated by some experts, that the author was one Henry Spencer Ashbee, a fascinating scholar, bibliographer, collector, and tweaker of the righteous. It is my guess that Ashbee knew more about printed erotica than any man who ever lived: He published a remarkable three-volume listing (with details and copious selections) of nineteenth-century arousing material called
Bibliography of Prohibited Books
and he possessed a good deal of erotica himself, willing it at his death to the British Museum, on condition that they make it available to one and all. This was a brilliant piece of satiric blackmail, since the Museum’s acceptance of the racy books that they did not want was a condition for the receipt of innumerable other valuable materials that they very much did want and that Ashbee also proposed to donate. But there really is no evidence to confirm his authorship, outside of Ashbee’s undeniable devilishness, knowledge, and interest in the subject; all areas in which he was extraordinarily proficient but hardly alone.