Victorian Sex: My Secret Life (Part 2)

Who was Walter?

In order to answer this question, we need to establish if there is indeed a question here to answer.

Uh, what?

Well, is My Secret Life an autobiography or a work of fiction? If it is a work of fiction, then trying to ascertain who Walter was is moot. If it is autobiographical, then someone (or perhaps several someones) wrote it, and, the question then becomes, who?

The book was very definitely written in the 19th century, so, even if it is fictional, the details and observances have the veneer of reality (and are valuable in and of themselves). Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians makes the case for MSL being a work of non-fiction from a somewhat psychological viewpoint. Over the course of 119 pages, Marcus describes how in MSL, despite a “considerable influx of fantasy” (p. 158), the exploits depicted are authentic, honest, and involve critical reflection. Walter even “changes and improves as a writer” (p. 189) as one might over the course of a life. Yet, MSL mirrors fictional pornography in creating a world that is made up of “exclusively sexual activities,” a “pornotopia” (p. 194). So, Marcus contends, what distinguishes MSL as an autobiographical work is how it also mirrors actual life,

For life itself does not end in the way that a work of literature does. It ends in the meaninglessness of non-existence, of nothing … . And if one takes a work such as My Secret Life and strips away the superstructure of sexual fantasies, one discovers directly beneath them the meaningless void, the sense that life is founded on nothing and that there is nothing to hold on to. (Marcus, p. 196)

If we accept MSL as an autobiography, it is an unusual autobiography. In Walter, the English Casanova, Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen don’t try to identify Walter, but offer their thoughts on what makes MSL so different from other books of its ilk:

…My Secret Life constitutes the only autobiography extant which limits itself strictly to the sexual experiences and observations of the author. There is nothing in these 4,000-odd pages but sex – no asides about gambling or magic, as in Casanova’s Memoirs; no discussion of naval strategy and diplomacy, as in Samuel Pepys’s diary; no travelogue and social register, as in Frank Harris; no quest for philosophical enlightenment or sudden flight of fantasy, as in Henry Miller. There is nothing but women and sex, and more women and more sex, throughout the eleven volumes. (Kronhausen, p. 1)

So, who was Walter?

The Walterologists

Much like Ripperologists like to bandy about identities for Jack the Ripper, Walterologists (did I just coin a new word?) like to toss around identities for Walter. The parameters: an English man who lived c. 1820-21-c. 1894; who experienced financial ups (including inheritances) and downs; who was married at least once, c. 1846, but unhappily; who spoke French fluently, Italian not as well, German not well at all, and no Spanish; who had a reason to keep his amorous experiences separate from his real life; and who enjoyed sex, a lot of sex.

Walterologists include (see bibliography below): Gershon Legman; Ian Gibson, a devotee of Legman’s analysis; Vern L. Bullough with Gordon Stein, who argue against Legman’s deduction; and John Patrick Pattinson who offers what I believe is by far the best analysis and the most compelling candidate.

The Candidates

Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900)
The most oft-mentioned claimant to the identity of Walter, Ashbee, a collector of erotica who compiled annotated bibliographies of such works under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi (a Latin anagram for fraxinus apis; fraxinus = ash or ash-tree ; apis = bee), may seem a likely candidate at first glance. From reading his magna opera Index librorum prohibitorum (1877), Centuria librorum absconditorum (1879), and Catena librorum tacendorum (1885), one might think he would be proficient in penning a tome such as MSL. He is indeed considered a solid candidate, chiefly because of his advocate Gershon Legman.

Legman was the first to propose Ashbee as Walter in his introduction to the 1962 Jack Brussel reprints of Ashbee’s bibliographies. The 1966 Grove Press abridged edition of My Secret Life included an expanded version of that essay.

In The Erotomaniac : the Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee, Ian Gibson also made the claim that Ashbee wrote MSL, concluding “If he didn’t who on earth did?”

But the claim of Ashbee as Walter remains questionable. One reason is due to Walter’s admitted lack of knowledge of erotica:

His knowledge of erotica, he says, was minimal, and he reported that he was somewhat naive about collecting other erotica. He wrote, for example, that he had difficulty in procuring a relatively common book such as an illustrated edition of Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) (vol. 3: ch. 18: p. 595) and thought it was written by a woman … although anyone acquainted with erotica would have known that John Cleland was the author. It is only towards the end of his autobiography that an increasing interest in reading other erotic books becomes apparent (11:2:2193). (Bullough, p. 45)

Plus, Ashbee’s life dates do not coincide with the events in MSL, and some of the biographical details don’t match up, such as Ashbee being fluent in Spanish (Walter knows no Spanish). “In short, almost nothing we can gather from the author [of] M.S.L coincides with anything we know about Ashbee” (Bullough, p. 50).

Captain Edward Sellon (1818–1866)
Much of the evidence for Sellon hinges upon the fact that he is known to be the author of the erotic autobiography The Ups and Downs of Life published posthumously in 1867. However, he spent a lot of time in India – a place not even mentioned in MSL, and probably most importantly, he killed himself in 1866 before some of the events in MSL took place.

George Augustus Sala (1828-1895)
A journalist and friend of Charles Dickens who wrote about the London underworld, and co-wrote a flagellation novel. His life events match up to a certain extent, except his marital history since he was married twice, the first time in 1859.

Richard Monckton Milnes (1809-1885)
This is Legman’s second choice after Ashbee, but he was “a sadist who tortured prostitutes and enjoyed flagellation” according to Bullough (p. 53). While Walter did expose himself to flagellation, it would be completely against his character to have tortured prostitutes.

A random assortment of others
Bullough dismisses the following, all of whom have been proposed as possible authors of My Secret Life:

John Walter (1818-1894), whose father was the editor of The Times
William S. Potter (1805-1879), publisher of The Romance of Lust (1873-1876)
John Stephen Farmer (c. 1845-1915), a sexual libertine who was the probable author of the erotic work Suburban Souls (1901)
Augustus John Cuthbert Hare (1834-1903), travel writer and author of the six volume The Story of My Life (1896)

Charles H. Stanley (1809-1897)
Using research begun by Gordon Stein, Bullough believes “[t]he critical piece of data is the mention of an unusual court case,” namely Regina v. Richard Clarke (see p. 397 of link) which was heard in 1854. The case involved legal technicalities in defining rape but, for the purposes of determining who Walter was, is more important for what Walter writes about the circumstances of his learning about the case: his cousin “Fred read this aloud. I knew more, for the counsel of the prisoner was my intimate friend.” (MSL, p. 188)

The counsel for the defendant was William Overend (1809-1884), and Stein came up with two possible candidates who were intimate friends of Overend, one of whom was Charles Stanley. Stanley was a stockbroker and some of his life events – e.g., a trip abroad in 1862-63 – match Walter’s. But, very little is known about Stanley. Stein died before he could finish his research. Ian Gibson, who believed Ashbee was Walter, concluded in The Erotomaniac “Stein’s case for Charles Stanley does not stand up to close scrutiny” (Gibson, p. 201).

William Haywood (1821-1894)
In twenty-two pages chock full of copious detail by an academic who was an enthusiastic and meticulous researcher, John Patrick Pattinson’s “The Man Who Was Walter,” offers the most compelling candidate to date. What Pattinson did not consider was how a careful read of MSL could strengthen his case. (As far as I can tell, Pattinson died in 2005, three years after the publication of his article.)

Pattinson was not “concerned with literary or psychological analysis” merely with biographical data, fully cognizant that Walter sought to obfuscate facts, even using this to his advantage. He begins with an investigation of where Walter was brought up, deducing the village of Camberwell, now part of Greater London, and goes from there. Using census records, maps, government archives, biographical dictionaries, and the work of other Walterologists, all compared against the obscured details of MSL, Pattinson settles upon William Haywood, Chief Engineer to the Commissioner of Sewers in the City of London, and a lieutenant-colonel in the City of London Rifle Brigade Volunteers.

It is a brilliant deduction.

As a City of London engineer from 1846 until his death in 1894, Haywood’s duties included the construction, maintenance, and renewal of sewers, with other responsibilities revolving around streets, highways, housing, and burials. He spent time abroad consulting on engineering matters and won numerous foreign awards. All of this, plus what is known of his private life, is detailed by Pattinson and compared to the assumed details of Walter’s life, resulting in remarkable correlations.

But what Pattinson overlooked, perhaps purposefully so as to avoid any “literary or psychological analysis”, was how much engineering features in MSL.

The feats of engineering in industrializing Britain – railroads, bridges, canals, viaducts, even water-closets – are the settings for quite a bit of the action in MSL, so much so they become eroticized. If Walter is walking along a canal, or waiting at a railway station, you know sex is about to happen. And by eroticizing these aspects of 19th-century daily life, unwittingly Walter has given himself away. Here was a man who was not just a respected member of the engineering profession, he had a letch for his profession.

The transportation references, from carts to canals to bridges to trains, are ubiquitous and add color to his descriptions, to be sure. However, the memoir is peppered with references to railway history that the average consumer of pornography would, one might suppose, not normally be concerned with. These little tidbits are the indulgences of an engineering enthusiast. To wit [all page numbers refer to this edition]:

People then came down from London in vans, carts, and carriages of all sorts, to see the Palace and grounds (there was no railway)… (p. 20)

There was but a slow rail to Dover then, nothing but tidal boats, and to Paris, the way I thought she was going, no rail at all, and it was a long journey. (p. 111)

I got as close to her as the arm between the seats (a fixture) allowed. (p. 674)

It had taken a long time to get from the Palace to * * * (done in exactly half the time now, owing to railways.) (p. 682)

For all that, a bed is pleasanter than a shaking, jostling, oscillating railway carriage, going forty-five miles an hour. (p. 805)

Towards the end of February, on a dirty but warmish night for that month, I visited an old relative in the suburbs, and went there by a loop line of railway which had not been opened long. … The station in the suburb led out of a wide long road about a tenth of a mile from a main metropolitan thoroughfare. (p. 1047)

Walter traveled a great deal at home in England but also abroad, and many of his sexual adventures happen on trains. The confined space of a railcar, the ebb and flow of passengers, the thrum of the tracks, these elements all become eroticized in his memoir. The following are just harbingers of eventual satisfaction:

…[on] a first class metropolitan railway going to the north west… . Two or three stations were passed, passengers got out, and at length the carriage was empty all but the woman and myself. (p. 987)

…at about nine o’clock was near the * * * * * station of a London railway. Many gay women of second class were walking about it, for the station being a busy one and several streets converging on it, it was and is, a good hunting ground for the Priestesses of Venus. (p. 1008)

The station in the suburb led out of a wide long road about a tenth of a mile from a main metropolitan thoroughfare.- On my return I found I was three-quarters of an hour too early, so loitered about the road, smoking and thinking, I noticed at length two women, unmistakably harlots of a middling class. (p. 1047)

I returned at times westwards by the various underground railways. I’d already had one or two adventures in those railways, and believe that thousands of intrigues are hatched there in. … It was dark early, when in the middle of November on the railway in a first class carriage, men only in it, a lass looking about sixteen entered, and sat down with great complacency. She stared round at us all, then threw aside her cloak (it was cold) and disclosed her being in an evening dress, very decollete, and with naked arms. (p. 1074-1075)

In a railway carriage in London on one morning in winter, as we approached * * * *, the passengers got out leaving me alone with a short well-dressed woman looking about thirty-five years. — She had been looking at me almost continuously for a quarter of an hour, which made me look at her — for she was good looking (p. 1158)

The eroticizing continues with indoor plumbing. In an era when such conveniences were just becoming prevalent, Walter has an obsession with washing and genital cleanliness. From the outset, after one of his first sexual encounters as a teenager, Walter develops a fear of “the pox” (or “clap”):

Suddenly the fear of the pox came over me, I went up to the bedroom, soaped and washed my prick, and had a terrible fear on me. … During those three days I washed my prick at every possible opportunity (p. 31)

which wasn’t altogether unfounded

I had had three women the same day, had washed after neither, their lubrications had mixed with mine on my prick-stem and balls. A day or two following I had a stock of crabs (p. 146)

and which makes him fanatical about washing after sex, and requesting women clean themselves before and/or after sex:

One reason of my being indifferent to her was that she never properly washed herself. (p. 177)

“I’ve not washed myself since you did me”, said she. “Well wash your cunt.” She took my basin, and washed herself. (p. 205)

MSL is absolutely filled with anecdotes of Walter insisting on and observing women washing their privates, as well as descriptions of how he manages to clean himself given the lack of plumbing in some places, or where the only source of running water was in the water-closet:

There was no water, so I made her know by signs that I wanted to wash, and naked she went out and returned with some in a large earthen pan. She washed her cunt, I my prick… (p. 1038)

I was amused at her sluicing out her cunt in the watercloset. Several times I have washed my ballocks in one, but never saw a woman do it before. — In empty houses there frequently is no water on. (p. 1024)

Then there are the references to urination and toilets of various types. Walter had a letch for watching women “piddle”, which was a Victorian pornographic trope used frequently in coming-of-age sexual discovery narratives. For Walter, though, this letch continued throughout his life.

I used to watch Mary, slipping out into the outside passage leading to the servant’s privy, and take pleasure in the idea of her piddling there. (p. 50)

I had made up my mind to have her in the privy; have had women in similar places before and since … (p. 143)

If Haywood was Walter, then Walter’s obsessions with cleanliness and toilet activities become all the more cogent given that Haywood was involved with the major sewage projects along the Thames during the 1850s. Due to poor sanitation, cholera was a tremendous problem in London, and installing sewage systems became a matter of public health policy in the mid-19th century.

Finally, there is an extensive scene which neatly coalesces all of these letches into a mini-pornotopia (and you are hereby forewarned about the scatological nature of the following excerpt which begins on p. 403):

I was at A***n*n in the south of France, and went up with my luggage to the station which was being re-built. A branch-line had been opened the day before, and all was a chaos of brick, mortar, and scaffolding. The water-closets were temporarily run up in wood, in a very rough manner. A train had just brought in many passengers. I was taken with violent belly-ache, and ran to the closets. They were full. Fearing of shitting my-self I rushed to the women’s which were adjoining the men’s. “Non, non Monsieur,” screamed out the woman in charge, “c’est pour les dames.” I would have gone in spite of her, but they were also full. Foul myself I must. “Oh! woman I am so ill, — here is a franc, show me somewhere for God’s sake.” “Come here,” said she, and going round to the back of the wooden structure, she opened the door of a shed. On the door was written, “Control, private, you don’t enter here.” In I went rapidly. “Shut the door quite close,” said she, “when you come out.” It had been locked. I saw a half-cupboard, and just in time to save my trousers made my-self easy on a seat with a hole in it.

Walter describes the shed, then realizes, from the sounds of voices and the rustling of dresses, it abuts the ladies’ toilets. He discovers a knot hole in a board with its knot missing, a perfect peep hole into the women’s room:

What a sight met my eyes as I looked through it!

A large brown turd descending and as it dropped disclosing a thickly haired cunt stretched out wide between a fat pair of thighs and great round buttocks, of which I could see the whole. A fart followed, and a stream of piddle as thick as my finger splashed down the privy-hole. It was a woman with her feet on the seat after the French fashion, and squatting down over the hole.

He goes on in great detail – but I won’t. He spends hours watching women defecate – he has visual access to the entire bathroom – missing several trains, growing sexually aroused.

Fortunately the greatest number only piddled, — I shall always like to see a female at that function.

After eight pages of excruciating description, he concludes:

There is nothing to be ashamed of, it was a passing phase, and after all man cannot see too much of human nature.

Pattinson’s meticulous research on the biographical details of Walter’s life in and of themselves make a very strong case for the identity of William Haywood as Walter. But it is the eroticizing of unique elements in MSL that add credibility to this identity. Despite the purposeful obfuscation in his memoir, Walter reveals quite a bit of himself through his letches and unwittingly adds supporting evidence to Pattinson’s claim.


Bullough, Vern L. (using research by Gordon Stein). “Who Wrote My Secret Life? An Evaluation of Possibilities and a Tentative Suggestion.” Sexuality and Culture 4, no. 1 (2000): 37-60.

Gibson, Ian. The Erotomaniac : The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee. London: Faber, 2001.

Kronhausen, Eberhard, and Phyllis Kronhausen. Walter, the English Casanova: A Presentation of His Unique Memoirs My Secret Life. London: Polybooks, 1967.

Legman, Gershon (introd.). My Secret Life: Abridged But Unexpurgated. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1966.

Marcus, Steven. The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Ninteenth-Century England. New York: Basic Books, 1966.

Pattinson, John Patrick. “The Man Who Was Walter.” Victorian Literature and Culture 30, no. 1 (March 2002): 19-40.

Next up: Where to find Walter on the Web.

2 thoughts on “Victorian Sex: My Secret Life (Part 2)

    • Hi Dominic,
      Thanks for the download. I’m listening to it now — glad you included railway sounds in the beginning, ha! Please do reply with a link to the article and interview, or DM me on Twitter.

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