This post is not about my secret life, it’s about the infamous tome published c. 1890, authored by a man known only as Walter. The book, My Secret Life, was written as a memoir and is often considered a work of Victorian erotica, which it most certainly is not. It is unabashedly an impressive work of pornography. Unlike a more famous erotic memoir, John Cleland‘s Fanny Hill which has a plot and a resolution (actually a happy ending), My Secret Life is more a series of vignettes. It does have the elements of fiction: There are running characters; there is development of Walter’s psyche; there is a progression of time. But it lacks any plot. Weighing in between 790 and 1173 pages (depending on the version; this one is cited), My Secret Life is the epitome of the rambling sexual memoir, a prime example of that particular style of Victorian porn.
Often unconsidered in discussions of pornography and erotica is how examples of the genre reflect the literary forms and styles of the era in which they were written. The 18th century’s Fanny Hill (1748-1749) follows the early novel form. Early 19th-century pornography, such as The Lustful Turk (1828), utilized the epistolary form. Mid- to late-19th-century pornography was often written in first person memoir or diary format, such as My Secret Life or Romance of Lust (1873). The early- and mid-20th century saw the use of high literary styles. Today there is a blending of erotica with other genres.
My Secret Life is also notable for completely unexpected reasons. Unwittingly, the book is a treasure trove of details of life in the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras, c. 1822-1890. Of course, much of the information can be gleaned through other means, but it is the details of sexuality that are often more difficult to find elsewhere and are here presented in one place.
Walter writes about all the standard Victorian pornographic tropes: reluctant virgins turned overly amorous; peeing voyeurism; birching; the fascination with hirsuteness in women; actresses, prostitutes, shop girls, and servants. But beyond the tropes, there is:
e.g., the use of the French gamahuche rather than the Latin cunnilingus (which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, did not come into popular usage until c. 1897):
Then my tongue played on her lovely little clitoris, she fell back on the bed, then I arranged her head, and gamahuched her for a minute, and then put into her. (p. 423)
Also: “spunk” for sperm; “gay” for loose woman; “frig” for masturbation; “piddle” for urinate
I frequently spent evenings quietly in Camille’s society. I got from her information about habits of women, in a way which is not often given to young men by gay women; learned that women thrust sponges up their cunts, to prevent men finding out they had their courses on. (p. 108)
At this time I was chasing Bertha, and had just lost Madeline. Sponge and sheep gut had been given up, for I could not bear them, and Madeline, frightened to do without them, being so anxious about getting in the family way and losing her Richard. — So the liaison languished and then ceased … (p. 706)
“I am in the family way again I think”, said she as she left, “and if so will jump over Westminster Bridge.” But she was not, and after that night she persuaded me not to spend in her, but to withdraw just as my emission took place. (p. 290)
She was clad very handsomely in black silk from head to foot, I now noticed. … Again our mouths met and kissed, then I put my hands under her petticoats, well between her thighs and touched her cunt. — “You’ve no drawers on,” said I pleased (for every dirty little whore as well as servants and ladies all wear those cunt swabs now). — “I never wear them.” (p. 957)
The train was just ready to start, when a lady in a splendid sealskin and other furs, whom I had but slightly noticed as I walked up and down the platform, met me full face, gave a slight smile, and stopped. — “Don’t you know me?” “Why it’s Fanny G***d*n.”
… She had drawers on, and I couldn’t feel her flesh. “Why have you drawers on, I never knew you to wear them before?” — “To keep my legs warm, of course.” … How beautifully shaped her legs looked in thick, double woven, red silk stockings, and white drawers above. (p. 805)
Then she told me she had in her youth been a model for artists, had sat to Etty and Frost, hers was the form which had been painted in many of their pictures, — and then she would say no more. (p. 290)
After she had told me she had sat as a model, she brought me a small oil-painting of herself made by an artist of some rank. She was proud of it, and so was her husband. I offered such a price for it, that placed as she was she could not resist, and I bought it. (p. 291)
When Sarah knew that I was fully aware of her occupations and habits, she changed, talked with me about artists’ models, statuary, and so forth, and about her favourite poses as well, for she liked that work. (p. 341)
“I’d give each of you a shilling to piss before me”, said I. … “Well if ever I heard the like, — well young man, give it, — I’ll never be paid again for getting rid of my water, I’ll bet, …”
… “I want a fuck so bad, — let me have you, — I’ll give you five shillings.” To which of the two I don’t know … (p. 269)
Details abound about the horrors of the sexual underground, details that the general public would not get an inkling of until the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 made headlines. Details that are still chilling over 100 years later.
Curiously, there is amazing attention paid to the details of personal hygiene, water-closets, and transportation. Yet, perhaps these details are not so unusual when one considers who Walter might actually have been. Who was Walter? We shall seek to answer that question in a later post.