My Secret Life (memoir)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

My Secret Life (c.1888–1894) is an erotic memoir by "Walter". It features Walter, a gentleman describing the author's sexual development and experiences in Victorian England. It was first published in a private edition of eleven volumes, at the expense of the author, including an imperfect index, which appeared over seven years beginning around 1888.

The work itself is enormous, amounting to over one million words, the eleven original volumes amounting to over 4,000 pages. The text is repetitive and highly disorganised, but its frank discussion of sexual matters and other hidden aspects of Victorian life make it a rare and valuable social document. According to Steven Marcus, it is virtually the only source for information on London's houses of prostitution, in which Walter spent many hours. It has been described as "one of the strangest and most obsessive books ever written".


Publishing, and bans

The first edition was probably printed by Auguste Brancart,

In the twentieth century My Secret Life was pirated and reprinted in a number of abridged versions that were frequently suppressed for obscenity. In 1932, for example, a New York publisher was arrested for issuing the first three volumes.

In the USA it was finally published without censorship in 1966 by Grove Press, but in 1969 a British printer, Arthur Dobson, was sentenced to two years' prison for producing a UK reprint. It was not until 1995 that the work in its entirety was published openly in the UK, by Arrow Books.


The identity of "Walter" is unknown. There is no scholarly consensus in favor of any of the candidates proposed.

The most commonly suggested author is Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900). He was a book collector, writer, and bibliographer and, from the three volumes he published under his pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, the expert on erotic books in his day. Gershon Legman was the first to link "Walter" and Ashbee, in his introduction to the 1962 reprints of Ashbee's bibliographies, and the 1966 Grove Press edition of My Secret Life included an expanded version of that essay. Ashbee was also picked as Walter by a May 2000, Channel 4 documentary on British TV, Walter: The Secret Life of a Victorian Pornographer - and in 2001 Ian Gibson's The Erotomaniac: the secret life of Henry Spencer Ashbee (2001, Template:ISBN) provided a detailed review of circumstantial evidence arguing that Ashbee wrote My Secret Life, presumably weaving fantasy and anecdotes from friends in with his own real-life experiences. If Ashbee was not the actual author, it is suggested that he may well have been the compiler of the work's lengthy, detailed, and very imperfect index, and have provided other editorial assistance and help in getting the book into print.

On the other hand, Steven Marcus, in his influential The Other Victorians (1966), concluded that the balance of known facts was against Legman's "shrewd and ingenious guess." Also unconvinced were Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen in their detailed study of My Secret Life, Walter, the English Casanova (1967).

A number of other men have been suggested as more likely to be the author, including:

  • William Simpson Potter, a known associate of Ashbee, was put forward by Gordon Grimley in his introduction to the 1972 edition of My Secret Life. Grimley is sceptical of Ashbee's candidacy as the main author. According to Ashbee, Potter was involved in authoring The Romance of Lust, an erotic work centred on incest and a range of sexual encounters.
  • Charles Stanley, a barrister and stockbroker, was put forward in 2000 by Vern Bullough and Gordon Stein as the most likely candidate, the known facts of whose life best coincide with the internal evidence of the work. "Walter" claimed to be a close friend of the barrister in a famous case of the time, which they identify as the case Regina v. Richard Clarke of 1854. That barrister, William Overend QC, was a childhood friend of Stanley.
  • William Haywood (1821-1894), who was Surveyor and Engineer to the City of London Commissioners of Sewers was suggested by John Patrick Pattinson in 2002 after extensive research.

Fact or fiction?

The question of how much the book is a record of true experiences (whether of Ashbee or another writer), and how much is fiction or erotic fantasy can probably never be fully resolved. However, the presence of much mundane detail, the writer's inclusion of incidents that do him little personal credit, and the lack of intrinsically improbable circumstances (in contrast to most Victorian erotica) lend it considerable credibility. In spite of "Walter's" obsessive womanising over a period of several decades, only a few of his partners are of his own social class. The great majority are either prostitutes, servants or working class women. This would appear to reflect the realities of his time. Internal evidence from the book suggests that "Walter" was born between 1820 and 1825. In the last volume he notes seeing the books through print, which indicates that he was still alive in the 1890s.

Further reading

  • Marcus, Steven, The Other Victorians: a Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (1966)
  • Kronhausen, Eberhard & Phyllis, Walter: The English Casanova. 512 pages. Ballantine Books, 1967
  • Gibson, Ian, The Erotomaniac: Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee. 285 pages. London: Faber and Faber, 2001

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "My Secret Life (memoir)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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