Interview by Sarah McMenomy
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dominic Crawford Collins, an English film composer who is recording an audiobook of the complete, unabridged text of “My Secret Life.” He’s releasing the book at a rate of one chapter a month, with the entire audio to be released over the space of ten years, and quite obligingly agreed to answer some questions I had about the book, and his audiobook version!
First of all, thank you for agreeing to an interview. Your audiobook is very exciting, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get your perspective on the book. “My Secret Life” is not a well-known work, even amongst aficionados of classic erotica. How did you learn about the book?
About twenty years ago a friend of mine stumbled across a copy of “My Secret Life” (Grove Press Edition) in a book market in Paris and thinking that it might appeal to me, gave it me, and thus began my enduring “love affair” with the book.
Because the book is so long, and because you’re both composing and narrating the work, the magnitude of this project is enormous. What motivated you to take it on?
I seem as a composer to be drawn to large scale projects. My “Colour Of Distance” symphony, which runs to 70 minutes, is the longest orchestral work ever to combine a full size symphony orchestra with natural sound; it was recorded in Abbey Road Studios in 6.1 surround sound and includes a narrative introduction by actor John Hurt. So the sheer size of “My Secret Life” held an appeal for that aspect of it alone. Embarking on a creative odyssey of that length offers the possibility of a sustained evolution of musical ideas within a particular framework of inspiration; it is after all going to take me in the region of fifteen to twenty years to complete!
It also offers me the potential of a huge legacy, both as a musical artist and as a contributor to the world of literary erotica. I love the idea that the ultimate CD collection will occupy the best part of six foot on a collector’s bookshelf and at an average of fifty minutes per chapter, the best part of two weeks continuous listening!
Somehow I feel that the mystery of women is Walter’s holy grail. He is tireless in his pursuit of erotic discovery… this focus is an element that appeals to me as a composer; it provides me with a focus within which I can explore a limitless number of creative possibilities.
Is there something about “My Secret Life” that sets it apart from other contemporary works?
I love the mischievous and slightly conspiratorial tone of “My Secret Life.” It is presented much in the way that Rousseau’s confessions were a hundred years before, as a “warts and all” account of a compelling character’s life. It is this veracity that really distinguishes it from other contemporary works.
The author is, one senses, a sensitive character, a philosophical character, an intellectual and amusing character, a fundamentally decent character. I find his addiction to erotic stimulation and the ends to which he goes to in order to satisfy it quite fascinating.
Although the book’s author is not certain, most people think that the author is Henry Spencer Ashbee — a view you seem to hold as well. Ashbee also collected a huge library of erotic works and wrote extensive bibliographies of erotica. What kind of effect did his work have on Victorian culture?
There are differing opinions amongst various erudite individuals specializing in the field of literotica regarding the identity of the author of “My Secret Life,” and the short answer is no one knows for sure who it was!
To further complicate the task of trying to establish this, there is the question of whether or not the text is that of a real or a fictional autobiography.
There are many reasons to put forward Ashbee as number one contender: his life was devoted to the collection, study and bibliography of erotic literature; he was quite clearly erotically obsessed enough to have been Walter, he was wealthy and well travelled enough to have done all the things that Walter did, and there is something of his character one can glean from reading his travel diaries that seems to be sympathetic with the nature of Walter.
Close analysis of the dates and locations mentioned in “My Secret Life,” however, reveal that the chronology of Ashbee’s life doesn’t quite fit, which raises some questions.
If the dates are correct in MSL then Ashbee can’t have written it …except that Ashbee could have written it as a true autobiography and changed the dates in order to obscure his identity …or Ashbee could have written it as a fictional autobiography, inventing dates and locations accordingly. The trouble with this theory though is the convincing nature of the text, and by virtue of its size, the unlikely undertaking of the gargantuan task of concealing one’s identity behind a spurious chronology, locations that would need to cross-correlate over the space of a million words, etc.
The author John Pattinson, in his article “The Man Who Was Walter” (Cambridge University Press) has done painstaking research into trying to establish a character who fits the chronology of Walter perfectly, and one who corresponds more closely than Ashbee did to the locations described, events, family circumstances, and so on. He proposes that Walter was actually a successful Victorian architect (who designed the former bridge that used to span Ludgate Hill), by the name of Col. William Haywood. It’s certainly a compelling theory, but whilst many aspects of Haywood’s life seem to fit the bill, we know very little about his character, whether he was remotely erotically inclined, whether he knew Ashbee, or any of his circle of erotophiles who would have been able to provide him with the contact to Brancart (who printed “My Secret Life”), and so on.
The absolute need for anonymity and the lengths that the author would have gone to in order to achieve this have really made it impossible for us to draw any indisputable conclusions from the text as to the author’s real identity.
So, though there is no one single fact that irrefutably proves the identity of Henry Spencer Ashbee as Walter, Ian Gibson’s excellent book “The Erotomaniac” presents a treasure trove of overwhelming circumstantial evidence in his favour; stylistic comparisons between his diaries and “My Secret Life,” the quirky use of grammar and syntax, tastes, opinions, places… the absence of “My Secret Life” from Ashbee’s bequest to the British Museum and so on, all conspire to suggest in fairly uncertain terms that it was him.
We know Ashbee’s fondness for the punning potential of his surname, to the point where he has beautiful rebus bookplates designed which charmingly exploit the bee and ash motifs; he also adopts the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, combining the anagram of Latin Apis: Bee with Fraxinus: Ash as his non de plume for his bibliographies.
Consider then the discovery I made recently whilst studying the original print in the British Library and imagine my delight when, holding a page of “My Secret Life” up to the light, I see the watermark of a honeycomb, bee, and flower, resembling that of the ash tree.
What do you do if you would love to declare your identity in association with a cherished work of your own creation and yet to do so would lead you to the gallows?
You have, I suppose, three options; you either publish and be damned… which in Ashbee’s case would probably have meant losing everything, including his liberty. You remain completely tacit, or you leave a subtle clue by which it would be impossible to incriminate you if discovered yet one which bears clandestine testimony to your authorship. The latter option is I believe what Ashbee found irresistible, and with an understanding of his character and sense of humor I am happy to accept this as pretty much conclusive proof of his authorship of My Secret Life. [Since writing this I have learned from Patrick Kearney (A History of Erotic Literature) that the paper "My Secret Life" was printed on was manufactured by a company by the name of Van Gelder, and that this watermark was used by them in other publications. What does one conclude from this? Is this a case of Ashbee being extra cautious and planting another red herring? After all, could the paper manufacturer have credibly come up with such an Ashbee-esque watermark design quite independently? ...Once more the enigma is compounded and the jury out!]
Ashbee was the greatest collector and bibliographer of erotic books the world has ever known. He bequeathed 15,299 books from his collection to the British Museum (now held in the British Library). He wrote and published diaries of his travels around the world and became the leading collector and authority on the works of Cervantes, in particular Don Quixote. His character combined certain important elements that the author of “My Secret Life” would have certainly had… an obsessive love of books, of writing and of erotica.
Of his three bibliographies of erotic literature — “Index Librorum Prohibitum” (1877), “Centuria Librorum Absconditorum” (1879), “Catena Librorum Tacendorum” (1885), all published under the scatological pseudonym “Pisanus Fraxi” — the author Ian Gibson describes the former as “one of the most deliberately subversive books ever written in the English language.” The same could certainly be said of “My Secret Life.”
What about the authenticity of the book? Is it a true autobiography, pure fantasy, or some mixture of the two?
Without doubt, one of the most distinguishing and appealing traits of “My Secret Life” is the veracity with which it is written. We know that Henry Spencer Ashbee read Rousseau’s confessions, whose mantra is: “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no precedent and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself,” and I believe that this book was hugely influential to Ashbee and may have even inspired his writing of “My Secret Life.”
On the assumption that “My Secret Life” was written by Ashbee, I would have to conclude that the book is based on his real life experiences. If it were purely a work of fiction, then Ashbee’s ability to create character and depict scene puts him in the league of some of the truly great writers, and if this were the case we might expect that other works of fiction would have flowed from his pen; yet none did so. On the contrary, all his “creative” works were limited to travel diaries, bibliographies, and erudite works on Cervantes.
I also think that, considering the sheer scale of the work (1,000,000+ words), it would be too daunting and demanding a task for Ashbee (who must also have had significant demands on his time by virtue of running a successful business) to start from scratch and fabricate the entirely false autobiography of an entirely fictitious individual. Far more likely, I believe, is a diary based largely, if not entirely, on truth, embellished perhaps here and there with a little poetic license.
If it is not a true autobiography, then Henry Spencer Ashbee certainly has a profound love of the character he has so imaginatively created, and takes a vicarious delight in his escapades. There is in the writing a sense of delight and wonder mingled with a tinge of longing, melancholy, and nostalgia, all of which seem to lend credence to the integrity of the text and its author.
In the modern era, almost everything is available on the internet, so it would be nearly impossible to censor this kind of work. In its time, though, “My Secret Life” could have brought its author and publishers into court on obscenity charges. What role does censorship play in the artistic process for erotica?
If not a true autobiography (which as I have said I believe it was), then perhaps it was inspired as a protest against censorship. We know of Ashbee’s attitude towards freedom of erotic speech from his introduction to “Index Librorum Prohibitum”: “The English nation possesses an ultra-squeamishness and hyper- prudery peculiar to itself.”
Ian Gibson considers “My Secret Life” constitutes a violent attack against Victorian hypocrisy and sexual repression… an attempt to argue the case for uninhibited sex in a society in which “this act of mighty power and eternal endowments is termed foul, bestial, abominable and may not be mentioned or talked about.” As a motivating force, censorship is in itself therefore capable of being culpable!
How available should these works be?
A work like “My Secret Life” is now freely available and so it should be; not least because it is a valuable social document — Walter filling in the gaps that Dickens left out — and informs us of the erotic aspirations and reality of Victorian England.
Even within the genre of erotica, “My Secret Life” is unusually candid — the author doesn’t use many euphemisms or speak subtly about his experiences. Does this kind of candor make it more or less erotically effective?
I think the eroticism of “My Secret Life” lies in the careful observation of scene, setting, and state of mind of the author and his accomplices, rather than in the graphic language deployed. No doubt, though, Walter’s bawdy words will stimulate the desired effect in many of us, an effect I have little doubt that he intended!
There are a lot of types of sexual relationships in “My Secret Life” that modern readers may find objectionable — Walter has sex with servants, younger women, and prostitutes. Do you think this poses a challenge to how the work is viewed as erotica?
Much of Walter’s behaviour might today be deemed sexually abusive or morally reprehensible; he took advantage of his position in society in order to have sex with servants, he thought little of deflowering a young virgin, justifying his behaviour on the grounds that they were better off losing their maidenhead to a gentleman and getting paid for it than otherwise… and prostitutes were of course a staple diet. Morally questionable as many of Walter’s escapades may have been, however, I think that there is a great deal of erotic appeal in the perceived truth of the author’s experiences. Having accepted his honesty, it is perhaps easier for us to empathize with his behaviour. Perhaps Ashbee knew that this was a clever way in which to erotically engage his audience …maybe that is key to the success of the work as a whole? Which raises the question, if “My Secret Life” is not a true autobiography, did Ashbee realise that the most effective way to communicate pornographic literature and titillate his audience was through the creation of a totally plausible and credible character?
I think the soundtrack you’re composing is really beautiful — it’s haunting and alluring, and really creates an encompassing atmosphere for Walter’s life. What’s your process for composing the soundtrack for the audiobook?
I approach the scoring of “My Secret Life” in much the same way as I would a movie. Walter’s evocative descriptions of scenes and emotions are full of imagery, and are a fecund source from which to draw inspiration. I try to give each chapter a slightly different musical style and find one or two themes that I can thematically explore and develop, perhaps also reprising themes from earlier chapters in different guises where appropriate.
An initial read of a chapter will give me a musical focus; perhaps, for example, an underlying element might be Walter’s wonder at the mystery of the fair sex; perhaps a sense of embarrassment at his own inadequacy; perhaps, in the case of the third chapter which I have just finished, Walter’s vision of having sex with a woman for the first time, and the state of euphoria into which he is cast as he imagines the physical and spiritual bliss that he will encounter. With a sentiment like this in mind I will begin looking for a theme, a musical texture, a mood sympathetic to Walter’s state of mind.
Once I have found it, I will work it into a five minute piece which introduces the chapter, and which I will subsequently develop and rearrange within the chapter.
Then, the unexpected can always happen, and a phrase, or image, or combination of the two hidden within the text can inspire a fresh theme. This happened to me as I was reading the passage where Walter lies on the floor in an attempt to look up the petticoats of the maid who is teaching his little sister to dance. As she makes “cheeses” with the spinning motion of her petticoats, Walter’s eyes light up at the vision before him, and so the musical spark was ignited in my mind, and a theme born.
I will normally work at the piano, or at my keyboard, in the development and orchestration of the themes or motifs. The music is then recorded in my professional recording studios (Crab Lane Studios, Wicklow, Ireland), where it is subsequently mixed and mastered by my chief engineer Gus, who also happens to be my son!
The sound effects are also an important part of the production, setting its mood and evoking the feel of the era in which it was written.
Knowing that the completion of this project will take me from middle to old age in its pursuit I now thumb through the chapters that lie ahead and wonder at my own future and how the events in my own life will have unfolded according to the page to which I have turned; what as yet unwritten music will accompany future scenes, what body of work will I have ultimately left behind inspired by this book?
I am confident that “My Secret Life” will continue to captivate and inspire me in the making of this audiofilm until its conclusion… I have read it enough times now to know that familiarity in no way breeds any form of inspirational contempt or diminishes my enthusiasm for or fascination with the text.
What, I wonder, will the single minded dogged pursuit of a single project like this ultimately teach me? What musical experimentation will I have to pursue in order to keep the challenge and the material fresh? Will fixing my eyes solely on a single all consuming object of almost devout focus yield any sort of musical edification? …all these things remain to be heard!
Committing myself to this colossal undertaking, I realise that I have planted an acorn which I hope to watch grow into a mighty oak tree, one that will one day represent a large part of my creative life. I only hope that it will be a worthwhile legacy for those whose love of music and eros is shared with my own.
Your reading has a very dramatic flair to it, full of lingering punctuation and indicative intonation. What’s your approach to recording the narration?
The key to Walter’s character is, I feel, a sense of mischief. Not only in the way he portrays himself, but in the way he presents himself to his audience. I think identifying this humorous element of him
has been important in helping me discover the tone of his voice. The way he uses his charm and quick wittedness to insinuate and wheedle his way into an advantageous erotic situation is always conspiratorially imparted to his audience. His tone is self assured even when he is self doubting, he delights in his own prurience… he relishes in his use of bawdy words …the analysis of all these elements of his character has undoubtedly pointed me in the right direction towards finding his voice. I hope that my narration imparts just the right amount of lascivious intrigue that comes across so strongly in Walter’s persona.
Steamypunk is an erotica website, so I have to ask: what do you think is the hottest scene in this book?
I often find myself being intrigued and fascinated or amused, rather than being obviously erotically stimulated by Walter’s escapades. Although unquestionably all of “My Secret Life” is in that zone, and I know that a friend of mine had to turn it off after he found himself getting a boner whilst listening to my voice — I hasten to add that he is not gay! — I’m afraid that there are just too many calls to summon eros in “My Secret Life” for me to be able to single out a particular erotic winner.
And our final, completely inappropriate question: if you could have sex with any man or woman alive between 1700 and 1900, who would it be?
I suppose it would have to be with one of Walter’s belles, probably in private rooms somewhere off Regent Street, with dear old Wattie present in the room. Then what took place might inspire Walter to write another episode in “My Secret Life,” which in turn I would have the pleasure of narrating and setting to music all those years into the future!
Thanks again to Dominic Crawford Collins for indulging me with this interview! The first three chapters of his audiobook are available at mysecretlife.org, on Spotify, on Musicload, on Google Play, on Wimp, on iTunes, and will soon be available on Audible!
For a short review of “My Secret Life,” visit Tooth and Nacre.