Tooth and Nacre: “My Secret Life”

“My Secret Life” (est. 1895) is an enormous, purportedly autobiographical, work of Victorian erotica. Frank and unsubtle in its report, the book gives us a rare perspective on Victorian sexuality and the attitudes of the time. The point-of-view Walter is a man of privilege possessed with longing, not just for the company of women, or even sexual gratification, by mystified and intrigued by the female body, and challenged by the attitudes of the women in his life, many if whom are unable or unwilling to express sexual desire, but who are driven by it in their actions.
The book’s author is unknown — although many scholars and enthusiasts suspect that it may have been written by Henry Spencer Ashbee, a contemporary bibliographer and collector of erotica. The book is enormous — 700+ pages long — and details numerous encounters with servants, nurses, prostitutes, and women from all other walks of life. Only 20-25 copies of the volume were ever printed, and these were sold for a large sum of money.

The book is both a study of the author’s obsession, and an introspective look at the form that that obsession takes in his life. Walter begins the book by examining his earliest sexual memories, dissecting them in order to determine their significance to his psychological state, and the impact that would have on his later life. It continues episodically for hundreds of pages, describing in sometimes simple and sometimes complex terms everything from spying on naked women to masturbation and sexual acts. What the book lacks in structure and restraint, it makes up for in the allure of the hypnotically thorough exploration of sexual acts. The volume is called “My Secret Life,” but details a wealth of shared experiences which expose a fundamental challenge of the time: that while verbal and artistic expressions of sexuality were extensively prohibited in this society, these experiences were nonetheless shared. The result of such a prohibition, as “My Secret Life” exemplifies, is that the subject becomes one of fascination and scrutiny; censorship not only fails to restrict access to such texts, but the government’s attempts to protect society from sexuality is about as effective as it would be to protect a man from ever seeing male genitalia; he can, after all, always remove his own pants and have a look, and this is why it is fundamentally problematic to attempt to obscure mankind from his own nature.

“My Secret Life” at no point spares the reader the details of even the basest of Walter’s dealings and experiences. An epitome of the dirty old man stereotype, Walter seems to delight almost as much in describing the supposedly unpleasant aspects of his lifestyle as he delights in strong attractions and sexual acts. He describes in lurid language unappealing women (to whom he is nonetheless attracted), body odors, sexual pain and injury, and sexually transmitted infections. He is impossible to deter from his pursuit, however; no unpleasantry described seems to lessen his sexual appetite.

The language of “My Secret Life” is bawdy, but archaic. Some of the vocabulary used will be familiar to modern audience — “cunt,” “cock,” and “prick” are still in regular use — but expressions such as “spend” (to have an orgasm) or “frig” (to masturbate) are less common; readers who are unfamiliar with Victorian erotic vernacular may find it useful to keep a dictionary (or Google) nearby as they read.

“My Secret Life” is an unusual example of Victorian erotica due to its thorough and forthright authorial voice; what it reveals about the social attitudes of the time is intriguing. It may present a challenge to casual readers on account of its length and language, but once these obstacles are overcome, the scene that is set by its narrative becomes all the more vivid and alluring.