y Secret Life, the anonymous erotic memoirs of a Victorian English gentleman called Walter, is both a paean to a life devoted to the tireless pursuit of carnal experiences and a haunting evocation of a bygone era. As Walter's sexual and moral behaviour is revealed, we are left with indelibly entertaining insights into life behind the closed doors of Victorian society. My Secret Life is evocative, provocative, funny, sorrowful, obscene, atmospheric, bizarre and highly erotic. Through it we are privy to the thoughts, emotions and memories of one of the most unusual, unsung and colourful characters of the Victorian era.
Walter was alone in giving voice to taboo sexual subjects that contemporary writers eschewed, for him there was nothing that was out of bounds. Whatever he did he described candidly and without attempt to censor or apologise for his actions. Within the pages of Walter's vast erotic odyssey vivid descriptions of sex, in all its possible shapes and forms, sit alongside social observation; both made all the more compelling by the author’s detailed & evocative description of his surroundings. Yet despite the often lurid content of his erotic panegyric, the redolent scent of a lost era serves to ameliorate the subject matter, and the historical context offers a sense of perspective on what it might actually have been like to be alive in the nineteenth Century.
The title-page and statement that the three-volume work is a reprint and limited to 475 copies. How much, if any, of that statement is true? According to Steven Marcus, much pornography in English makes false claims of place of publication, most often claiming Amsterdam and Paris, when works actually were printed and published in England. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Though Walter was motivated by a relentless desire to have sex, he was also interested in the lives and circumstances of all those he encountered; and it is his exploration of their hearts and minds, as well as their bodies, that makes My Secret Life so uniquely interesting a piece of erotic literature. Amongst the pages of My Secret Life lies an undiscovered treasure trove of real lives, lives encountered from a very different perspective to those depicted by contemporaries such as Dickens; lives illuminated by the oblique light of the author’s prurient eye. Walter’s detailed description of the unseen side of nineteenth-century British and European life provides us with an understanding of the Victorian age than cannot be gleaned from any other source, informing us clearly of what Dickens and Hardy often alluded to but could never articulate.
My Secret Life was a revolutionary piece of writing. Startlingly contemporary in its literary style, it still retains the power to shock to this day. No other writer has succeeded in presenting the clandestine lives of prostitutes and servants in their own words to the extent that Walter did. Open the pages of My Secret Life and the hidden, forbidden voices of Victorian London spring into life. Walter catches the timbre of their voice with the ear of a musician and their physical form with the eye of an artist. In his communication of both he has engendered his subjects, who would otherwise have disappeared without trace into the ether of time, with immortality.
Walter's decision to commit to the page and share, unflinchingly, the more unsavory elements of his character reveals an extraordinarily courageous individual. His decision to print (at considerable risk) rather than destroy his diaries has been vindicated by the appreciation and enjoyment of them to this day, where from our enlightened vantage point we can see them for what they are; a unique and brilliantly presented account of life behind the closed doors of Victorian society. The intimate nature of Walter's erotic diaries and his portrayal of himself and his surroundings, place My Secret Life well outside the realms of Victorian pornography as established in publications like 'The Pearl'. Walter's mantra might have been adopted from Jean-Jaques Rousseau in his Confessions: “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.' Like Rousseau's Confessions, My Secret Life is also noted for its detailed account of the author's more humiliating and shameful moments.
The historic importance of My Secret Life is elegantly summed up by Sarah Waters, author of Fingersmith & Tipping the Velvet:
I first came across “My Secret Life” while researching nineteenth-century sexual underworlds. I read it alongside various pieces of Victorian pornography, but Walter’s 11-volume sexual memoir is much stranger, more endearing and more compelling than mere porn.
A brilliant storyteller who was prepared to go literally anywhere for a fuck, he gives us a Kinsey-esque cross-section of nineteenth-century erotic life, leading us unblushingly into all those urban spaces – the bedrooms, the brothels, the privies, the darkened parks and omnibuses – which lurk just beyond the margins in the work of more respectable London writers like Dickens and Wilkie Collins. It’s fascinating, eye-opening stuff.’
Last modified 7 August 2017