“I early had a taste for female form, it was born with me.”
The fascinating memoirs of a ‘respectable’ gentleman living in 19th century London give a rare and unique insight into the attitudes towards women, sex and prostitution in a time of frigidity and repression. Personally, this time in history interests me greatly and the book, which I had never heard of and stumbled across by chance, encapsulates the dark and mysterious world of the capital in the 1800s. The text almost escaped any recognition, being a controversial piece of erotica, and caused printers and publishers to be arrested or imprisoned due to their involvement with it. It is alleged that the original eleven volumes were locked away in a British library for some time, banned for their depravity, and were only published in their entirety in 1995. I discuss only the first three volumes which detail how the book came to be, Walter’s childhood and education about sex and also his experiences from teenage boy to young man. I focus on the relationships he had with certain women and also the ambiguity that surrounds the text.
The text begins with a foreword from a man who was given a peculiar package whilst his friend was gravely ill. The instructions were that the package was not to be opened until the man had died, if he survived the package was to be returned to him. If not, it was allowed to be seen by the receiver’s eyes only and then burnt. The demise came and the parcel was opened, the inheritor writes, “the more I read it, the more marvelous it seemed.” For some years he wondered what he would do with it and, ignoring his friend’s wish, came to the conclusion: “feeling that it would be sinful to destroy such a history, I copied the manuscript and destroyed the original. No one can now trace the author, no names are mentioned in the book […] If I have done harm in printing it, I have done none to him, […] and given to a few a secret history which bears the impress of truth on every page, a contribution to psychology.”
As you can imagine, I was eager to learn more. The text reads like a gripping mystery novel and critics have wondered if the text is indeed purely fictional. However, many disagree because the novel is extremely repetitive and unstructured, written years after the events in a muddled manner which is unlike fiction. Regardless, the story continues to be obsessive because it is such an intriguing insight in to a world of pseudonyms and banned publication, an expose of the animal that raged within the Victorian.
Before delving into Walter’s world, I would like to state that this discussion is not for the sole purpose of recommendation. Walter was deeply infatuated with sex of any form: be it masturbation, voyeurism, pedophilia in one case, forced, bought or group. He is graphic in detail about some of the most debasing sexual acts probably recorded in this format at the time- hence the anonymity. For the purpose of this blog, I discovered that the word ‘c*nt’ appears 1,035 times in the three volumes I read. Therefore, I advise those who are easily offended to leave it be.
Walter was never educated about sex, the knowledge he gained was through spying with his cousin Fred or noticing that his baby siblings had something that wasn’t a penis. He and Fred would spy on their older relatives whilst they were using the toilet and discuss what they imagined sex and the uses of genitalia to be. Walter and his classmates would masturbate each other because they knew no better and many of Walt’s first sexual experiences were through maids and cooks that his mother employed . Is it much wonder that sex became so appealing to Walter? It was a tantalising taboo, Walter would even peek through keyholes in order to catch a glimpse of a woman in the nude and would then ‘frig’ himself into a frenzy whilst looking at the illustrations in Fanny Hill. To read the book is almost to become a voyeur yourself.
Once older, being of an educated class, Walt used money to buy himself the pleasures that many women wouldn’t give so freely. He writes about sexual experiences with every type and class of prostitute you could possibly imagine, from old to young or backstreet to grand apartment. Some he found repulsive, others he writes about as an artist who has found their Mona Lisa.
Sarah Mavis seems to be “the one that got away” for poor old Walt. She was aloof, she was unlike any prostitute or lady he had even lain with because she was a woman who was indifferent to him, she intimidated him. Not to mention she had the physical form that Walter held so highly; “fleshy limbs and a fat backside.” She was expensive and infuriating; Walter seemed to have fallen for her at first sight: “I saw a pair of feet in lovely boots which seemed perfection, and calves which were exquisite.” It’s important to note that Walter was unhappily married during the latter volumes and had asked Sarah to elope with him. He’d offered to flee the country with Sarah - he paid for her living and wanted to provide for her as his mistress - he confesses to have loved her. She wouldn’t leave her husband for him and he was left heartbroken. He later writes that he believed she was found dead in the Thames. It’s not typically romantic but there seems to be something tragically Shakespearian about the whole seedy affair.
I find the concept of this secret life extraordinary, had this man not written what he did, we would never know about Sarah Mavis or her sad existence or the worship one man had for her. The little conversations and glances would have died with them. The thing that frustrates me and draws me to the book is the subtle clues and jigsaw pieces that Walt gives us and Sarah Mavis is so intriguing because she is one of those pieces. Who was she? We are told she had been an actress in a troupe, she had been a model for artists and she had only begun prostituting herself in order to support her family and earn money to start a business.
Walt writes: “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.” William Edward Frost is widely recognised as a follower of William Etty, both painted the female form during the Victorian era. I was naturally curious to see some of their work in the hope of seeing Sarah Mavis. The first picture of the female form I have included in this piece is by Etty and the second is a painting of a woman’s face by Frost. In my fantasy of discovering who Sarah Mavis is, I have re-read Walt’s descriptions of Sarah’s full form and depiction of her face and I’d love to imagine that either could be her.
“Handsome her face certainly was, but it was of a somewhat heavy character: her eyes were dark, soft and vague in expression which together with the habit of leaving her lips slightly open, gave her a thoughtful, and at times half-vacant look. Her nose was charming and retroussé, her mouth small, with full lips, and a delicious set of very small white teeth, her hair was nearly black, long, thick and coarsish dark hair in large quantity was in her armpits, and showed slightly when her arms were down, her arms and breasts were superb.”
Of course, I will never know who either of them were but that’s part of the appeal of the memoirs. I found the description of Sarah to be so close to the picture included that I felt almost like Sherlock Holmes. My detective work leaves a lot to be desired but others are just as hopeless as finding out any more about the author’s identity. One critic genuinely believes that Walt was Jack the Ripper; saying that Walt had the “means and the motive” to be the prostitute slayer. So much secrecy and speculation is what makes the text so thoroughly obsessive. Many believe that Henry Spencer Ashbee is Walt, a collector and writer of erotic literature, but who is to say he is? Like Jack the Ripper, Walt’s identity is a dead man’s secret.
Oxford Road Rating: ★★★★