Starting in 1888, somebody (and we still don't know who) in England started sending orders to a small printer in Belgium who was willing to print pornography to print 6 private copies of his own book, purely for himself. He sent it over in chunks of roughly 200 pages, as he was done editing them, to have it professionally typeset and attractively printed and bound. Once the final, 13th volume was in hand in 1894 that publisher, Auguste Blancart, unscrupulously printed a few copies for quiet, illicit sale to only the wealthiest porn collectors. Nobody knows for sure how many copies, but later porn catalogs would claim that there were no more than 25, total, in the whole world, presumably counting the six copies sent to the author himself. And as rumors leaked out that this book existed, it became a global obsession for not just porn collectors but bibliophiles in general.
The original complete set sold for the equivalent of more than $6,000. But you should think of that as the starting price; desperate collectors who have found out about copies at secretive private auctions have paid tens of times that much or more. Porn publishers almost immediately set out to satisfy the world's craving for this one desperately secretive book that was completely unlike all others, by grabbing random chunks of text from porn in other languages, translating it into English, and publishing it as forged copies of the book. Others got ahold of partial sets, abridged those further, and published those as "complete" editions. And somehow, one of the actual complete sets made its way to the Kinsey Institute's library in the 1970s, where the Kinseys initially failed to appreciate just what a rare treasure they had. Other original copies have been secreted away in vaults for over a century, kept away from the prying eyes of the public and their existence only disclosed to those that the owning institutions felt could be "trusted" to know that the text existed. For most of that time, institutions that owned it had to keep this fact a secret: even countries that legalized other porn banned My Secret Life, up until at least the mid to late 1970s. This book was feared above all other porn because of its unique power to destroy everything that both the religious and the scientific world held sacred.
When I read about the history of this book from its publication date to the present, in Steven Marcus' The Other Victorians, it struck me that My Secret Life is the Necronomicon of pornography.
My Secret Life is an autobiography. Yes, almost all pornography from that time claimed to be autobiographical. But the sex, and the rest of the life, recorded in My Secret Life is completely unlike either the sex described in scientific manuals of the time, and even more completely unlike the sex described in pornography of the time. It consists of entirely realistic sex. Over twenty six hundred pages of realistic sex. You see, "Walter," the pseudonymous author whose identity remains a much-debated secret to this day, was raised as a perfectly ordinary member of the British upper-middle-class. It was mildly unusual for a boy of his time to keep a diary, but not unheard of. It was, we are given to understand, not even vaguely unusual for a very young boy in such a household to have his first sexual experience with one of the servants. And it is probably entirely routine for teenage boys who keep diaries to write down in their diary a complete account of their first sexual experience. But what set Walter apart was that out of that experience, he took away two things that nobody else did. First of all, he dedicated his life, then and there, to having sex with as many women as was humanly possible, whatever the cost to his wealth, sanity, or health. Secondly, he swore to himself that each and every time, as quickly as he could return to his diary, he would write down every relevant detail he could remember. And remarkably, he did both of those things, exactly.
He matured into a small fortune, and spent it all on seduction and prostitutes. After some serious poverty, he inherited a larger fortune, and quickly spent all of it on prostitution and seduction. He then married into money, and resolved to lay off the chasing tail for good. He had already learned that the medical texts of his time were wrong, that his active sex life was actually improving his health and sanity. And he truly loved his wife. So he resolved to teach her to love sex as much as he did, and to settle down to enjoying sex every day with his beautiful, loving wife. This lasted less than two years, before he couldn't take it any longer ... he started taking the household money and spending it, discretely, on mistresses and prostitutes. When he got free of his wife, he shortly thereafter inherited a much larger fortune. He determined to learn from his experience to spend this fortune more carefully, so that it would last him until his health finally did wear out from old age, but he still had enough left to travel all of Europe, determined to find out just how much of the rumors he'd heard about French brothels and Austrian brothels and so forth were true, and to find out if prostitutes and loose women from other countries were any different from the ones back home. And the whole time, he kept filling up locked diaries and storing them carefully.
When he got into his middle 60s and began to slow down a little, it occurred to him to go back and finally re-read his first several diaries. And for reasons he himself couldn't explain, not even to himself, he decided that this material desperately needed to be preserved. He did know this much: he had reached a stage in his life where, by now, he ought to have the wisdom and maturity and experience to understand why he had done the things he did, and more importantly, why he had felt some of the things he had felt while doing them and afterwards. And he didn't. But it occurred to him that we might. So he edited all 2600+ pages of the history of his sex life, including the seduction or purchase of over 1200 women from over 40 countries over the course of roughly 50 years, explaining the parts that he did understand and documenting the parts that he didn't -- and left it carefully hidden in plain sight for us to find.
Very few people have actually read the whole thing. Aleister Crowley owned a copy (are you surprised?) and claimed to have read it, but had nothing interesting to say about it so his veracity is reasonable to doubt. Marcus, a veteran of Victorian literature on salary with nothing better to do, did read it, and documented that if nothing else it stood a good chance of changing Dickens scholarship forever. Many of the characters and incidents that Dickens scholars had assumed were whimsical over-the-top fantasy have very close parallels in My Secret Life, only with fewer euphemisms. You see, part of Walter's obsession extended into wanting to understand the economics of sex in his lifetime. He always documented scrupulously exactly what he spent on sex. And when he could, which was often, he asked the girls and women he gave money to what they were going to do with the money. He wanted to know how they lived, what other jobs they had and what those jobs paid, what their living expenses were, everything having to do with that aspect of their lives. He also was obsessed with knowing why they were so willing to have sex for money, and not just so he could use that information to get better prices, and he documented each woman's separate answers. Scholars still argue over just how much to trust My Secret Life, but it's a wealth of lifestyle, history, and economic details that are recorded nowhere else in any other form.
I think that Marcus also came to understand, from studying it, why so many people were terrified at the prospect of people reading this book. You see, part of the arc of Walter's life was that before he even reached the age of 30, he realized that if what he had been told his whole life about sex was true, he should have been dead, or at least crippled and feeble-minded, already. Furthermore, knowing female sexuality in a way that no other man of his time could have, it also became clear to him that virtually everything he had ever been told in his life, by legal or scientific or religious experts on sex, about women's sexuality was just as false. That left him with no moral yardstick at all.
A fair comparison can be made to DARE and the War on Drugs. Kids are told that all drugs destroy your mind, sanity, and health, and are all fiercely addictive. We tell them this, I'm convinced, because we know that if you told them the truth about sliding scales of risk and random factors and slippery slopes, nearly all of them would (because of the built-in malfunctions of the adolescent mind) miscalculate risk and get themselves killed. So we lie, and tell them that everything is more instantly deadly than even the worst of it is. They work up the nerve to dabble in the safest stuff, and find out that dabbling in the safest stuff was perfectly harmless. And a large number of them then go on to huff deadly inhalants or get themselves hooked on heroin, and a small but still uncomfortably large number of them end up dead of drug overdose. They were left with no way of knowing which of the risks they were warned about were true, and guessed poorly.
So when, for example, some time around 1880 Walter became obsessed with the idea of deflowering a pre-pubescent girl, he completed the tricky negotiations to find a woman so desperate for money that she would sell her daughter's virginity to him, and that woman helped him hold down her 12 year old girl while he forcibly raped her. This, he documented, left him feeling that he had done something awful and unforgivable. And he had. But he had no language or concepts to explain to him why what he did was bad, and ample social and experiential data to explain why it shouldn't have been. He knows that something he knows about reality must be in error, but with no basis for comparison and nobody to discuss it with who wasn't lying to him, equally mistaken, or both he has nothing he can do with this information other than leave it for us to analyze and decode. And that is why people and places who tolerated all other porn were terrified of My Secret Life. The thought of a million, or a hundred million, or a billion people performing the same experiments that "Walter" did and then openly discussing those experiments terrified them beyond all rational comprehension.
And, you should not be surprised to find out, the whole thing in its entirety is available on the Internet for free. (Clearly uploaded via optical character recognition; it's completely strewn with the kind of typos that OCR software makes.) Just as the Necronomicon would be, if it had been real. It's up to us to figure out how we're going to live in a world where anybody who wants to read Walter's experiences and wonder about whether or not to replicate the experiment cannot be stopped from doing so.