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Walter (b. early 1820s, d. in or after 1894), anonymous autobiographer, wrote the pornographic My Secret Life, published from the late 1880s at Amsterdam in eleven volumes. Among the subjects of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he is unusual in possibly duplicating an existing entry—for or —both of whom have been alleged to be Walter. Yet Haywood's advocate, J. P. Pattinson, for all his meticulous assiduity, can adduce only circumstantial evidence for Haywood's being Walter; he also admits discrepancies between Haywood's life and Walter's, but these he ascribes to deliberate ‘camouflage’. Ashbee is often alleged to have based the work on his own experiences. Yet My Secret Life's most recent and thorough investigator, while arguing strongly for Ashbee's authorship, admits that his case rests on ‘entirely circumstantial’ evidence (Gibson, 229). Whether Walter existed independently of Ashbee or not, his impact deserves to be recorded separately, for it was considerable at more than one level and in more than one period. Furthermore, in compiling an autobiography devoted solely to the sexual dimension of his life, if that is what Walter did, he produced a work which throws into relief the silences of conventional autobiography, where this important dimension of life is played down. Whereas sexual episodes constitute only regretted and semi-concealed one-line episodes in Gladstone's huge diary, for example, Walter's superabundant sexuality is so central to his diary that outside events impinge rarely and only momentarily.

A remarkable amount is known about Walter, and at the same time almost nothing, for pornography combines anonymity with unusual abundance in a very limited area of the subject's life. According to the sole source, Walter's diary, he seems to have been born in the early 1820s and was still compiling My Secret Life sixty years later. Brought up within a well-to-do family, with several siblings and servants, he was educated at home and then became a day boy at a public school. During his teenage years the family came down in the world, and his father died when Walter was sixteen. Walter prepared at first for the army, but his circumstances improved when his godfather, by leaving him a fortune, enabled him to buy himself out at twenty-one. At this time he began keeping his diary.

Extravagance rapidly consumed Walter's fortune and led him to depend on hand-outs from his mother, and five years later to marry (unhappily) for money. Further legacies and wealthy relatives then again eased his path, a legacy eventually freeing him to walk out of his marriage for further adventures in Europe. He spent the rest of his life in promiscuity, moving confidently between the worlds where Victorian puritans located their enemy: London clubland, the country house, and adventurous travel abroad, especially in Paris. Not until the 1860s did Walter think of printing his autobiography privately, and he did not take action until about 1882, when he summoned Auguste Brancart, a printer of erotica from Amsterdam. Printing—in eleven volumes totalling 4200 pages, with a remarkably detailed index—was not complete until 1894. Walter paid 1100 guineas for the work, but did not publish for sale. He wanted only six copies printed, though there may have been more; certainly by the 1960s six had survived, including one each in the British Museum Library and the Kinsey Institute of Sex Research.

Walter initially seems to have kept his diary in an entirely conventional Victorian way; not until his mid-twenties did it become erotic. He kept it going for several years, allowed it to lapse, then resumed it in his mid-thirties as his sexual experience broadened. His practice was to make notes soon after the event, then fill out the account, usually after a few days. Two serious illnesses in his early forties gave him the leisure to sort through his memoirs, complete them, censor them as needed, and incorporate reflections upon them. All this was done, however, with little attempt to impose internal consistency, let alone overall coherence; the text includes passages at different levels of composition. The style is unpretentious, and he often quotes vernacular conversations whose authentic ring brings Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor to mind. His failures, ignorance, and puzzlements are not concealed, and the tone even of the didactic passages is practical and down-to-earth, but the diary neglects the emotions for an obsessive preoccupation with physical detail.

Walter in some respects anticipates the sexual attitudes which the twentieth-century spread of birth control diffused more widely, with all its potential for a disjunction not only between sexuality and reproduction but between sexual relations and lasting all-round commitment between partners. But there are important contrasts, for in Walter's world feminism and sexual permissiveness were not allied causes: for him the role of the condom was not to protect the women from pregnancy but to protect himself from venereal disease. His sexual adventures made several women pregnant; as he put it, ‘women have all the after trouble, we none’ (My Secret Life, 8.1725). Yet in its yearning to understand rather than merely to condemn, Walter's diary faintly echoes the earnestness of the pioneer late Victorian sexologists such as Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter who are now seen as pioneers of the ‘permissive society’. The worlds of sex research and pornography have never been clearly distinct, nor have those in authority ever been keen to sharpen the distinction. My Secret Life records experiences which constitute the author's lifelong quest both to understand himself and to secure complete identification with others, male or female. It diverges from pornographic works—Frank Harris, Fanny Hill—in not boasting or exaggerating, and in frequently describing conduct systematically in a semi-sociological way in so far as that was possible through one man generalizing from his own experience.

My Secret Life's record of its author's steadily broadening experience even at times almost parodies, through inversion, the reticence of the Victorian self-help autobiography. The milestones in Walter's life are secret sexual, not publicly conventional, climacterics: sexuality is for Walter central to human existence, and as he gradually progressed towards hedonistically glorifying the natural, he saw sexual inventiveness as the mark of mankind's supremacy within the natural world. For him the sexual organs are ‘emblems of the Creator’ (My Secret Life, 8.1622), and at times his paeans to sexuality take on an almost religious tone, crediting ‘the Creator’ with sponsoring enjoyment rather than repression. The diary was, he said, ‘written … with absolute truth and without any regard whatever for what the world calls decency’ (ibid., 1.7). Accepted attitudes are frequently pilloried as absurd. The prostitute was not inevitably doomed to the gutter, for example, and ‘to their class I owe a debt of gratitude … I shall never throw stones at them, nor speak harshly to them, nor of them’ (ibid., 5.902). Public and private virtue should not be equated: ‘it seems to me, that both men and women may be straight, and fair in all they do, be as good and useful members of society as others, yet take their chief delight in carnal pleasures’ (ibid., 6.1250).

Yet Walter did not shed all Victorian values; indeed, like the selection from Arthur Munby's memoirs published by Derek Hudson as Munby: Man of Two Worlds (1972), My Secret Life reveals a Walter who may have cumulatively abandoned inhibitions, but who by no means lost them all. He felt the need to justify each new breach of convention to a potentially disapproving reader. Furthermore, although My Secret Life sometimes records an almost egalitarian delight at sexuality's dissolution of class barriers, it also retains what later came to seem callous and prejudiced attitudes to gender, ethnic, economic, and social-class relations. A major contrast with the sexuality of the 1960s lay in the enormous power that Victorian discrepancies in wealth could wield: according to Walter, recurrently wielding his sovereigns, ‘money will open every female's legs’ (My Secret Life, 8.1599). Even on sexual matters he retained some conventional attitudes: in his emphasis on the debilitating effects of male masturbation, for example, and in his abhorrence of homosexuality.

Walter has a second role in British history: My Secret Life played a modest part in relaxing censorship in Britain. Sections of the book were reprinted by various inter-war publishers, and during the 1960s Eberhard and Phyllis Kronhausen brought out a heavily edited selection, Walter: the English Casanova, in the United States. It was republished in Britain in two paperback volumes by Polybooks, supplemented in 1970 by a third paperback volume with minimal editorial comment, More Walter, published by Morntide Ltd, and subtitled ‘The unique memoirs of England's most uninhibited lover’. By 1970, said the Kronhausens, Walter had become ‘as well known … as his illustrious predecessors Casanova and … Don Juan’ (More Walter, 5). It was Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians (1966), however, that drew My Secret Life to serious academic attention. With access to the Victoriana collected at the Kinsey Institute, and with the institute's full encouragement, Marcus included in this study of nineteenth-century pornography a detailed analysis of Walter's memoirs, complete with unbowdlerized quotations. Marcus, like the Kronhausens, viewed Walter as a pioneer of modern sexuality. Libertarian in his approach to private enjoyment, rationalistic in his down-to-earth approach to the facts of sexuality and to sex education, Walter declared that ‘your body is your own, and you may use it as you like. Its usage concerns no one else but its owner’ (My Secret Life, 5.1043). For Marcus, Walter was ‘a representative figure of cultural subversion in his own time, he representatively anticipates what is about to become the conformity of ours’ (The Other Victorians, 155).

In 1966 Grove Press of New York published the full text as a single volume. The firm's United Kingdom agent was Arthur Dobson, a 31-year-old Bradford bookseller, who sold about 250 copies. When Grove revoked the agreement, Dobson republished the first two volumes, but in 1969 he was prosecuted for doing so before Mr Justice Veale and a jury at Leeds assizes. Dobson pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was defended in court by Stephen Marcus, John Mortimer, and others on the ground that publication was justified under the Obscene Publications Act (1959) as being ‘in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern’. For the prosecution, however, the book was ‘utterly and totally obscene’, and had been written by a man who ‘from a very early stage in his life gave himself over to a life of unremitting fornication and diverse and perverted sexual malpractices’ (Watkins, 210). For Veale, passing judgment on 3 February 1969, Dobson's motive was not scholarly: ‘I have no doubt at all that you are a professional purveyor of filth.’ For this and for publishing two other pornographic volumes Dobson was required to destroy the books and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of £1000 plus £2000 towards the cost of the prosecution. On 28 November this was reduced on appeal to fifteen months in prison and a fine of £510.

How justified were the claims made during Dobson's trial about My Secret Life's historical value? The recollections are observant, says Marcus, and show ‘a larger measure of disinterested sympathy than Mayhew and the early descriptive sociologists’ (The Other Victorians, 100). They reflect an obsessive and lifelong inquisitiveness about sexual conduct which led Walter even to confront his sexual partners with memorized questionnaires. They provide a striking reminder that the ‘official’ and dominant culture of Victorian Britain faced continuous challenge from a male-dominated sexually libertarian counter-culture. This is the amoral counterpart of the moralistic and feminist Victorian code promoted in the careers of Josephine Butler and W. T. Stead; it offers a sociology and a geography of London prostitution which have for once been compiled by the consumer. Whatever their value for the majority of their readers, Walter's diaries, like Joe Orton's for the 1960s, offer to the student of Victoriana the insights that spring from contrast: from the sudden illumination of the familiar when viewed from a new angle, from the uncompromising exposure of the concealments and self-deceptions that buttress social convention, and from the bizarre juxtapositions that reveal how thin is the membrane that separates day-to-day normality from a hidden world beneath.

Brian Harrison


My secret life, vols. 1–11 (New York, 1966) [introduction by G. Legman] · I. Gibson, The erotomaniac: the secret life of Henry Spencer Ashbee (2001) · B. Harrison, ‘Underneath the Victorians’, Victorian Studies, 11 (1967–8), 239–62 · M. Mason, The making of Victorian sexuality (1994) · J. Sutherland, Offensive literature: decensorship in Britain, 1960–1982 (c.1982) · A. Watkins, ‘A slight case of obscenity’, New Statesman (14 Feb 1969), 210 · J. P. Pattinson, ‘The man who was Walter’, Victorian Literature and Culture, 30/1 (2002), 19–40