The Victorians are recognised as pioneers of sexual repression and extreme prudishness, and certainly that is the image they themselves were keen to project. But was this a clever ruse to hide their rampant appetites for the pleasures of the flesh?
The evidence of prudishness is there: the wooden huts on wheels that could be driven right into the surf so swimmers could enjoy the sea without being seen in their cozzies, the chastity belts to keep ladies’ gardens locked up, the huge crinoline cage skirts, the belief that masturbation causes illness and the anti-masturbation devices to prevent against any self-temptation, the women thrown into asylums under charges of nymphomania if they flirted with men… These people were seriously uptight.
But a chance find in a charity shop in Barking has made me think again. The object: a 1970 book edition of the Victorian porn magazine The Pearl.
The Pearl, A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading, was a monthly magazine which went into print in 1879 and was banned 18 months later for printing obscene content. It was reprinted in book form in the 1960s and the edition I have features a very seventies-looking glamour model posing as a Victorian lady with stockings, boots and a large hairdo and The Pearl in a totally groovy bubble font emblazoned across the top, in pink with a green drop shadow. I dived in gleefully, expecting to find tame stories about naughty bunches of flowers delivered by men in top hats and ladies primly extending gloved hands to be kissed, and for that to be the extent of the voluptuousness of the reading. I couldn’t have been more naive.
The Pearl is unashamedly vulgar, obscene, rude, filthy, and all the synonyms of vulgar, obscene, rude and filthy. I found myself physically recoiling at some passages, and had to read them aloud to whoever would listen so that I would feel a little less dirty than had I experienced them solo. I showed the book to a friend, who read a random page of it and had to put it down, declaring that she felt ‘a bit sick.’ This is the reaction of someone in 2016 to something written in 1879. I don’t think we’re prudish or easily shocked, but this Victorian literature truly is feculent.
The tone is mildly humorous and there is definitely a sense of the authors mocking the outward prudishness of their contemporaries, but the florid writing style belies the explicit content of the magazine - which features limericks and dirty rhymes, pornographic parodies, short stories about romps, roddings and adultery, and serialised stories about the sexual exploits of various ridiculous characters - including a 'gentleman' called Walter and his sexually malleable cousins, and a young girl who enjoys brutal whippings at the hand of her pervy grandfather.
There are too many foul passages to choose from so let’s just say if you’re into ‘glutinous spendings’, ‘wrinkled brown bumholes,’ and ‘the moist lips of the haven of love’ this might be for you. I’m far too polite to quote the real horror-porn sections but I’ll leave you this photo of a choice (and fairly tame) page for you to zoom in on if you're feeling brave, but don't say I didn't warn you...
Those Victorians may have had a veneer of respectability but the human mind is capable of serious depravity which no chastity belt can keep penned in - and if The Pearl is anything to go by, the primness of the age was hiding something pretty damn nasty.