My Secret Life (memoir)

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The title page of a My Secret Life reprint published in 1888

My Secret Life, by "Walter", is the memoir of a Victorian gentleman's sexual development and experiences. It was first published in a private edition of eleven volumes, which appeared over seven years beginning around 1888.

The work itself is enormous, amounting to over one million words,[1] the eleven original volumes amounting to over 4,000 pages. The text is repetitive and highly disorganised,[2] but its frank discussion of sexual matters and other hidden aspects of Victorian life make it a rare and valuable social document. It has been described as "one of the strangest and most obsessive books ever written".[3]

Publishing, and bans[edit]

The first edition was probably printed by Auguste Brancart,[4][5] in an impression of only 25 copies.[1]

In the twentieth century My Secret Life was pirated and reprinted in a number of abridged versions that were frequently suppressed for obscenity. In 1932, for example, a New York publisher was arrested for issuing the first three volumes.

In the USA it was finally published without censorship in 1966 by Grove Press, but in 1969 a British printer, Arthur Dobson, was sentenced to two years' prison for producing a UK reprint. It was not until 1995 that the work in its entirety was published openly in the UK, by Arrow Books.


The true identity of "Walter" has never been discovered for certain. The most frequently cited likely author is Henry Spencer Ashbee (21 April 1834 – 29 July 1900), a book collector, writer, and bibliographer notable as an early authority on erotic literature. If Ashbee was not the actual author, he may well have been the compiler of the work's lengthy, detailed, and disorganized index, and have provided other editorial assistance and help in getting the book into print.[6]

Gershon Legman was the first to link "Walter" and Ashbee in his introduction to the 1962 reprints of Ashbee's bibliographies; the 1966 Grove Press edition of My Secret Life included an expanded version of that essay. On the other hand Steven Marcus, in his influential The Other Victorians (1966), concluded that the balance of known facts was against Legman's "shrewd and ingenious guess." Also unconvinced were Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen in their detailed study of My Secret Life, Walter the English Casanova (1967).

Gordon Grimley's introduction to the 1972 edition of "My Secret Life" is sceptical of Ashbee's candidacy as the main author and makes a case for William Simpson Potter, a known associate of Ashbee's. According to Ashbee, Potter was involved in authoring The Romance of Lust, an erotic work centred on incest and a range of sexual encounters.[7]

More recently, however, Ian Gibson's The Erotomaniac: the secret life of Henry Spencer Ashbee (2001, ISBN 0-571-19619-5) provides a detailed review of circumstantial evidence arguing that Ashbee wrote My Secret Life, presumably weaving fantasy and anecdotes from friends in with his own real-life experiences. In May 2000, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on British TV, Walter: The Secret Life of a Victorian Pornographer, which also claimed that Ashbee was Walter.

John Patrick Pattinson provides a detailed review of circumstantial evidence arguing that Walter is William Haywood, who was Surveyor and Engineer to the City of London Commissioners of Sewers.[8]

Vern Bullough and Gordon Stein wrote that if not Ashbee, the best alternative candidate was a Charles Stanley, a barrister and stockbroker, and that the evidence slightly favored Stanley. The strongest evidence for this theory was that "Walter" claimed to be a close friend of the barrister in a famous case of the time, which appears to be the case R v Richard Clarke of 1854. That barrister, William Overend QC, was a childhood friend of Stanley.[6]

Fact or fiction?[edit]

The question of how much the book is a record of true experiences (whether of Ashbee or another writer), and how much is fiction or erotic fantasy can probably never be fully resolved. However, the presence of much mundane detail, the writer's inclusion of incidents that do him little personal credit, and the lack of intrinsically improbable circumstances (in contrast to most Victorian erotica) lend it considerable credibility. In spite of "Walter's" obsessive womanising over a period of several decades, only a few of his partners are of his own social class. The great majority are either prostitutes, servants or working class women. This would appear to reflect the realities of his time. Internal evidence from the book suggests that "Walter" was born between 1820 and 1825. In the last volume he notes seeing the books through print, which indicates that he was still alive in the 1890s.[9]


  1. ^ a b Sutherland, John, ed. (2009). The Longman companion to Victorian fiction. Pearson Longman. p. 515. ISBN 1-4082-0390-1. 
  2. ^ For an analysis of the original edition's production and Walter's methods of composition, see Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians.
  3. ^ Patrick J. Kearney (1982) A History of Erotic Literature. Parragon: 127
  4. ^ Green, Jonathon; Karolides, Nicholas J., eds. (2005). The encyclopedia of censorship. Facts on File library of world history. Infobase Publishing. p. 69. ISBN 0-8160-4464-3. 
  5. ^ Kearney, Patrick J. (1982). A history of erotic literature. Parragon. p. 126. ISBN 1-85813-198-7. 
  6. ^ a b Bullough, Vern L (2000). "Who wrote my secret life? An evaluation of possibilities and a tentative suggestion." (PDF). Sexuality and Culture 4 (1): 37–60. doi:10.1007/s12119-000-1011-y. Retrieved 4 April 2015. 
  7. ^ Gordon Grimley (1972) My Secret Life; Introduction. London: Granada Publishing, 1972; pp. 7-17
  8. ^ John Patrick Pattinson (2002) "The Man Who Was Walter" Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 19-40
  9. ^ Steven Marcus (1969) The Other Victorians: a Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Basic Books, 1964; pp. 78-88

Further reading[edit]

  • Marcus, Steven, The Other Victorians: a Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (1966)
  • Kronhausen, Eberhard & Phyllis Walter: The English Casanova. 512 pages. Ballantine Books, 1967
  • Gibson, Ian The Erotomaniac: Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee. 285 pages. London: Faber and Faber, 2001

External links[edit]

  • My Secret Life at Project Gutenberg (first 3 volumes only, viewable online or downloadable in various eBook formats)
  • Text of My Secret Life (complete text, viewable online only, lacking only the extraordinary index)
  • Text of My Secret Life (complete text, as downloadable PDF)
  • Audiobook of "My Secret Life" (Chapters released at monthly intervals)
  • John Patrick Pattinson article arguing that William Haywood is 'Walter' [1]