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Home: The Toast

2940000075845_p0_v1_s260x420This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. 

Jilly Gagnon last wrote for The Toast about The Surreal Housewives.

I think every generation assumes, to some extent, that it is the first to invent real depravity. Yes, we have evidence that as far back as there was human civilization, there was pornography. Excavations of ancient Roman ruins prove our forebears had a particular fondness for covering every possible surface with dick graffiti (it’s fine, they were just worshipping Priapus), and the Marquis de Sade, who wrote over two centuries ago, was basically the forerunner of “two girls one cup” (if it had ended as a snuff film.)

But just because there’s plenty of proof of past generations’ love of the profane, that doesn’t make it any easier to believe they were really as foul and debased as we are; their urges, like their likenesses, seem to be retroactively tinged with sepia.

Yes, they likely thought about sex, but it’s hard to imagine them actually having it in anything other than missionary position (and, in the case of the Victorians, with top-hat still on.) In Victorian England, surely women couldn’t go out in public without gloves (unless they wanted to be labeled a prostitute) or show their ankles (ditto), and if men did want a hat-on blow-job, they would get it at a brothel, since asking a respectable woman such as your wife to degrade herself that way would be tantamount to slapping her across the face. With your dick. Surely, their pornography must be as outdated as their social norms, no?

No. At least, not in the ways you’d imagine

url-2I first discovered the magazine The Pearl while I was researching college sex with my longtime mentor, E. Jean Carroll (E. JEAN ALWAYS – Ed.), for a book we were working on at the time (the book, sadly, never went further than a few opening spreads filled with choice quotations from stereotypical bros and harrowing facts about all the orgasms “liberated” women still aren’t having.)

“JILL-ee,” she yelled into the phone, chomping into the first syllable. E. Jean’s speech pattern most closely resembles gun-fire. “You HAVE to get your hands on The Pearl. It INVENTED PORN! This is AMAZING STUFF!”

She went on, guffawing over “cock-stands” and “mossy grottos,” until I agreed that, for research’s sake, I would have to dive deep into the literature of our pornographic forebears.

The Pearl originally ran monthly from July of 1879 through December of 1880 (with a couple extra-special Christmas editions. Published by William Lazenby, an English pornographer of the 1870s and 1880s, the magazine featured excerpts from three serialized stories per issue, as well as erotic parodies, vulgar poems (limericks appear frequently), and obscene short tales. It holds the distinction of featuring the first known pornographic story based upon American slavery (yay?), and it’s widely believed that many of the poems were actually written by Algernon Charles Swinburne, novelist, poet, and eventual 6-time nominee for the Nobel in literature. The magazine ceased publication abruptly after the authorities closed it down for obscenity, but that didn’t stop Lazenby; he followed it with The Cremorne in 1882, The Boudoir in 1883, and finally The Oyster, which ran from 1883 until 1889, the year after Lazenby’s death.

url-3Fun fact to know and tell: the Cremorne of the title refers to a Chelsea pleasure-garden, known at the time as a haunt for prostitutes, but a cremorne bolt (pictured) is a piece of hardware that operates on a rod-sliding-into-a-shaft mechanism. Just sayin’.

Of course there’s no way of knowing exactly how popular these publications were in Lazenby’s time, since pornography wasn’t the sort of thing you admitted to reading in mixed company. One can assume they turned a tidy profit, since Lazenby was willing to continue putting them out, despite multiple encounters with the police.

We do know that pornographic literature was a highly-popular pornographic format for the Victorians, due in part to the high expense of photography (for some time after the invention of photography, the cost of a risqué image would have far outstripped the cost of an actual prostitute; if you had to choose, you probably chose the prostitute).

So what does the pornography of a famously buttoned-up era look like? What did all these men dream of when they were not having sex with their wives (men were regularly counseled to “ration” sex, even within marriage).

It looks deeply, profoundly perverted.

Within the first few pages of the first issue, we’ve had two varieties of incest (one involves grandfather-on-granddaughter physical/sexual abuse). If you peek into issue two, you’ll also get both male and female homosexuality, not to mention an eleven-year-old seductress…and her 30-year-old manservant whose motto, apparently, is “just let it happen.”

And the flogging. GOD the flogging. No matter what kind of (fantasy) sex you’re having in Victorian times, no matter who you’re having it with, apparently, at some point or another, you are absolutely required to involve a birch rod.

This obsession with sexualizing corporeal punishment likely has a host of causes: Etonian upbringings, where adolescent sexual awakening occurred concurrently with (and sometimes brought about) whippings; a need to present a hyper-controlled, dominant face to society leading to a parallel desire to lose control and be punished behind closed doors; the high concentration of nerve endings in the taint.

Whatever the cause, flogging as erotica was pervasive during the period, which notably produced Sacher-Masoch, the author who has gone down in history as the inventor (or at least namesake) of S&M. At least one of the three “main” tales in each issue of The Pearl is devoted to flagellation, and several contemporary works of erotic fiction—with titles like The Whippingham Papers and The Magnetism of the Rod or the Revelations of Miss Darcy—center on the practice (it plays a lesser, but very present, role in many other works). Today, this would fall squarely into “fetish” territory, but judging from surviving pornographic literature, Victorians saw flogging as a typical part of their porn diet.

But the most surprising thing about The Pearl isn’t the content of Victorian male fantasies; after all, when penile chastity belts were being prescribed as a cure for masturbation (considered an indisputable cause of insanity at the time) and nocturnal emissions (because dream-erections are still nasty, nasty things), it’s almost a given that the pornography that bubbles up will be more perverse. If you’re going to sin—and if that sin will lead to sickness, debility, and madness—you may as well go all out, right?

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A Victorian-era anti-masturbation device (from the collections of the London Science Museum)

The real surprise is the writing itself.

Long-winded, flowery, and lavishly descriptive, the stories have a distinctly Dickensian feel to them. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Lazenby paid his authors by the word.

After a tongue-in-cheek letter from the editor about his difficulties titling the magazine, the first story begins with a philosophical musing:

The merry month of May has always been famous for its propitious influence over the voluptuous senses of the fairer sex.

Have you ever heard horniness described so lyrically (or long-windedly)?

The narrator then goes on for another 500-600 words before he even kisses one of his cousins (the kiss is delayed, but the incestual feelings? Not so much).

When we finally do get to the kiss, the writing becomes even stranger. How, you might ask? It reads like it’s being written for women:

She turned her face to mine, suffused as it was by a deeper blush than ever, as her dark blue eyes met mine, in a fearless search of my meaning, but instead of speaking in response to this mute appeal, I kissed her rapturously, sucking in the fragrance of her sweet breath till she fairly trembled with emotion.

Here’s another excerpt:

She reached her arms to him, and he put his arms around her, nestled his face in her mane of curly hair for a minute, and then kissed her longingly on the mouth. It was a searing kiss that went right through them both.

That last one, however, isn’t from a titillating Victorian lad mag; it’s from the queen of lady lit, Danielle Steel. Linguistically, and in its propensity to bury the lede, the most direct descendant of The Pearl and its ilk seems to be the distinctly feminized territory of the modern romance novel.

2940000076217_p0_v1_s260x420Despite the goal of imagined erotic fulfillment, the stories in The Pearl rely heavily on delay. By the end of the first installment, the narrator has managed to nearly consummate his relationship with his cousin, but just as he’s about to release “Mr. Priapus” from his breeches in order to “take possession of the seat of love,” a nearby bull interrupts. That’s where that excerpt ends; the next, predictably, starts with extensive scene-setting and ends in vaguely-sexual flagellation.

It’s tempting to just assume that written descriptions of making out, light breast-groping, and almost-sex were enough to drive Victorians into a sexual frenzy—even releasing your penis from the iron manhood must have been near-orgasmic, right?

But I think there’s something more interesting at play in The Pearl. The Victorians aren’t coyly tripping around the edges of sex—inventing dozens of euphemisms for erections, genitalia, and every conceivable sex act—because they’re too prudish to face it cockstand-on. They’re doing so because that is the actual root of sexual excitement.

The shy glance that lasts a second too long, a verbal sparring match as foreplay, the aching, fabulous agony of almost getting the thing your heart—and loins—desire, then being stopped short a moment too soon. It’s the essence of seduction. Victorian pornography wasn’t just more literate than what we consume today, it was more titillating.

There’s a reason that they call this sort of writing’s modern-day descendcants “bodice-rippers”; it may not do it for you, but it sure makes you want to do it yourself.

Perhaps most charmingly, the authors of The Pearl regularly apologized not for their lack of lewdness, but for their lack of authorial skill. When you consider that the text is more linguistically complex than 98% of the internet, i.e., 98% of what people read today, that’s fairly impressive.

Would I rather be a Victorian? No. I’d prefer to continue voting.

But for porn, I’ll side with the Victorians any day. If for no other reason than its MUCH more fun to think about sex as “sowing the seeds of love on my fertile, delightfully curly parsley bed.”

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