Henry Spencer Ashbee, Porn Bibliographer

I don’t remember where I first heard about Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834-1900), but he was an avid collector of books (most avidly collecting works of Cervantes . . . and porn), and was part of a loose collective of writers and intellectuals who discussed and wrote about sexual matters frankly.

As a Victorian scholar, I hate the clinging stereotype that Victorians were sexually repressed–it’s completely inaccurate. So let me underline here that the issue is not that people didn’t know about sex, or kinks, or whatever. Nor is it accurate to say that the Victorians didn’t talk about sex. Of course they did.

The issue was two-fold: 1.) there were different rules about what should or shouldn’t be published or spoken about in public, and 2.) this is in part a very middle-class issue, which is where a lot of the moral outrage about sex comes from. Sex had to be framed in certain terms if you wanted to publish something about it for a middle-class audience, be it in a novel, or a newspaper article, or a “marriage guide”. And some of the bawdier publications I’ve seen that catered either to the lower or upper classes were seen as proof of the moral degeneration of those classes.

The issue wasn’t that Ashbee talked about sex. It’s that he did so publicly and in print in certain ways that went against the grain.

ANYWAY

Ashbee’s collection of pornographic works numbered in the thousands, from a variety of countries. He wrote about sex under a few pseudonyms: “Fraxinus” (Ash), “Apis” (Bee), or sometimes combining them in the weird pig-Latin portmanteau, “Pisanus Fraxi”.

When he died, he left his entire collection of books to the British Museum, but his will stipulated that the pornographic works must be accepted along with his other books. The British Museum really, really wanted Ashbee’s collection of Cervantes literature, so they decided to accept.

According to Wikipedia, “The trustees were allowed to destroy any of the books if they had a duplicate, but in practice went much further and destroyed six boxes “of offensive matter which is of no value or interest” including cheaply produced Victorian erotica. The remainder of the works formed the core of the Private Case which were kept hidden from readers in the British Library for many years”. Apparently they have, in recent years, largely disbanded the Private Case and dispersed the books amongst the normal collection.

The three most famous works of Ashbee’s life were his bibliographies of erotic works. He first wrote the Index Librorum Prohibitorum: being Notes Bio- Biblio- Icono- graphical and Critical on Curious and Uncommon Books (1877).

Quite the title, which is an allusion to the Catholic Church’s list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

His Index arranges pornographic works alphabetically by title.

He also wrote the Centuria Librorum Absconditorum (1879) and the Catena Librorum Tacendorum (1885), both of which have the same subtitle as his above Index. These two were arranged by subject matter. In particular, there are 300 pages in Centuria which are devoted specifically to anti-Catholic pornography.

Considering how much late eighteenth-/early nineteenth-century Gothic literature I’ve read (a great deal of which is very porn-y and extremely anti-Catholic), I am amazed there are only 300 pages for this one niche.

All of his books include not only the title and plot summary of each pornographic work that they catalogue, but they also include a great number of quotations from the text.

Ashbee is also suspected to be the author of My Secret Life, a lengthy sexual memoir of a Victorian gentleman. I have been meaning to read this book for about 5 years now, but I’m afraid it might actually kill me. Or I’ll just end up duplicating the entire full text on my blog because I can’t decide which bits to share with you.

If you would like to read his Index (and who in their right mind WOULDN’T?), it can be found digitized here.

According to Wikipedia, despite his own progressiveness regarding sexual matters, he was conservative in other areas of his life. “His family life grew unhappier as he aged. As he became more conservative, his family followed the progressive movement of the era. The ‘excessive education‘ of his daughters irritated him, his Jewish wife’s pro-suffragism infuriated him, and he became estranged from his socialist homosexual son, Charles. Henry and Elisabeth separated in 1893.

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One Response to Henry Spencer Ashbee, Porn Bibliographer

  1. Pingback: BizarreVictoria: Celebrating 4 Years | BizarreVictoria

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