My Secret Life is a bizarre, disturbing, amazing, fascinating work of Victorian-era pornography. It is anachronistic to label it with a “trigger warning” but it is the rare work that actually deserves the warning; it recounts in great detail the author’s erotic experiences from youth to old age. My Secret Life feels like a book sort of thing that probably wouldn’t get assigned to undergrads today. Still, it is strange and curious enough for me to write about it here (I learned of it via The Voyeur’s Motel, a book that may be considered part of the same genre as My Secret Life). Originally published in or around 1902, it was 11 volumes (!), and the abridged edition I linked to is a single volume that still feels exhausting by its end.
It’s hard to believe that all of My Secret Life is true, and it’s also hard to believe that it is wholly imagined. Today one might call it “creative nonfiction,” which seems to be a phrase that loosely means or connotes truthy, or specious, or “I need to make shit up to make the narrative more compelling.”
The interest in and curiosity about matters generally veiled was great then and remains great now, though today it maybe takes different shapes. There are ceaseless reportorial sections in My Secret Life, and moments when the narrator finds that someone, “One evening being unusually communicative,” explained the matter of “buggery.” That explanation comes from a woman named Camille; the narrator “went there when I wanted a quiet chat and information about sexualities.” That interest appears insatiable, even as its nuances eventually dull the reader’s senses due to repetition.
The need to report and imagine seem relentless. During one extended period with a single woman, the narrator says that “when not thinking of Charlotte, [I] spent my time in writing baudy words and sketching cunts and pricks with pen and ink.” So he is either engaged in the act or considering it in some other way. His work is almost Internet-ready, going even to anonymity.
Some challenges seem eternal, as when the narrator praises a women in this way:
Moreover she was not always plaguing me for money—asking me to pay this, or to lend her to pay that—which is the common habit and trick of harlots from high to low—I felt at sea when Sarah was gone, and recollect that for a month or so I was chaste.
That “chaste” month seems unusual in the narrator’s life, though his whole life seems unusual; that it may be more usual than is usually assumed may be part of the book’s frisson. Still, one hopes that the many vile things the narrator does are not eternal.
My Secret History is an easy book for skipping sections, as the narrator never seems to grow, change, learn, or seriously struggle. As he is at seven, so he is at seventy. But maybe the larger point is that the nature of humanity as a whole may change less than we might like, and that non-technological progress is rarer than we like to think and perhaps barely existent at all.