Posted by: ferge22j | November 7, 2014

The Pearl: Victorian Pornography and Sexual Deviance

We waffled around whether it’s fair to assign the term “pornography” to the diaries and images that make up the idiosyncratic legacy of Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick. Certainly, they wrote, drew, and photographed for at least partly for erotic purposes, but their works’ aestheticism and lack of sexual explicitness strays from the OED’s definition of pornography: “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.” And then there’s the uncomfortable issue we returned to again and again: Cullwick and Munby created for themselves alone and never intended their works for public consumption (and certainly not for the scrutiny of postmodern academia).

Some (who aren’t too well-versed in Victorian sexual culture) might protest that we can’t assign modern definitions of pornography to the Victorian era. They couldn’t look at piano legs without putting a skirt on them – surely anything vaguely scintillating was tantamount to pornography for the Victorians. Consider the comments on Youtube postings of Victorian moving pictures – women on bicycles, a couple sharing a tame kiss – “This was pornography to them,” the populace insists.

The populace might be surprised to learn that many of the acts portrayed in the most widely-distributed Victorian pornography are not only shocking but abhorrent and illegal to the 21st-century audience. Take The Pearl, the Victorian pornographic magazine which was received the most scholarly attention (thanks in part to its public-domain status allowing publishers to issue several extensively illustrated versions since the 1960s). Among the hundred-odd stories the magazine published over its two-year run, a very sparse handful don’t contain some combination of the following: incest, group sex, questionable consent, pedophilia, flogging (mostly unwanted), homosexuality, and cross-class or cross-race relations. The authors describe every act with the same patently purple prose and a dizzying array of euphemisms, several thousand without counting repeats (Potter 91). A random sampling: “mossy grotto,” “Mr. Priapus,” “curly parsley bed”, “milk of human kindness” (Lazenby).

Pornography, as “obscene material,” was in fact illegal in 19th-century England, and The Pearl was eventually shut down by the police (leading the publisher to create two spin-off series, The Oyster and The Boudoir) (Potter 90). The inherent depravity of pornography to Victorian mores may have been what led Victorian pornography to be so unrelentingly deviant; “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?” (Gagnon 1)

I think there’s something similar going on in the works of Cullwick and Munby. Their cross-class relationship was sexual deviance in itself, so there was no reason not to “go all out”.

Potter, Rachel. “Obscene Modernism and the Trade in Salacious Books.” Modernism/modernity 16.1 (2009): 87-104.

Gagnon, Jilly. “The Pearl: Victorian Porn at Its Finest.” The Toast 10 Apr. 2014.

Lazenby, William. The Pearl, A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading. Grove Publishers.


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