From his precocious childhood to the end of what he calls his “amatory career,” an adventurous Victorian known only as “Walter” records a breathtaking carnal epic through hundreds of sexual encounters with one or more nursemaids, prostitutes, cousins, actresses, workingmen, and other men’s wives. In ruling everything sexual within the realm of possibility, Walter reveals “varied delights…whims and fancies normal and abnormal,” sexual violence, fetishes—and sometimes, surprisingly, love. From his many escapades, he learns an invaluable lesson: “One can never know too much concerning human nature.” Portraying an era of notorious repression, in which the appearance of propriety had to be strictly maintained, My Secret Life provides a rare look at the hidden side of Victorian life: the upstairs and downstairs encounters where nothing is “proper”—or forbidden. First published in London around 1900, this landmark work freshly illuminates the complex sexual dynamics of a society strictly divided between rich and poor, male and female, sexual and chaste. In James Kincaid’s abridgment, Walter and his world come to vivid life in new and often surprising ways.
Edited and with an Introduction by James Kincaid and with an Afterword by Paul Sawyer
About the Author
“My Secret Life is by far the most famous and the longest sexual autobiography written in the nineteenth century. It has in it invaluable material for social and cultural historians, literary scholars, students of manners and morals—and it has more of what we might call ‘encounters’ than any narrative ever penned in English.”
—From the Introduction by James Kincaid
The anonymous author of My Secret Life has never been identified. Rumors have suggested he was a prominent scholar, the eccentric son of an earl, even a titled woman. All we do know is evident in the text: He was raised by servants and educated at a good boarding school. His young adulthood was spent not in learning a trade, but in exploring the world of sex and recording every encounter.
James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture, as well as books on Dickens, Trollope, and Tennyson.
Paul Sawyer is George Reed Professor of Writing and Rhetoric and Director of the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines at Cornell University. The author of Ruskin’s Poetic Argument: The Design of the Major Works, he is a noted scholar of the Victorian age.
Read an Excerpt
When I began it, I had scarcely read a baudy book, none of which, excepting Fanny Hill, appeared to me to be truthful: that did, and it does so still; the others telling of récherché eroticisms or of inordinate copulative powers, of the strange twists, tricks, and fancies of matured voluptuousness and philosophical lewedness, seemed to my comparative ignorance as baudy imaginings or lying inventions, not worthy of belief; although I now know, by experience, that they may be true enough, however eccentric and improbable, they may appear to the uninitiated.
Fanny Hill’s was a woman’s experience. Written perhaps by a woman, where was a man’s written with equal truth? That book has no baudy word in it; but baudy acts need the baudy ejaculations; the erotic, full-flavored expressions, which even the chastest indulge in when lust, or love, is in its full tide of performance. So I determined to write my private life freely as to fact, and in the spirit of the lustful acts done by me, or witnessed; it is written therefore with absolute truth and without any regard whatever for what the world calls decency. Decency and voluptuousness in its fullest acceptance cannot exist together, one would kill the other; the poetry of copulation I have only experienced with a few women, which however neither prevented them nor me from calling a spade a spade.
I began it for my amusement; when many years had been chronicled I tired of it and ceased. Some ten years afterwards I met a woman, with whom, or with those she helped me to, I did, said, saw, and heard well nigh everything a man and woman could do with their genitals, and began to narrate those events, when quite fresh in my memory, a great variety of incidents extending over four years or more. Then I lost sight of her, and my amorous amusements for a while were simpler, but that part of my history was complete.
After a little while, I set to work to describe the events of the intervening years of my youth and early middle age, which included most of my gallant intrigues and adventures of a frisky order; but not the more lascivious ones of later years. Then an illness caused me to think seriously of burning the whole. But not liking to destroy my labor, I laid it aside again for a couple of years. Then another illness gave me long uninterrupted leisure; I read my manuscript and filled in some occurrences which I had forgotten but which my diary enabled me to place in their proper order. This will account for the difference in style in places, which I now observe; and a very needless repetition of voluptuous descriptions, which I had forgotten and had been before described; that however is inevitable, for human copulation, vary the incidents leading up to it as you may, is, and must be, at all times much the same affair.
Then, for the first time, I thought I would print my work that had been commenced more than twenty years before, but hesitated. I then had entered my maturity, and on to the most lascivious portion of my life, the events were disjointed, and fragmentary and my amusement was to describe them just after they occurred. Most frequently the next day I wrote all down with much prolixity; since, I have much abbreviated it.
I had from youth an excellent memory, but about sexual matters a wonderful one. Women were the pleasure of my life. I loved cunt, but also who had it; I like the woman I fucked and not simply the cunt I fucked, and therein is a great difference. I recollect even now in a degree which astonishes me, the face, colour, stature, thighs, backside, and cunt, of well nigh every woman I have had, who was not a mere casual, and even of some who were. The clothes they wore, the houses and rooms in which I had them, were before me mentally as I wrote, the way the bed and furniture were placed, the side of the room the windows were on, I remembered perfectly; and all the important events I can fix as to time, sufficiently nearly by reference to my diary, in which the contemporaneous circumstances of my life are recorded.
I recollect also largely what we said and did, and generally our baudy amusements. Where I fail to have done so, I have left description blank, rather than attempt to make a story coherent by inserting what was merely probable. I could not now account for my course of action, or why I did this, or said that, my conduct seems strange, foolish, absurd, very frequently, that of some women equally so, but I can but state what did occur.
In a few cases, I have, for what even seems to me very strange, suggested reasons or causes, but only where the facts seem by themselves to be very improbable, but have not exaggerated anything willingly. When I have named the number of times I have fucked a woman in my youth, I may occasionally be in error, it is difficult to be quite accurate on such points after a lapse of time. But as before said, in many cases the incidents were written down a few weeks and often within a few days after they occurred. I do not attempt to pose as a Hercules in copulation, there are quite sufficient braggarts on that head, much intercourse with gay women, and doctors, makes me doubt the wonderful feats in coition some men tell of.
I have one fear about publicity, it is that of having done a few things by curiosity and impulse (temporary aberrations) which even professed libertines may cry fie on. There are plenty who will cry fie who have done all and worse than I have and habitually, but crying out at the sins of others was always a way of hiding one’s own iniquity. Yet from that cause perhaps no mortal eye but mine will see this history.
The Christian names of the servants mentioned are generally the true ones, the other names mostly false, tho phonetically resembling the true ones. Initials nearly always the true ones. In most cases the women they represent are dead or lost to me. Streets and baudy houses named are nearly always correct. Most of the houses named are now closed or pulled down; but any middle-aged man about town would recognize them. Where a road, house, room, or garden is described, the description is exactly true, even to the situation of a tree, chair, bed, sofa, pisspot. The district is sometimes given wrongly; but it matters little whether Brompton be substituted for Hackney, or Camden Town for Walworth. Where however, owing to the incidents, it is needful, the places of amusement are given correctly. The Tower, and Ar. gyle rooms, for example. All this is done to prevent giving pain to some, perhaps still living, for I have no malice to gratify.
I have mystified family affairs, but if I say I had ten cousins when I had but six, or that one aunt’s house was in Surrey instead of Kent, or in Lancashire, it breaks the clue and cannot matter to the reader. But my doings with man and woman are as true as gospel. If I say that I saw, or did, that with a cousin, male or female, it was with a cousin and no mere acquaintance; if with a servant, it was with a servant; if with a casual acquaintance, it is equally true. Nor if I say I had that woman, and did this or that with her, or felt or did aught else with a man, is there a word of untruth, excepting as to the place at which the incidents occurred. But even those are mostly correctly given; this is intended to be a true history, and not a lie.
Some years have passed away since I penned the foregoing, and it is not printed. I have since gone through abnormal phases of amatory life, have done and seen things, had tastes and letches which years ago I thought were the dreams of erotic mad-men; these are all described, the manuscript has grown into unmanageable bulk; shall it, can it, be printed? What will be said or thought of me, what became of the manuscript if found when I am dead? Better to destroy the whole, it has fulfilled its purpose in amusing me, now let it go to the flames!
I have read my manuscript through; what reminiscences! I had actually forgotten some of the early ones; how true the detail strikes me as I read of my early experiences; had it not been written then it never could have been written now; has anybody but myself faithfully made such a record? It would be a sin to burn all this, whatever society may say, it is but a narrative of human life, perhaps the every day life of thousands, if the confession could be had.
What strikes me as curious in reading it is the monotony of the course I have pursued towards women who were not of the gay class; it has been as similar and repetitive as fucking itself; do all men act so, does every man kiss, coax, hint smuttily, then talk baudily, snatch a feel, smell his fingers, assault, and win, exactly as I have done? Is every woman offended, say “no,” then “oh!” blush, be angry, refuse, close her thighs, after a struggle open them, and yield to her lust as mine have done? A conclave of whores telling the truth, and of Romish Priests, could alone settle the point. Have all men had the strange letches which late in life have enraptured me, though in early days the idea of them revolted me? I can never know this; my experience, if printed, may enable others to compare as I cannot.
Shall it be burnt or printed? How many years have passed in this indecision? why fear? it is for others’ good and not my own if preserved.
Excerpted from "My Secret Life"
Copyright © 2007 James R. Anonymous.
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