1879: Stuff That Wouldn’t Fit: Lurid Fiction

Far from being the stuffy, prissy sorts we imagine them as, determined to avoid any trace of sexual thoughts and dying of embarrassment at the slightest improper behavior, the Victorians were a randy, rowdy bunch that wrote some of the rudest poetry ever set to paper and had theaters that would have fit well in Times Square in the 1970s. The middle and upper classes did tend to keep their more outrageous doings under wraps, or at least indoors. Quite often, the most outrageous things were obscured by a bland book cover, a bit of cardboard and cloth stamped with just a title and an author’s name, with no hint of the goings-on described within. If you don’t know the story of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh being prosecuted for reprinting a forty-year-old book on birth control, click through and skip down to the bit about Fruits of Philosophy – and that’s just the non-fiction.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was originally published anonymously, as many books by women or containing shocking material (or both) were, but was printed in a second edition under the author’s name in 1823, in France, where it was slightly safer to do so. Most people know the basic story, although popular culture tends to focus on the details of the resurrection. In truth, much of the work revolves around the nature of the creature, the conflict between the created and the creator, and contains a terrific amount of religious allegory that’s usually missed in modern adaptations. Nobody in the Victorian era would have failed to notice that, though, and the moral questions and analysis of the relationship, and the challenging of its creator by the creature, would have caused more scandal than mashing together the ideas of burking and galvanism to set up the plotline. It’s also worth noting that Mary came up with the idea during an infamous retreat she went on with her lover (later husband) Percy Shelley and George Gordon, Lord Byron, among others. Vinay Patel, on Facebook, summed it up best, I think:

Dr. John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” emerged from the same retreat, as a retread of a fragment Lord Byron wrote and discarded. Sometimes fiction, like chili, is better reheated. The story came out under Byron’s name in a magazine that published it without permission, in 1819, and the two, Polidori and Byron, spent years trying to get it sorted in the public consciousness who the author actually was. While the story itself made a bit of a splash, it didn’t quite capture the popular attention as much as a later work, that revises the mysterious foreign aristocrat Lord Ruthven into one based on a historical figure already associated with bloody savagery. We speak, of course, of Vlad Tepes, the Son of the Dragon, known better as Dracula, and the work of Bram Stoker. Sadly, while Stoker himself is a figure in Victorian society, his most well known work wasn’t published until 1897, and so while it does fit into the Victorian era, it comes in rather late in the game, well into the Gilded Age and not far from the end of the great queen’s reign. As such, it really can’t be counted as an influence on Victorian society. More of an Edwardian thing, like Sherlock Holmes.

The Penny Dreadfuls certainly could, however. Originating from true-crime pamphlets sold at executions (“can’t tell the players without a program!”), the penny dreadfuls told vivid stories with often little or no relation to reality as anybody knew it, and wandered more and more into fiction as the years rolled by. Ranging from graphic descriptions of actual murders to the first appearance of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (decades before Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler would sing “try the priest!”), the penny dreadfuls sold, as their title might suggest, for 1d, making them affordable to pretty much anybody. Children who worked the streets would band together to scrape up a penny a week and share a copy of the latest, reading it until the cheap newsprint fell apart. From these eight-pagers (the forerunner of another sort of eight-pager) arose the 3d booklets, and we’ll leave the possible connection between those and the Threepenny Opera and Mack the Knife to the diligent reader to chase down. In America, the dime novel arose, often a Western, giving us the first tales of “Wild Bill” Hickock and Billy the Kid, creating a romanticized idea of the American West and its outlaws that long outlived the milieu it described, again merging fact with fiction in a way that followers of the Weekly World News would easily recognize, until the content quit pretending to be based on reality at all and wandered into the purely speculative. The rise of literacy in the Victorian era did not usually involve a rise in taste, although W. H. Smith did achieve considerable success selling cheap reprints of classic British novels such as Ivanhoe.

But then there were the Fanny Hill reprints. A book illegal for a century, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure would resurface time and again throughout the Victorian era and into the modern day. Considered obscene all the way into the 1960s, when it was finally old enough to be accredited as a classic and bestowed the laurels of literary significance, Fanny Hill would scandalize generations with its tale of a woman who not only enjoyed her sex life, but did not suffer as a result of doing so. Far from it; in the end, Fanny becomes wealthy and marries a man whom she has loved for years, who knows all about her past and marries her anyway, in flagrant violation of the social norms of the time. While Victorians loved a good salacious tale, something they could blush about and scold one another for enjoying, their morality, at least on the surface, demanded that women, once fallen, never rose again. No, best that the prostitute died of some horrible disease, or was murdered by her pimp, or withered away in the workhouse, some form of Earthly punishment as judgement in the Hereafter simply wasn’t soon (or visible) enough. All those fine gentlemen who had a copy of A Man With A Maid squirreled away in the bottom drawer of the desk, and all those women who giggled over the illustrations in Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Kama Sutra, felt ever so much better about their hypocrisy when the female protagonist met a terrible end. Compare and contrast with the tradition in modern horror films of the Final Girl having to resist having sex in the course of the story, and of the women who are slaughtered by the monster so soon after their pleasure. We’ll leave the fate of the male characters in both film and literature again as an exercise to the reader, but spoiler, they get away with it, it’s only the women who are punished for daring to enjoy their sex lives. Fanny Hill broke all of those taboos, set people on their collective ear, and struggled to find a market where it wasn’t immediately confiscated by the police from 1748 until 1966.

So much scandalous literature, so many ideas, so little time. Where to start reading? I’d suggest Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive, as most of these works are long since in the public domain. Have you read a freely available banned book this week?

Tally Ho!