My Secret Life and the Sexual Economy of Fin-de-Siècle England

My Secret Life and the Sexual Economy of Fin-de-Siècle England

Marcus Keith Harmes, Barbara Harmes

Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, Vol 17, No 1 (2012)


This paper proposes that the volumes of My Secret Life reveal an explicit linkage and juxtaposition of the respectable and perverse which was at the heart of fin-de-siècle British culture. In particular this paper reads ‘Walter’s’ text as a parody of materialism that terminates in fin-de-siècle ‘exhaustion’ and decline – ‘free-enterprise’ itself beyond control. Confession opens a site for resistance and subversion, ‘Walter’s’ text legitimating deviance and rejecting ideas of the thrift of sperm which characterized the discursive controls of the late-nineteenth century.

Little is known about My Secret Life. Known throughout the text only as ‘Walter’, its protagonist—and thus purportedly its author—lived from about 1820 until at least 1890 (Thomas xxv). The precise details of the first printing and publication of My Secret Life, like the author’s identity, are cloaked in secrecy. The full text was published in instalments between 1888 and 1892, ostensibly through the agency of the author’s friend and intermediary, but possibly by Walter himself. The memoirs eventually reached the public domain. Under the title The Dawn of Sensuality the first six chapters of Volume One were reprinted and sold in Paris by 1901. By 1902, the full text was reprinted in Paris and was available ‘by post to the English market’ (Thomas xiii). In 1967 it was printed in America and after that time it was freely available in both England and America. Although the diary was obtainable in Britain from the turn of the century, publication was more problematic. When Arthur Dobson attempted to publish the full text of the memoirs in Britain as late as 1969, he was arrested and charged with ‘possessing obscene material for purposes of gain, contrary to Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959’ (Thomas vi). It was not until 1994 that the full text was legally published in Britain, at last enabling a wider reading and fuller critical appraisal of a book which, Steven Marcus notes, was mainly known by reputation and ‘written about exclusively by those who have not read it’.

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