My Secret Life, by ‘Walter’, is a memoir describing the author’s sexual development and experiences in Victorian England. It was first published, at the author’s expense, in a private edition of eleven volumes which appeared over seven years beginning around 1888.

The work is enormous, amounting to over a million words, the eleven original volumes making over four thousand pages. The text is repetitive and highly disorganised, but its frank discussion of sexual matters and other hidden aspects of Victorian life make it a rare and valuable social document. It is virtually the only source for information on London’s brothels, in which Walter spent many hours. In his History of Erotic Literature, Patrick Kearney describes it as ‘one of the strangest and most obsessive books ever written’.

The identity of ‘Walter’ is unknown, the most commonly suggested author being Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834–1900). He was a book collector, writer, and bibliographer and, from the three volumes he published under his pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, the expert on erotic books in his day.

The question of how much the book is a record of true experiences and how much is fiction or erotic fantasy can never be fully resolved. However, the presence of much mundane detail, the writer's inclusion of incidents that do him little personal credit, and the lack of intrinsically improbable circumstances, lend it considerable credibility. Only a few of his partners are of his own social class; the great majority are either prostitutes, servants or working class women. This would appear to reflect the realities of his time.

My Secret Life was pirated and reprinted in a number of abridged versions that were frequently suppressed for obscenity. In 1932, for example, a New York publisher was arrested for issuing the first three volumes. In the USA it was finally published without censorship in 1966 by Grove Press, but in 1969 a British printer, Arthur Dobson, was sentenced to two years in prison for producing a UK reprint. It was not until 1995 that the work in its entirety was published openly in the UK.

The first, abridged, French translation, Ma vie secrète, was published in 1923 in two volumes by Maurice Duflou. The edition illustrated by Louis Berthomme Saint-André is an expanded text, published by Marcel Seheur in three volumes in 1933. The full version of the English text was finally translated into French by Mathias Pauvert and published by Stock in 1994.

Saint-André is not credited as the artist for the illustrations, but they are almost undoubtedly his, in a style which was well-established for his erotic work in the 1930s.

We are very grateful to Philippe Isoard of Librairie In Quarto, Marseille, for the colour illustrations. The In Quarto catalogue can be found here; where you can buy the book if it is still in stock.

For the small red in-text illustrations we are grateful to our regular Russian friend and contributor Yuri.