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Review of The Erotomaniac by Ian Gibson, Da Capo Press. First published in Rain Taxi, spring, 2002.

The 19th-century English businessman Henry Spencer Ashbee was a gentleman with a secret. A big secret. Publicly respected as a well-to-do businessman and collector of books and art, Ashbee was, unknown even to his family, England’s leading collector and bibliographer of erotic literature. His thousands of pornographic volumes were housed in separate rooms rented exclusively for the purpose. Ashbee was also the author of three extensive bibliographies of erotica--Index Librorum Prohibitorum, Centuria Librorum Absconditorum, and Catena Librorum Tacendorum--published under the naughty pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi. In addition, his biographer Ian Gibson argues strongly that the Gentleman with a Secret also wrote My Secret Life, a multi-volumed erotic autobiography whose true author has never been determined.

Born in 1834, Ashbee entered business as an apprentice to a muslin manufacturer at the age of sixteen. By his early twenties, he was traveling frequently to the continent on behalf of his firm. His diaries (Gibson was granted access to them by Ashbee’s granddaughter) record his several passions while traveling: seeing the sights, buying books, and eyeing pretty ladies.

In 1862 the 28-year-old Ashbee married Elizabeth Lavy, the daughter of a prominent Jewish merchant in Hamburg, Germany. It proved a good match. The couple were to have four children together. And soon after the marriage, Ashbee became senior partner in the new London office of his father-in-law's firm, exporting machinery and textiles to the Continent. The bustling business eventually made Ashbee a wealthy man, while continuing to allow him frequent travel throughout Europe. In his spare time, he published Travels in Tunisia, contributed to bibliographical journals of the day, collected fine editions, and became one of the country's leading authorities on Cervantes.

How Ashbee became a collector of erotica is unknown. His dairies are circumspect on many points and were only intermittently kept. But by the late 1860s he had rented rooms at Gray's Inn to house his erotica collection. The location was a safe-yet-convenient three quarters of a mile away from the family home. By 1877 his collection, specializing in flagellation, was extensive enough to provide the basis for his first bibliographical work, Index Librorum Prohibitorum. The title, meaning "Index of Books Worthy of Being Prohibited," mocks the Vatican's listing of pornographic materials unfit for church members. This book and Ashbee's two later bibliographies, all sumptuously printed and sold quietly to avoid the law, were among the first to document the pornographic literature of the time.

While Ashbee's authorship of these bibliographies was an open secret among those who collected pornography, Gibson spends the last half of his book arguing that Ashbee was also the pseudonymous author of the 4,000 page erotic classic My Secret Life. The book, purportedly an autobiography documenting an English gentleman's amorous adventures, was published under the name "Walter." While scholars are convinced the book is more fiction than fact, they have puzzled over the book's true author for years; some have even considered Ashbee to be a good suspect. But Gibson is the first to compare lines from the published book with lines in Ashbee's previously-unavailable diaries. He finds that certain stylistic "tics" do appear to be common to both authors, enough to make a strong case for Ashbee's authorship of the erotic classic. And if Ashbee didn't write it, Gibson summarizes, "who on earth did?"

Things were to end badly for Ashbee, probably due to the double life he had been leading for years. In 1891 his wife suddenly left him, taking their children with her. No recorded explanation of the breakup exists. Following his death in 1900, it was found that the terms of Ashbee's will left nothing to his family. His valuable art collection went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, while his collection of erotica was willed to the British Museum, along with Ashbee's more respectable library containing rare volumes of Cervantes. (The museum was obliged to accept the one in order to get the other.)

A half-seen figure who even hides behind euphemisms and evasions in his private diaries, Ashbee never comes fully alive in Gibson's biography. But in documenting the case for Ashbee as the author of My Secret Life, the determined Gibson may well have uncovered his subject's final and most enduring secret.

--Thomas Wiloch


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