Monday, 13 June 2016

Perspective: M J Carter on Pornography in 19th Century London

The Infidel Stain, second in M J Carter's Victorian detective series, was one of my favourite historical reads of 2015. Now, for the launch of the paperback, it's been retitled as The Printer's Coffin. According to publishers Penguin this avoids the term 'Infidel', in this context referring to 19th Century Chartists, being confused with Middle Eastern conflicts.

Continuing the adventures of Blake and Avery at the end of their heroic struggles in The Strangler Vine, here we find the mismatched duo returned from colonial India to London. Once again meticulously researched and full of period detail, this is a novel that grips from the very first page (you can read my full review here). Much of its intrigue centres around the scurrilous goings-on in Holywell Street, centre of London’s 19th Century pornography industry, and the people who worked there.

Today, I'm delighted to host a guest post from M J Carter on my blog, sharing her insights about the street and some of its shadier characters: 

Holywell Street and Pornography in 19th Century London
by M J Carter

It was when I was doing my research for The Printer’s Coffin that I first came across Holywell Street, a dingy little thoroughfare that ran off the east end of The Strand, where the Aldwych is now. In the 1840s, when the book is set, The Strand was the fashion and literary hub of London. As for Holywell Street, well, it was the hub of London’s porn industry (though the word didn’t take on its current meaning until about 1906).

Holywell Street had a reputation before Queen Victoria came to throne, its booksellers produced rude cartoons of the fat spoilt Prince Regent and his mistresses. But in the 1830s a new generation of pornographers arrived and the place came into its own — a bit of an irony as Britain as a whole was becoming increasingly prudish.

I came across Holywell Street because I looking into the working-class revolutionaries of the 1820s who were inspired by the French Revolution. They were an angry lot, some of whom planned to bring down the government. But it turned out that in the 1830s many of them had gone from fighting for press freedom and the vote to setting up as pornographers in Holywell Street! Middle age had arrived and they needed a steady income. Why not publish obscene publications! After all they were well-used to producing underground publications and distributing them secretly. One printer got his pamphlets to his customers in a laundry basket tied to a rope that was lowered from an attic window at the back of the premises. I thought, how can I not write about this?

The striking thing about much of what they produced was that it wasn’t just smutty and rude (though it was that), it was also full of social satire and attacks on the church and the government and the aristocracy. A particular Holywell Street speciality was prints of bishops and nuns having orgies (you knew they were bishops and nuns because the men wore mitres and the women wore wimples), and endless jokes about arse-bishops. There were books, such as The New Epicurean or the Delights of Sex, which included explicit prints and tales of sexual escapades, but also attacked Victorian morality and the law, which the writer claimed were just cynical methods by which a hypocritical corrupt aristocracy kept the rest of society under its thumb: the pursuit of pleasure and sex was the only honesty. Ironically, a lot of this material was regarded as high-class erotica, highly-priced and only affordable by the wealthy.

Most of the porn wasn’t political of course. The ex-revolutionaries were also big on erotic parodies of famous books (Nicholarse Nickelby anyone?), lewd poems about the sex lives of famous people: ‘What ‘e gets up to round ‘Er Majesty’ about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and pamphlets with racy titles like Lady Bumtickler’s Revels. There was also a lucrative market in flagellation, known as ‘birchen sports’, for which the customers, (mainly aristocrats and boarding school girls according to George Cannon, a former editor of philosophical journals and political radical turned pornographer) were willing to pay extra.

It turned out that the move from radical politics to porn was a lucrative one in general as many of these booksellers and printers were still making a good living from it well into the 1850s and 60s.

The Printer's Coffin by M J Carter is published in the UK in paperback by Penguin Books.

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