Erotic heaven

The Erotomaniac: the secret life of Henry Spencer Ashbee

Ian Gibson <em>Faber & Faber, 285pp, £12.

To the outside world, Henry Spencer Ashbee was a typical dutiful Victorian. He was running the English end of a Hamburg-based family trading business while indulging in occasional forays into the world of letters, such as his 1895 iconography of Don Quixote. Behind this facade, he was an obsessive collector and cataloguer of erotic literature. Ian Gibson, the author of this dry, mildly diverting monograph, thinks that Ashbee also wrote My Secret Life, a leering, innovative pornographic memoir, published almost certainly in Amsterdam, under the pseudonym "Walter", between 1888 and 1894.

Gibson, a resident of southern Spain and the author of a fine biography of Federico GarcIa Lorca, was intrigued by Ashbee's Hispanic connections. His subject enjoyed travelling in Andalucia and became a corresponding member of the Royal Spanish Academy. After being bequeathed Ashbee's vast library, the British Museum found that, to secure his rich crop of Cervantes, including 384 editions of Don Quixote, it had to hold its nose and take thousands of volumes of pornography as well.

Gibson must have thought he was on to a gold mine when he was given privileged access to Ashbee's diaries. Sadly, these documents reveal little beyond the banal existence of a typical paterfamilias who travelled widely on business. Gibson works hard to suggest that Ashbee's titillating observations on, for example, bathing girls in Ostend show signs of the strange, puritanically-based lechery of My Secret Life.

Ashbee says nothing of his taste for erotic literature, let alone of his apparent enthusiasm for flagellation, as shown in his now acknowledged masterwork, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or Index of Books Worthy of Being Prohibited (1877), a bibliography of obscene literature.

Gibson concedes that details of Ashbee's youth are disappointingly thin. Diary entries for what should have been an active period - after publication of the Index - are sporadic and dull, containing no political comment, no references to the public life of the nation, no information about his business activities, no psychological insights and disappointingly little about his family life. Try as he might, Gibson cannot avoid reflecting his dismay.

The result is a mishmash, which Gibson has written with all the panache of a Victorian bibliographer. But if the reader can get past the bald prose, an insight into a secret world of collectors of erotic literature does emerge.

Despite the smokescreen of the diaries, it is clear that, having married into a German-Jewish merchant family, Ashbee used his trips to Europe to meet publishers of, and dealers in, erotica. He liaised with fellow adepts such as Richard Burton, the explorer, and Richard Monckton Milnes, the aristocratic author of the spanking classic "The Rodiad". In Paris, he became a friend of the sadistic English guardsman Frederick Hankey, whose idea of erotic heaven was to have a Bible bound with skin cut from the private parts of virgins.

In his parallel world, Ashbee provided learned entries to Notes and Queries, often signing himself "Fraxinus" ("Ash" in Latin) or "Apis" ("Bee"). For the Index, he combined these two names in an anagram, "Pisanus Fraxi", with the scatological connotation of "piss anus". Only the French showed much interest. When a bibliophile journal, Le Livre, referred to the Index, the critic George Saintsbury thundered in the Academy: "But when we open an article on English bibliography we do not expect it to contain an elaborate notice of a catalogue of obscene books."

Gibson makes predictable points about English hypocrisy, prudery and the taste for flagellation. But this does not make for an inspiring read, particularly because his efforts to show that Ashbee also wrote My Secret Life, though promising, remain unproven. In Steven Marcus's pioneering The Other Victorians, Walter's book was presented as fact - an important sociological document on Victorian sexuality. Gibson is probably correct to suggest it was masturbatory fiction of the kind that someone like his version of Ashbee could have written. Again, he struggles to show similarities between Ashbee's and Walter's attitudes to female sexuality - or even between the Germanic constructions of their sentences (the result, he believes, of Ashbee's German family connections).

However, given that Gibson refers to his research dating from 1978, this is back-of-the-drawer stuff. Tellingly, in Gibson's own bibliography, My Secret Life is listed not as one of Ashbee's works, but as the product of the ever-industrious Anon.

Andrew Lycett has written biographies of Ian Fleming and Rudyard Kipling