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My Secret Life, by "Walter", is the memoir of a Victorian gentleman's sexual development and experiences. It was first published in a private edition of eleven volumes, which appeared over seven years beginning around 1888.
The work itself is enormous, amounting to over one million words, the eleven original volumes amounting to over 4,000 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 has been described as "one of the strangest and most obsessive books ever written".
In the twentieth century 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' prison for producing a UK reprint. It was not until 1995 that the work in its entirety was published openly in the UK, by Arrow Books.
The true identity of "Walter" has never been discovered for certain. The most frequently cited likely author is Henry Spencer Ashbee (21 April 1834 – 29 July 1900), a book collector, writer, and bibliographer notable as an early authority on erotic literature. If Ashbee was not the actual author, he may well have been the compiler of the work's lengthy and extremely detailed index, and have provided other editorial assistance and help in getting the book into print.
Gershon Legman was the first to link "Walter" and Ashbee in his introduction to the 1962 reprints of Ashbee's bibliographies; the 1966 Grove Press edition of My Secret Life included an expanded version of that essay. On the other hand Steven Marcus, in his influential The Other Victorians (1966), concluded that the balance of known facts was against Legman's "shrewd and ingenious guess." Also unconvinced were Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen in their detailed study of My Secret Life, Walter the English Casanova (1967).
More recently, however, Ian Gibson's The Erotomaniac: the secret life of Henry Spencer Ashbee (2001, ISBN 0-571-19619-5) provides a detailed review of circumstantial evidence arguing that Ashbee wrote My Secret Life, presumably weaving fantasy and anecdotes from friends in with his own real-life experiences. In May 2000, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary on British TV, Walter: The Secret Life of a Victorian Pornographer, which also claimed that Ashbee was Walter.
Gordon Grimley's introduction to the 1972 edition of "My Secret Life" is sceptical of Ashbee's candidacy as the main author and makes a case for William Simpson Potter, a known associate of Ashbee's. According to Ashbee Potter was involved in authoring The Romance of Lust, an erotic work centred on incest and a range of sexual encounters.
The question of how much the book is a record of true experiences (whether of Ashbee or another writer), and how much is fiction or erotic fantasy can probably 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 (in contrast to most Victorian erotica) lend it considerable credibility. In spite of "Walter's" obsessive womanising over a period of several decades, 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. Internal evidence from the book suggests that "Walter" was born between 1820 and 1825. In the last volume he notes seeing the books through print, which indicates that he was still alive in the 1890s.