The ongoing detection of the mysterious author of the huge erotic classic _My Secret Life_ has advanced a step further (although the sources of information are only slightly better) by Ian Gibson, in _The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee_ (Da Capo Press). Ashbee had a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence as a successful London businessman, travel writer, and paterfamilias. He also tended his huge collection of pornography. It was so large a collection that he rented rooms in Gray's Inn especially to contain it (and perhaps to keep it from being a family concern). Ashbee was no supporter of the suffragettes, but he liked the idea that women took pleasure in sex and could actively participate in it, ideas that were unfashionable or obscene at the time. In his own writing, Ashbee railed that "the English nation possesses an ultra-squeamishness and hyper-prudery peculiar to itself." He was furious that missionaries were trying to intrude this morality into societies where sexuality was more open.
It is clear that Ashbee's books ridicule these notions, even when Ashbee made it seem that he was supporting them. He is the author of three books, magnificently produced private editions cataloging his own books and those he was interested in. The titles give away his game: _Index Librorum Prohibitorum_ ("Index of Books Worthy of Being Prohibited," mocking the Vatican's own catalogue, 1877), _Centuria Librorum Absconditorum_ ("A Hundred Books Worthy of Being Hidden Away," 1879) and _Catena Librorum Tacendorum_ ("String of Books Worthy of Being Silenced," 1885). Ashbee produced his volumes under his scatological penname Pisanus Fraxi; he seems to have enjoyed rebuses of his name, and Pisanus Fraxi is an anagram of the Latin words for "ash" and "bee."
When it is known that Gibson has produced this biography after being allowed the first glance at Ashbee's diary, one might expect that there would be many personal revelations. Sadly, with some exceptions which Gibson quotes, the diary is discontinuous, and mostly dull. Ashbee was too busy reading and buying books to spend much time on a diary. If Gibson is to be believed, he spent a good deal of time writing _My Secret Life_, too. The final third of _The Erotomaniac_ is an amusing list of correspondences of style, phraseology, and philosophy between the writings of Pisanus Fraxi and those of the "Walter" who wrote _My Secret Life_. Gibson allows that someday electronic scansion of the texts may make the identification more positive (and perhaps someone will pay literary sleuth Don Foster, of _Author Unknown_, to take the case). To me, the most compelling evidence is that Ashbee's volumes all have an obsessively inclusive index, just as "Walter's" book hilariously does. Under the gerund form of the most shocking verb in English, Walter has seven columns of entries, including: in masks / wheelbarrow fashion / modesty hinders complete pleasure / is the great humanizer / in a grotto / in cabs / in a church / in a calf shed / in a cow shed / against trees. On and on the list goes, a tribute to someone obsessed with sex, with lists, and with compilations. As Gibson says, if Ashbee didn't write it, who on Earth did? Gibson's own book, meticulously researched and genially entertaining, has just about as much of Ashbee as we will ever know, as well as genuine insights into Victorian times and morals.