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The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee Paperback – 18 Feb 2002

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (18 Feb. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571209041
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571209040
  • Product Dimensions: 12.4 x 2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 613,945 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Ian Gibson, more famous for biographies of famous Spaniards Frederico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali has now written the life of a little-known Victorian collector of pornography. It is a curious story, and interesting in a shamefaced sort of way. Ashbee enjoyed an affluent 19th-century existence with wife and family, renting a separate apartment in which he stored his collection of thousands of erotic books and paraphernalia. With a nicely Victorian pedantry, Ashbee catalogued his entire collection and published a limited edition Index Librorum Prohibitorum or "Index of Books Worthy of Being Prohibited", which Gibson calls "a thing of beauty" on account of its high production values. Apart from this, and a number of so-so travel books, Ashbee is not an especially noteworthy character; except that Gibson wants to argue that it was Ashbee who wrote the anonymous Victorian porn-bonkbuster My Secret Life. Gibson makes a good case and Ashbee may indeed be the author, but we may also find ourselves asking "so what?"

This is a peculiar sort of biographical production, an unusual addition to Gibson's otherwise excellent list of books. It is certainly written and researched with care, and constitutes a genuine scholarly contribution to this little-studied aspect of Victorian life. But it is also oddly dispiriting to read--not because of Gibson's immaculate writing, but because of Ashbee's monomaniacal proclivities. Pornography, at the very least, should be sexually exciting; but only a very particular sort of individual will find much stimulation in the depressing array of flagellation and violence that crops up all through this material. As Gibson concedes at the end of his book, Ashbee is "sad--in, we assume, the traditional as well as the modern sense of the word: nobody with a reasonably happy affective life is going to spend years writing and collecting this sort of 'obsessive, reiterative' material". --Adam Roberts --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

'Here is the lust that dare not speak its name: Victoria may not have been amused; but I guarantee that you'll be.' Sunday Express '[A] gripping, finely researched jewel of a book.' Sunday Times

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First Sentence
Henry Spencer Ashbee was born on 21 April 1834 in Blackfriars Road, Southwark, London, and baptized on 1 June following at Boughton under Blean, in Kent. Read the first page
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By A. Hayden on 1 Jan. 2012
Format: Paperback
Having studied the life of Henry Spencer Ashbee for the last few years I have found this book to be an invaluable resource.
The style of writing is fluid and interesting, Gibson certainly can keep the reader interested. Divided into specific sections representing important parts of Ashbee's life, (although primarily focussing on his suspected association with the notorious 'Walter', author of 'My Secret Life') this title is just as easy to dip into as it is to read as a whole.

I would say that this book is perfect for anyone seeking an alternative view on the Victorians, the Victorian gentleman or for those specifically interested in erotic/pornographic literature from the nineteenth century. Absolutely brilliant!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Mr. S. J. Fanning on 25 Feb. 2001
Format: Hardcover
There have been several previous studies of the Victorian underground classic MY SECRET LIFE. The main ones being from G. Legman, Phyllis & Eberhard Kronhausen and Steven Marcus. All treat this monumental work as the sexual autobiography of an Victorian gentleman. However Ian Gibson, in this biography of Henry Spencer Ashbee, convincingly makes the case that MY SECRET LIFE is a work of fiction - authored by Henry Spencer Ashbee. Mr Gibson had complete unrestricted access to Ashbee's diaries, which the others did not. I highly recommend it.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 2 reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
On the Trail of a Great Pornographer 13 Nov. 2001
By Rob Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
If You're Reading This, Buy The Book 15 Jan. 2008
By Chris Ward - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Face it-- if you're reading a review of this book, you're knowledgable and interested enough to enjoy it. I'd guess that 1 out of 1000 readers might get a kick out of "The Erotomaniac," but if you read "My Secret Life" and wondered about who "Walter" was, or know who Gershon Legman is, or have a bibliographic bent, then this book is for you. Ashbee wasn't the most likable of men, but his utter obsession to collect and classify his erotica ruled his life, and the people he met (including Richard Francis Burton, who comes off even more perverse than I'd imagined) make for a compelling narrative. I developed a great sympathy for him-- he was ruled by sex, but enslaved by his books. He could only share his fetish with a few other devotees, and had to hide his love for smut from his own family. If only he could have lived to see our century!
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