Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Experimental Lecture by Colonel Spanker

Experimental Lecture by Colonel Spanker is one of the most notorious Victorian erotic texts focusing on flagellation. It was first published in London in 1878-79 with the false imprint date 1836. [1] Only 75 copies, with 11 coloured illustrations and a ‘frontispiece with portrait of the heroine,’ were issued at the high price of £4.4s. (Fraxi, 1962: 246) A number of reprints were issued in London, Paris, and Amsterdam in the 1890s. It was translated into French and published by Augustin Brancart as Conférence expérimentale par le Colonel Cinglant (1880 [1886]).The British Library does not hold a copy of any English language edition. A search of world libraries reveals only one institutional holding: an edition privately printed in London in 1900. [2] Nineteenth-century English and French language editions are quite rare but they have been republished recently as e-books by Birchgrove Press. They are available here and through Amazon.

Experimental Lecture’s notoriety is a consequence of its emphasis on non-consensual sex and the pleasurable possibilities of tormenting virtuous upper class young women. The book’s full title is indicative of this focus:

Experimental Lecture by Colonel Spanker on The exciting and voluptuous pleasures to be derived from crushing and humiliating the spirit of a beautiful and modest young lady; as delivered by him in the assembly-room of the Society of Aristocratic Flagellants, Mayfair.

Colonel Spanker contends that the punishment and degradation of a refined young lady produces more exquisite pleasures than flogging consenting lower-class women and prostitutes: In order to prove this contention, Spanker and his cronies capture, torment, and degrade Miss Julia Ponsonby, a beautiful and unassuming seventeen-year old blonde. Her brutal humiliation confirms the Colonel’s thesis.

Click here to read the Introduction to Experimental Lecture.

Not surprisingly, critics tend to regard Experimental Lecture as morally repellent. For example, in Henry Spencer Ashbee’s Catena Librorum Tacendorum, which was published under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, an unnamed commentator (Ashbee’s ‘brother-bibliophile’ [most probably James Campbell Reddie]) suggests that Experimental Lecture is abhorrent and its obscenity is without parallel in English literature:

This book, which we can fairly assert is the most coldly cruel and unblushingly indecent of any we have ever read, stands entirely alone in the English language. It seems to be the wild dream, or rather nightmare, of some vicious, used-up, old rake, who, positively worn out… has gone mad on the subject of beastly flagellation. [3] (Fraxi, 1962 [1885]: 250-51)

Writing in the second half of twentieth century, Peter Fryer describes Experimental Lecture as ‘quite horrible,’ Ronald Pearsall derides its ‘unbridled sadism,’ and Antony Simpson notes its ‘pure nastiness.’ (Fryer, 1966: 118, Pearsall, 1969: 417, and Simpson, 1987: 199)

Readers who have not read Experimental Lecture will find it impossible to assess the veracity of these writers’ claims about it because they do not substantiate them. Like many writers who cite this book, they do not engage in a rigorous analysis of the text. Their criticisms appear to be based solely on the fact that it depicts the sexual degradation of an unwilling young woman and celebrates the pleasures of cruelty. Now, whilst real non-consensual sexual violence and cruelty should not be condoned because they are pernicious, their representation in fiction and fantasy is not necessarily harmful. They may be mobilised in complex ways and produce a range of negative and positive effects. Fryer, Pearsall, and Simpson do not acknowledge this. They do not explore how representations of violence, suffering, and cruelty in Experimental Lecture are deployed or examine the various effects that they produce.

Experimental Lecture’s critical reception begs investigation. Is it really as offensive as critics suggest? Is it ‘one of the most sadistic books of the nineteenth century’? [4] How does it mobilise representations of beating, sex, and shame? I’ll leave it to readers to form their own answers to these questions. I would like to point out, though, that Experimental Lecture’s infamous repute is well-deserved. As the following passage indicates, it revels in cruelty and is replete with scenes of suffering and humiliation:

Colonel. — “Observe well all her writhings and contortions, those tight drawers show us every muscle as well as if she was quite naked, but they also answer the purpose of increasing her shame and mental degradation, as at every cut the victim dreads they may split or still further expose her delicate charms, is it not so, Julia? Tell us if you now feel the dregs of humiliation?” giving as a wind up to his question a terribly hard cut round her buttocks, making his tips of steel puncture all over her tender mount, which is instantly suffused with little drops of blood all over its surface, and hanging like dew from the short curly hair.

Julia shrieks in agony, but not in time to avert two or three more cuts like the last, one of which makes her clitoris spurt with blood which has collected in the cellular tissues of that excitable part, she shrieks out again and again in excruciating agony: “Oh! Oh!! Oh!!! Kill me in mercy; let me die now! Ah-r-r-re!”

Colonel. — “Will you answer, please, Miss Ponsonby, we want to know (especially the ladies) what you think of your shameful position, did n’t that last cut warm your feeling a little? Eh! speak out!” as he cuts again and again on her tight looking bum, making the blood-saturated material of the drawers rend and crack under the effects of his strokes and the twisting of the victim.

There is probably something to offend everyone somewhere in Experimental Lecture but to dismiss it as abhorrent without having read it or without considering how its erotics of cruelty is deployed is absurd. Its violent eroticism can be interpreted as a black-humoured assault on Christian morality, Victorian prudery, and notions of virtue in distress.

I suspect that many descriptions of Experimental Lecture in critical literature are based on Ashbee’s account of it rather than first hand knowledge of the text. This suspicion is based on the paucity of sustained analyses of it and the fact that, prior to the Birchgrove Press re-issue, the book has been hard to obtain. An analysis of Julie Peakman’s assertion that the ‘Experimental Lecture… contains the whole philosophy which was argued to exhaustion in de Sade, bloody orgies, vivisection and torture’ confirms this conjecture. (Peakman, 2009: 27) Peakman’s statement is a clumsy paraphrase of Ashbee’s commentator’s analysis of a translated quotation from the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, which is not cited. [5] Referring to this quote, the commentator asserts that it contains:

the quintessence of the whole philosophy which is found argued to exhaustion in the notorious volumes of the Marquis de Sade, where he, in his wild dreams of bloody orgies, phlebotomy, vivisection and torture… lays so much stress upon the moral humiliation of the victims employed. (Fraxi, 1962: 247)

Peakman summarises this assertion in order to make a critical assessment of Experimental Lecture rather than the significance of the quote from Justine. Hence, readers may deduce that she has not read Experimental Lecture because she appears not to realise that the text which she restates is a critical response to a passage that does not occur in it.

Experimental Lecture’s publication history, notoriety, and emphasis on sexual cruelty make it an important work for studies of the development of nineteenth-century English erotica, the histories of sexual flagellation, sadism, and masochism, and Victorian attitudes towards sex and pain. It is an especially valuable work for investigations of Sade’s influence on the evolution of English erotica, which Ashbee regarded as deleterious. [6] Sade’s libertine fictions shape Experimental Lecture’s focus on non-consensual sex and cruelty but there are crucial differences between them. For example, in contrast to Sade’s work, Experimental Lecture does not engage in a relentless intellectual assault on Christianity, in extended analyses of nature, crime, sodomy, and cruelty, or in satirical reconfigurations of Enlightenment philosophy. Sade’s libertines expand at length on their favourite topics, often exploring beliefs and ideas’ conceptual predicates, but Colonel Spanker’s theses on flogging and humiliating modest young ladies are brief and under-developed. Their brevity enables a rapid shift from the articulation of theoretical principles to sexual acts, which, for obvious reasons (in an erotic text), are described at length. Violent sexual acts are the means by which the Colonel puts theory into practice and thus substantiates his claims.

By facilitating comparative studies with other Victorian flagellant texts, the republication of Experimental Lecture may help solve the riddle of who wrote it. Experimental Lecture’s title page does not identify the publisher, printer, or author (‘Colonel Spanker’ is obviously fictitious). This absence of information is a strategy to conceal their identities and thus render prosecution difficult. The first edition’s false imprint date also serves to hide them by conveying misleading information about the book’s publication. The provision of no information or, more frequently, deceptive information about the author, publisher, and printer is typical of Victorian books on sexual whipping.

Experimental Lecture is usually attributed to William Lazenby, a London-based publisher of clandestine erotica who was active in the 1870s and 1880s. [7] He is associated with the publication of some well-known Victorian erotic texts, including, for example, The Romance of Lust (1873-76), the periodical The Pearl (1879-83), and The Mysteries of Verbena House (1882). In 1876, Lazenby was charged with ‘soliciting and inciting J. G. Harris to sell, or publish certain obscene, wicked and lewd books.’ (Daily Chronicle, 16 September 1876; quoted in Mendes, 1993: 437) He managed to avoid imprisonment but, after assuming the name Cameron, was eventually tried, convicted, and imprisoned in 1886 at the age of 61 for ‘selling indecent and obscene books.’ (The Times, 26 November 1886; quoted in Mendes, 1993: 441)

The case for Lazenby’s authorship of Experimental Lecture is based on Ashbee’s account of another flagellant text, Curiosities of Flagellation (1875). In his description of this book, Ashbee states that it is ‘evidently from the same pen as the Experimental Lecture.’ (Fraxi, 1962: 257) Lazenby appears to be the author of Curiosities of Flagellation. Ashbee asserts in relation to it that ‘the publisher is also the author; his initials, W. L., terminates the address to the reader on the verso of the title-page.’ (1962: 252) If W.L. stands for William Lazenby, which is likely, and if Ashbee’s account of both books is correct, then Lazenby is the author of Experimental Lecture. If this is the case, then he is also responsible for its publication. In his entry on Experimental Lecture, Ashbee contends that ‘It is from the pen of the publisher.’ (Fraxi, 1962: 246) Ashbee was in an excellent position to know who wrote and published it because of his close association with publishers, writers, transmitters, and fellow collectors of erotica. A comparative analysis of Experimental Lecture and Curiosities of Flagellation’s stylistic, structural, and thematic elements may demonstrate that both books were written by the same person and thus confirm Ashbee’s assertions about their authorship. It could not, of course, prove that Lazenby wrote them. The argument that he did hinges on the reliability of Ashbee’s comments about them and the interpretation of the initials W. L. at the end of Curiosities of Flagellation’s address to the reader. Hence, it may be impossible to confirm that Lazenby penned Experimental Lecture.

Whilst the case for Lazenby’s authorship of Experimental Lecture is strong, it is occasionally attributed to other writers. For example, in Clandestine Erotic Fiction in English 1800-1930: A Bibliographical Study, Peter Mendes attributes Experimental Lecture to Colonel, later General, John Studholme Hodgson (1805-1890). (See Mendes, 1993: 4) Remarkably, in an otherwise rigorous and compelling study, Mendes does not explain his reasons for attributing it to Studholme Hodgson, and, confusingly, elsewhere in the same volume, he attributes it to ‘Colonel Studholm [sic] Hodgson and others’ and to Lazenby. (See Mendes, 1993: 5 and 432) Mendes does not justify these contradictory attributions and seems to be unaware that he has made them. His case for the Colonel’s authorship, therefore, is extremely weak. Nevertheless, as argued below, Studholme Hodgson is an apt candidate for the authorship of all or some of Experimental Lecture.

Before being made a general in 1876, Studholme Hodgson was a Colonel in the 54th Regiment and served in Ceylon and Burma. [8] He was a member of a wealthy upper-class circle that formed around the statesman and parliamentarian Richard Monckton-Milnes (later Lord Houghton). [9] This clique included, amongst others, the diplomat and explorer Captain (later Sir) Richard Burton, who translated the Kama Sutra (1883), Frederick Hankey, an ex-Captain in the Guards who possessed one of the finest erotica collections in Europe and supplied Ashbee with most of his information about London’s flagellant brothels, and the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose passion for the rod and contributions to flagellant literature are well-known. This group had a penchant for penning sexual fiction and poetry. These original texts were written individually and collectively and published through underground associates such as Lazenby-Cameron. The Romance of Lust is probably the circle’s most well-known collaborative effort. Milnes and his friends were especially interested in flagellation and in Sade’s work. Milnes wrote The Rodiad (1871), a long poem ascribed to George Colman the younger that celebrates public school floggings, and owned a number of Sade’s books, which were then difficult to obtain in England. He accompanied Swinburne on trips to flagellant brothels and introduced him to Sade’s work. Hankey also possessed some of Sade’s libertine novels and delighted in sexual cruelty. He desired ‘to see a girl hanged and have the skin of her backside tanned to bind his ‘Justine’ with.’ (Monckton Milnes quoted in Gibson, 1993: 32) Ashbee described him as ‘a second de Sade without the intellect.’ (Ashbee quoted in Gibson, 2001: 32; emphasis in the original) Studholme Hodgson appears to have shared Hankey’s propensity for sexual cruelty. He was a close friend of Burton’s and, in his one of his commonplace books for 1860, Milnes recollected the explorer stating that he had ‘remarked several men with the vice of Studholme Hodgson… all men delighting in cruelty – what a sheik he would have made! What a refinement of torture and pleasure wld. he have invented!’ (Quoted in Mendes, 1993: 11)

Studholme Hodgson’s penchant for cruelty and membership in a coterie that admired Sade’s work, engaged in sexual whipping, and composed flagellant literature makes him an ideal candidate for Experimental Lecture’s authorship. Indeed, ‘Colonel Spanker’ may be a humorous self-portrait or self-parody, a pseudonym that coterie members, intimates, and associates would have recognised. Spanker and his cronies, of course, are stock figures in flagellant literature but they can be interpreted as mocking tributes to Studholme Hodgson and Milne’s clique and its passions - regardless of who wrote Experimental Lecture. The title of Colonel Spanker’s association, the ‘Society of Aristocratic Flagellants,’ is a fitting description of Milne’s circle.

It is worth noting that Studholme Hodgson is credited with writing or co-writing at least two other works of fiction focusing on flagellation and the erotics of cruelty: Revelries! and Devilries! (1867), which Ashbee states is ‘the joint production of four Oxford men and an officer in the army’ (one of the stories that comprise it describes ‘an orgie that is as filthy and crapulous as any dreamed by De Sade’), and The Pleasures of Cruelty (1886), which is subtitled, A Sequel to the Reading of Justine and Juliette. (Fraxi, 1962: 182) [10] His authorship of these texts and Experimental Lecture is conjectural. A comparative analysis of the texts attributed to Studholme Hodgson might not demonstrate that he wrote them but it might reveal that they were penned by the same writer or writers. If it did, then it would provide evidence to counter assertions of Lazenby’s authorship of Experimental Lecture. If, stylistically and structurally, Experimental Lecture is more like Pleasures of Cruelty, for example, than it is like Curiosities of Flagellation, then there would be good grounds to reject the contention that Lazenby wrote it.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Pleasures of Cruelty.

A new assessment of Experimental Lecture may also solve a puzzle created by its opening paragraph:

Those of my readers who have perused the revelations of Birchington House, will recognise in our lecturer an enthusiastic apostle of the rod, who, after his voluptuous amusements at the house of Mrs. Smart, returned to London when her establishment was broken up in consequence of the unpleasant enquiries that were beginning to be made after the Misses Bellasis and Sutton, who had been their victims.

This passage clearly refers to an earlier flagellant text in which Colonel Spanker appears as a character but I have not been able to determine what book it is or if it was ever published. Miss Bellasis is a character in The Mysteries of Verbena House but it was issued after Experimental Lecture and Birchington House, Colonel Spanker, and Miss Sutton do not figure in it. It is possible, of course, that the allusion to an earlier text in the opening paragraph is simply a red-herring to generate interest. If anyone has the answer to this conundrum, please let me know!


1. All bibliographical information about the first edition of Experimental Lecture in this post is based be on Henry Spencer Ashbee’s account of it in his Catena Librorum Tacendorum (1885), which was published under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi. See Fraxi (1962 [1885]: 246).

2. A search of world libraries on WorldCat ( located only one institutional holding of Experimental Lecture. An edition privately printed in 1900 is held at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Germany.

3. The ‘brother-bibliophile’ quoted in Pisanus Fraxi’s account of Colonel Spanker’s Experimental Lecture may be James Campbell Reddie (c. 1800-1878). Reddie was a central figure in the publishing world of Victorian erotica. Ashbee bought his collection of erotic books for £300 in 1877. He acknowledges the importance of Reddie’s three volume manuscript Bibliographical Notes for the development of his (Ashbee’s) work. (See Fraxi, 1962: xlviii-xlix)

4. In The Illustrated Book of Sexual Records, Experimental Lecture is described as ‘one of the most sadistic books of the nineteenth century.’ However, it is the only book described in the category ‘Flagellation: Most sadistic 19th century book,’ which suggests that it is the most sadistic nineteenth-century work dealing with sexual whipping. The Illustrated Book of Sexual Records entry on Experimental Lecture is available online at:, last accessed 29/09/2009. The Illustrated Book of Sexual Records is available in hard copy. It was written by G. L. Simmons and published by the Bell Publishing Company in New York in 1984.

5. Ashbee’s commentator quotes but does not cite the source of the following passage:

The emotion of voluptuousness can only be excited by two causes, firstly, when we imagine that the object of our desire approaches our ideal of beauty, or when we see this person experiencing the strongest possible sensations. No feeling is more vivid that that of pain, its shock is true and certain. It never misleads like the comedy of pleasure eternally played by women, and seldom really felt. He who can create upon a woman the most tumultuous impression, he who can best trouble and agitate the female organisation to the utmost, will have succeeded in procuring for himself the highest dole of sensual pleasure. (Fraxi. 1962: 247)

This passage does not occur in Experimental Lecture. It is an English translation or, more precisely, paraphrase, of a passage in D. A. F. de Sade’s Justine. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse translate this passage thus:

our voluptuous transport […] is never ignited save by two causes: either by the perception in the object we use of a real or imaginary beauty, the beauty in which we delight the most, or by the sight of that object undergoing the strongest possible sensation; now, there is no more lively sensation than that of pain; its impressions are certain and dependable, they never deceive as may those of the pleasure women perpetually feign and almost never experience [… ] he who will cause the most tumultuous impression to be born in a woman, he who will most thoroughly convulse this woman’s frame, very decidedly will have managed to procure himself the heaviest possible dose of voluptuousness. (Sade, 1965 [1791]: 606)

6. Ashbee believed that Sade’s work was a harmful influence on English erotica:

It is evident that writers of the present day have allowed themselves to be influenced by the pernicious, bloodthirsty, anti-natural doctrines of the Marquis DE SADE, and have copied the cynicism, cruelty and impracticable lasciviousness which he made the distinctive feature of his books… thus the nature of English erotic fiction has been changed, and its wholesome tone… entirely lost. (Fraxi, 1962: XLII-XLIII)

7. For a detailed summary of William Lazenby and his alias Duncan Cameron’s publishing activity , see Peter Mendes (1993: 4-7).

8. For bibliographical information on Colonel, later General, Studholme Hodgson, see Mendes (1993: 11-12).

9. For a brief but detailed account of the circle that formed around Monckton-Milnes and its association with the publishing world of Victorian erotica, see Mendes (1993: 7ff).

10. Mendes postulates that Studholme Hodgson was one of the writers of Revelries! and Devilries! (1867) and is probably the author of The Pleasures of Cruelty (1886). See Mendes (1993: 12).


Fraxi, P. [pseud. Ashbee, H. S.] (1962 [1885]) Bibliography of Prohibited Books. Volume 3. Catena Librorum Tacendorum. Bio – Biblio – Icono – graphical and Critical Notes on Curious, Uncommon and Erotic Books. New York: Jack Brussel.

Fryer, P. (1966) Private Case – Public Scandal. London: Secker & Warburg.

Gibson, I. (2001) The Erotomaniac: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee. London: Faber and Faber.

Mendes, P. (1993) Clandestine Erotic Fiction in English 1800-1930: A Bibliographical Study. Aldershot: Scolar Press.

Peakman, J. (2009) ‘Sexual Perversion in History: An Introduction.’ In J. Peakman, ed. Sexual Perversions, 1670-1890. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pearsall, R. (1969) The Worm in the Bud: The World of Victorian Sexuality. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Sade, D. A. F. de (1965) The Marquis de Sade: Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom,and Other Writings. New York: Grove Press.

Simmons, G. L. (1984) The Illustrated Book of Sexual Records. New York, Bell Publishing Company. Available online at:

Simpson, A. (1987) ‘Vulnerability and the age of consent: legal innovation and its effect on prosecutions for rape in eighteenth-century London.’ In G. S. Rousseau and R. Porter, eds. Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Mysteries of Verbena House

One of the most difficult challenges confronting writers on the subject of flagellation is to decide where to begin. There is an immense and diverse body of open and clandestine publications on flogging, spanking, birching, and beating and much of it can be construed or consumed as ‘erotica’ (however you define it). I’ll commence, therefore, with a discussion of one of my favourite clandestine books, The Mysteries of Verbena House; or, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving, by Etonensis.

The first volume of Verbena House was published in 1881, probably by William Lazenby in London, under the half-title: Birched for Thieving, or the Punishment of Miss Bellasis. A second volume and the full title appeared in 1882. Only 150 copies were printed at the exorbitant price of four guineas — close to a fortnight’s wages for a middle-class worker. According to the Victorian bibliographer and collector Henry Spencer Ashbee, who wrote under the scatological pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, the first edition was illustrated with ‘4 coloured lithographs, obscene and of vile execution.’ (Catena Librorum Tacendorum, 1885: 260) Like many clandestine texts, it is riddled with typographical errors and inconsistent spelling.

There are numerous nineteenth- and turn-of-the-century reprints, albeit with different illustrations and pagination. The aquarelles reproduced here, which are far from ‘vile,’ are from an edition dated 1882 but most likely published in the late 1880s or early 1890s. The black and white illustrations in this post are by Adolphe Lambrecht; they are from a French translation of Verbena House issued by Charles Carrington in 1901: Les Mystères de la Maison de la Verveine.

I have been unable to find any later twentieth-century reprints of Verbena House. The Kinsey Institute Library catalogue records a ‘Venus-Phoenix edition, 1950’ but I haven’t been able to determine if it was ever released. I have not been able to find a record of it elsewhere or locate a copy. Significantly, the Kinsey catalogue description refers to manuscript ‘leaves’ rather than pages, which suggests that, whilst this edition was prepared for publication, it was not issued. Verbena House is an extremely rare book but a new paperback edition is available here.

As in most flagellant erotica, the plot is rather slim. Verbena House is a fashionable school for young ladies in Brighton. Miss Montes, a student from Cuba, is robbed of two golden “ounces” or doubloons. The nominal ‘mystery’ centres on the discovery of the culprit: Miss Catherine Bellasis, the beautiful sixteen year old daughter of an eminent Chancery barrister and the granddaughter of an earl. She compounds her crime by attempting to frame a younger student, Lucy Summerfield. During the hunt for the stolen coins, a number of other offences are detected: Miss Hatherton possesses an obscene book, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and Miss Hazeltine has hidden a bottle of gin. The girls are condemned to be flogged before the school. Volume I is taken up with the narration of these events.

Volume II is primarily concerned with the castigation of the culprits. Up until the detection of her students’ misdemeanours, Miss Sinclair, the headmistress, has been averse to corporal punishment. After deciding that the girls’ are to be beaten, she seeks the advice of the school’s spiritual advisor, the Reverend Arthur Calvedon, on the appropriate disciplinary procedure. A devotee of the rod, he becomes Miss Sinclair’s lover. In the process, and during the course of the girls’ chastisement, Miss Sinclair undergoes a remarkable conversion: she is transformed from a “maid-mistress” into a lewd votary, registering “a vow to become a fearless heroine of the birch, and make the sufferings of her pupils minister to her devices.” (1882, Vol. 1; p. 6 and Vol. II; p. 53) The book’s title hints at this lascivious metamorphosis: the psycho-spiritual transformation it represents is a deeper ‘mystery’ than the question of who stole Miss Montes’ doubloons. It resonates with and draws on the devotional language of Christianity.

Whilst the ostensible mystery of Verbena House is soon resolved, a compelling conundrum remains: who wrote it? ‘Etonensis’ simply signifies an old Etonian – that is, someone who has been to Eton College, which had a great reputation for birching students. According to Ashbee, Verbena House was written by two authors, and, as a prominent collector with excellent connections in the field of clandestine publishing, he was in a good position to know:

The first part of the work… is attributed… to a gentleman well known in London literary circles as a constant contributor to the daily press, a keen student of London and Parisian life, a pleasant writer of travels, of fiction, and of articles of an ommiscient [sic] and cosmopolitan character, a most versatile genius… Being unable to complete the tale, in spite of his prodigious industry and astonishing facility for work, it was brought to a conclusion by the gentleman whose notes have already enriched this volume. (1885: 261)

Ashbee doesn’t identify the authors explicitly but his hints have enabled them to be identified, probably correctly, as the popular Victorian journalist George Augustus Sala and James Campbell Reddie, an author and collector of erotica whose collection and notes, purchased by Ashbee in 1877 for ₤300, was the foundation on which the latter built his bibliographical account of nineteenth-century English sexual fiction. By the close of the nineteenth century, Sala’s authorial role appears to have been common knowledge: Verbena House is attributed to him directly in another clandestine classic, Raped on the Railway (1894 [1899 and 1904]).

Sala and Reddie are excellent candidates for the authorship of Verbena House but it would be interesting to see if a comparative analysis of it with work that is known to have been written by them would support their candidature.

Regardless of who wrote Verbena House, one thing is certain: there are significant stylistic differences between the two constitutive volumes. Volume I is written in a light and entertaining style with numerous digressions, which provides much of the book’s charm. It contains few obscenities and little in the way of explicit sexual description. In contrast to it, Volume II digresses rarely; its tone is more serious (as perhaps the punishment of the girls warrants), and, as the following passage indicates, it contains numerous overt depictions of sexual activity, and it is frequently obscene:

[Miss Sinclair] was all to pieces, her hand ached—the hand that had clutched the rod; her bosom had started and worked itself out of her stays; there was a gentle perspiration on her noble forehead, and, to tell the truth in the plainest of English, she felt awfully randy.
She panted fitfully as she reclined with her legs apart, letting the inflamed parts cool themselves as best they might. Her tongue uneasily licked her parched lips as she murmured to herself the bawdiest words she could think of—“fuck! fuck!” she gently whispered; and then she murmured, “prick, prick; cunt, cunt.”
Her hand stole then slyly to her slit. She caressed herself, and moistening her fingers at the entrance to the vagina, rubbed her damp digits over a fat, crisp, and robust clitoris. (1882, Vol. II; p. 40)

The differences between the two volumes in terms of sexual explicitness are reflected in the aquarelles. Illustrations in Volume II depict genitalia and explicit sexual acts, which are not portrayed in the set of aquarelles accompanying Volume I.

One of the most significant features of Verbena House is an obvious delight in representing characters’ accents —a stylistic device that Sala employed in his signed open fiction (‘The Conversion of Colonel Quagg,’ for example). The following passage from Verbena House provides a good example of this characteristic:

Fraulein Schrobbs [one of the teachers] rushed into the room….
“O, Miss Zinglair,” she cried, “you af mate von grade misdague. You af wip dis boor tear innosent liddle cal, and it is nod zhe who af stole te money. Ach! mein Gott! it is anoder cal. Id is —” (1882, Vol. I; p. 53)

As this example indicates, rendered speech in Verbena House sometimes verges on parody, but it is effective in animating characters — a considerable literary achievement in a clandestine text of this period.

Another notable stylistic feature is the use of irony, especially in Volume I. For example, the narrator asserts dryly that the story is realistic rather than fantastic:

I am not narrating fiction, but fact; and throughout the entire story of Miss Bellasis I shall have but very rarely to draw on my imagination. (1882, Vol. I; p. 24)

The joke, of course, is that both volumes are primarily fantasies. The long digression on the lascivious effects of wearing close-fitting underwear, which Ashbee quotes and is cited in Raped on the Railway, is a fabulous example of the author’s rampant imagination:

The greatest enemy to a woman’s chastity is contact. Let her wear her things loose, and she may keep her blood cool…
When drawers are made of linen, and are bifurcated at the bottom and belly, they are feminised to an extent which may neutralise the elements I have spoken of; although, as far as I am concerned, it tickles me somewhat when I look from the windows of a railway carriage into suburban back gardens to see the white drawers of women hung to dry on clothes lines, and fluttering in the breeze. My imagination fills the empty galligaskins with cosy bottoms and hirsute quims. Were those drawers loquacious, like Tennyson’s “Talking Oak,” what mysteries might they not reveal.
A lady, putting on her riding trousers becomes, consciously or unconsciously, akin to a hoyden assuming man’s clothes, or nearer still, to a ballet girl drawing on her tights. She is subject to contact of the most perilous kind. The warm close substance that passes close to her flesh, that clasps her loins, and embraces her bum, and insinuates itself between her thighs, has, all senseless leather, cloth, or silk, as it may be, something of the nature of a man’s hand in it.
Let the graces be stark naked, or vest them only with flowing drapery, and they may be as chaste as Susannah. Put them in drawers or tights and they become prostitutes. (1882, Vol. I; pp. 28-29)

Verbena House is pure fabrication but Ashbee seems to have been taken in by the narrator’s assertion of its factuality. He opines:

The Mysteries of Verbena House… is one of the best books of its kind, and a truthful picture of what is passing around us; further, I believe the author when he writes: “I am not narrating fiction, but fact” (1885: 264).

Although I agree with the statement that Verbena House is ‘one of the best’ Victorian flagellant fictions, it is difficult to comprehend how Ashbee came to the conclusion that it is ‘truthful.’ I’ll leave it to other readers and critics to venture possible explanations.

Verbena House is a work of the erotic imagination but the name, curiously enough, may be modelled on a real place, Verbena Lodge, a flagellant brothel in London frequented by one of the greatest Victorian poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne, an old Etonian and an admirer of Sala’s work. It is tempting to think that the book and school’s title is an intentional allusion to the brothel, a joke conflating bordello and school that knowing Victorian readers would have grasped and enjoyed.