My Secret Life by Henry Spencer Ashbee


My Secret Life by Henry Spencer Ashbee

Title: “Exploring the Intriguing World of ‘My Secret Life’ by Henry Spencer Ashbee”


“My Secret Life” by Henry Spencer Ashbee is a controversial and enigmatic novel that delves into the hidden realms of Victorian London’s sexual underground. Published anonymously between 1888 and 1894, the novel presents a detailed account of the protagonist’s sexual experiences and encounters, offering a unique perspective on the era’s sexual mores and desires. This article will provide a comprehensive analysis of the novel, examining its plot, characters, themes, writing style, setting, historical context, and impact on literature.

Plot and Storyline

The novel follows the anonymous narrator, Walter, as he chronicles his sexual experiences from his youth to middle age. Spanning twelve volumes, the plot delves into the protagonist’s encounters with various women, exploring their desires, fetishes, and sexual practices. The narrative is presented in a confessional style, revealing Walter’s innermost thoughts and desires without judgment or moral condemnation. Throughout the story, the reader is taken on a journey through the brothels, back alleys, and secret societies of Victorian London, providing a glimpse into a hidden world.


The main character, Walter, remains the focal point of the novel. As the narrator, he provides a deeply personal account of his sexual exploits, revealing his motivations, desires, and vulnerabilities. Other characters that populate Walter’s world are mostly women who represent a range of sexual archetypes, including prostitutes, mistresses, and unconventional lovers. Each character contributes to Walter’s journey of self-discovery and provides insights into the various facets of Victorian sexuality.

Themes and Symbols

“My Secret Life” explores several themes that resonate throughout the novel. The novel challenges societal norms and taboos surrounding sexuality, highlighting the dichotomy between public perception and private desires. It delves into power dynamics, gender roles, and the complexities of human sexuality. Symbolism is present in the novel, with objects and acts imbued with deeper meanings, reflecting the hidden desires and unspoken longings of the characters.

Writing Style

Ashbee’s writing style is candid, explicit, and unapologetic. His use of language is rich and descriptive, vividly capturing the sensual and erotic aspects of the narrative. Ashbee employs various literary techniques, including vivid imagery, metaphor, and introspection, to immerse the reader in Walter’s world. The confessional narrative structure allows for an intimate connection with the protagonist, evoking both curiosity and discomfort in the reader.

Setting and Atmosphere

The majority of the book takes place in Victorian London, a place with sharp social divisions and a strict moral code. The dark and gritty atmosphere of the city serves as a backdrop for the protagonist’s exploration of his desires. Ashbee vividly portrays the physical and social environment, capturing the squalor of brothels, the opulence of upper-class settings, and the secrecy of hidden societies. The setting contributes to the story’s tone, creating a sense of intrigue, danger, and forbidden pleasures.

Historical, Social, or Political Context

“My Secret Life” was written during the late Victorian era, a time characterized by strict social norms and a prudish attitude towards sexuality. Ashbee’s novel provides a glimpse into the hidden world of sexual exploration that existed beneath the surface of Victorian society. It offers a critique of the hypocritical moral standards of the time, shedding light on the contradictions between public expectations and private desires. The novel reflects the tensions and anxieties surrounding sexuality in a repressive society.

How did the novel challenge societal norms and taboos surrounding sexuality during the Victorian era?

“My Secret Life” by Henry Spencer Ashbee challenged societal norms and taboos surrounding sexuality during the Victorian era in several ways:

1. Explicit Exploration of Sexual Desires: The novel delves into explicit and detailed descriptions of sexual encounters, which were considered highly taboo during the Victorian era. Ashbee’s candid portrayal of sexual desires and practices went against the prevailing moral and social codes of the time, which emphasized sexual repression and the suppression of open discussions about sexuality.

2. Critique of Hypocrisy: Ashbee’s novel exposes the hypocrisy of Victorian society regarding sexuality. While public discourse and societal expectations upheld a facade of purity and chastity, “My Secret Life” reveals the hidden sexual desires and activities that took place in secret. By shedding light on the stark contrast between public perception and private realities, the novel challenged the notion of Victorian society as morally upright and virtuous.

3. Exploration of Taboo Topics: The novel explores taboo topics such as prostitution, extramarital affairs, and unconventional sexual practices. Ashbee’s unapologetic portrayal of these topics challenged Victorian belief in sexual propriety and the ideal of monogamous, heterosexual relationships. By bringing these taboo subjects into the open, the novel forced readers to confront the reality of human desires and behaviors that deviated from societal norms.

4. Representation of Female Sexual Agency: “My Secret Life” presents female characters who actively engage in and enjoy sexual encounters. This portrayal of female sexual agency challenged the prevailing Victorian notion of female passivity and the idea that women were solely objects of male desire. By depicting women who actively pursued and participated in sexual experiences, the novel subverted traditional gender roles and power dynamics.

5. Criticism of Repressive Sexual Morality: Through its explicit content and portrayal of diverse sexual practices, the novel critiques the repressive sexual morality of the Victorian era. Ashbee’s work questions the validity and fairness of societal norms that stifle individual expression and condemn natural human desires. It challenges the idea that societal expectations should strictly regulate and control sexual desires and experiences.

By openly addressing and challenging these societal norms and taboos, “My Secret Life” aimed to provoke readers and spark discussions about the complexities of human sexuality. It provided a counter-narrative to the prevailing Victorian attitudes toward sex and offered a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of the diverse range of sexual desires and experiences that existed beneath the surface of Victorian society.

What were some of the reactions and criticisms that “My Secret Life” received during the Victorian era?

During the Victorian era, “My Secret Life” by Henry Spencer Ashbee received varied reactions and criticisms. Due to its explicit content and controversial subject matter, the novel faced significant challenges in terms of publication and reception. Here are some of the reactions and criticisms it garnered:

1. Obscenity and Immorality: The explicit nature of the novel led to accusations of obscenity and immorality. Victorian society upheld strict moral standards, and the graphic depiction of sexual encounters in “My Secret Life” was seen as a direct violation of these standards. Many critics and readers condemned the novel as morally corrupting and unfit for public consumption.

2. Underground Circulation: Initially, “My Secret Life” was not widely available for public consumption. It was privately circulated among a small, secretive circle of readers who shared an interest in erotica and pornography. Its underground status further contributed to the perception of the novel as a forbidden and illicit work.

3. Limited Critical Evaluation: Due to its controversial nature, “My Secret Life” received limited critical evaluation during the Victorian era. Many critics dismissed it outright without engaging in a serious analysis of its literary merits or its exploration of themes. The explicit content overshadowed any potential appreciation for the novel as a work of literature.

4. Legal Challenges: The novel faced legal challenges and attempts at censorship. In 1877, Ashbee’s publisher, William Lazenby, was prosecuted for publishing obscene material, including Ashbee’s work. Although Lazenby was eventually acquitted, the legal proceedings further contributed to the novel’s notoriety and the perception of it as a scandalous and morally objectionable text.

5. Limited Availability and Distribution: The explicit content and legal challenges surrounding the novel made it difficult to obtain or distribute openly. It was often sold discreetly, in back rooms or under the counter, and remained largely inaccessible to the general public. The limited availability and distribution affected its reach and readership during the Victorian era.

6. Private and Secretive Reputation: The novel gained a reputation as a secretive and clandestine work, adding to its allure and infamy. Its association with the hidden world of sexual exploration and its circulation among a select few contributed to its image as an underground and forbidden text.

Despite the criticisms and challenges it faced, “My Secret Life” also found a small audience among those with an interest in erotica and sexual exploration. Its explicit content and unfiltered portrayal of sexuality appealed to some readers who sought alternative perspectives on Victorian society and the complexities of human desire.

Final Conclusions

“My Secret Life” by Henry Spencer Ashbee offers a fascinating and unfiltered exploration of Victorian sexuality. Through its detailed plot, complex characters, and provocative themes, the novel challenges societal norms and offers a glimpse into a hidden world of desire and passion. Ashbee’s candid writing style, combined with the novel’s historical context, has contributed to its cultural significance and enduring impact on literature. Despite its controversial nature, “My Secret Life” remains a captivating and thought-provoking work that continues to intrigue readers and provoke discussions about sexuality and societal constraints.


Henry Spencer Ashbee – Wikipedia

My Secret Life (memoir) – Wikipedia

My Secret Life by Henry Spencer Ashbee | Goodreads