|A Man With a Maid - Anonymous -
WH Allen & Co 1981 ISBN 0 352 31017 0 Introduction and Notes by Alexis Lykiard
A largely unknown pearl of genuine Victorian erotica, A Man With a Maid throws new light on the extraordinary double standards of the nineteenth century.
The anonymous author channels the underground river of repressed sensuality and inhibited fantasy flowing beneath the respectable facade of our grandparents' lives. Written in the style of a gentleman's confessional diary, it describes the chastisement and seduction of the beautiful but reluctant Alice by Jack, the man she once rejected.
This classic exploration of the dark side of the nineteenth century is as revealing of the true nature of Victorian sexual morals as Walter's My Secret Life or Steven Marcus' The Other Victorians.
As with some of the most interesting late Victorian erotic works, such as My Secret Life and Suburban Souls, the authorship and precise dating of A Man With A Maid are uncertain. Unlike those other works, it is neither documentary, epistolary nor directly autobiographical, although in some ways it is very representative of its time and genre. What makes A Man With A Maid of superior quality to the mass of Victorian erotica (and the Victorian age like most eras of repressive morality and strict social conventions produced huge quantities of such writing) is its humour and style. For A Man With A Maid is that rarity - an entertaining, funny and sexy book.
How is this achieved - when so many writers themselves would agree with the opinion of that underrated American eccentric Edward Dahlberg: 'I had no confidence in the possibilities of carnal pleasure from reading'? He himself was a stylist, however, and this gives the clue: with erotic works especially, style and tone are crucial, as important as in actual lovemaking.
But the indefatigable Victorian collector and bibliographer of forbidden literature of every kind, Henry Spencer Ashbee ('Pisanus Fraxi') noted that during the nineteenth century, the period of the Industrial Revolution, erotic literature had veered from the healthily bawdy, native tradition (going back centuries to Chaucer, The Exeter Book, and so on, towards the brutal. Imitation of the demented and demonic Marquis de Sade, Ashbee believed, explained 'why the character of English erotic fiction has undergone a radical change, resulting in the complete loss of its healthy tone.'
It is the distinction of A Man With A Maid to be, in its narrator Jack's own words, 'maddeningly gentle titillation.' Here Jack's long-awaited revenge on Alice, who has jilted him, turns into Jack and Alice in Wonderland, until everyone (Fanny, Connie Blunt, Lady Betty, Molly and all) goes away contented. But readers introduced to Jack's secret room equipped with pulleys and tricky mechanical devices needn't be as initially apprehensive as the characters themselves ... This is no far-fetched tale of sadism and cruelty of the sort to repel even an Ashbee, nor is Jack the stereotyped Gothic villain and tyrant. He is, perhaps in his creator's image, a leisured, charming, educated Victorian gentleman, bold and somewhat caddish, but by no means vicious.
He is also quite credible, displaying humour and a neat turn of phrase when he tells Alice, 'You amused yourself with my heart, I am going to amuse myself with your body.' Alice, formerly a priggish, calculating flirt, is converted to the pleasures of the flesh and thus achieves a form of liberation, converting others in her turn. The whole story is related with some wit and feeling (the feeling for as well as the merely sensual feeling of, to borrow R.D. Laing's discriminations) and Jack's anticipated revenge proves finally sweet for both partners and more appropriate than unwholesome. Via a certain degree of restriction and imagined torment,
Alice and the other women find their freedom - an unhypocritical (and, be it noted, not exclusively male-orientated) freedom without class distinction, a sexual liberation that can include sapphic, troilist and group sex without shame and by choice. They all part on good terms with Jack, who more than keeps his end up and does not abuse his power (as he might in a more sinister, less acceptable sort of book) nor inflict prolonged or intolerable pain upon anyone.
Steven Marcus in The Other Victorians has an apt phrase 'the sexualization of all reality' for that fantasy he terms 'pornotopia'. Jack's solution to what he himself calls 'the torture of unsatisfied desire and increasing lust' as a result of his broken relationship with Alice, simply involves tormenting her in her turn, then satisfying both their lusts - his outspoken, hers clandestine. So, in a sense, Jack does live out his fantasy and sexualize his reality, converting the 'mad room' to what he christens with mordant humour his 'Snuggery' - defusing the latent danger in obsession by domesticating and turning it into pleasurable fulfilment for both parties. The irony of playing out his sexual dramas in the padded, soundproofed 'restraining room' of what had once been a private lunatic asylum (1) - thus bringing a different kind of sanity into his and Alice's relationship - is not lost upon the narrator, who immediately recognizes it as 'the very place' he requires. Starting from an archetypal male fantasy of total control ('to secure her in any way I wished and to hold her fixed while I amused myself with her'), he proves he's sane enough for both of them. Bedlam becomes bedroom, and his revenge ensures that Jack and Alice become lovers who remain friends also, thus making a mockery of the entire crazed logic of the
Victorian marriage-market and its attendant hypocritical social whirl.
So how has the author managed it? A 'dirty' book fit to read, not boring, and which unlike so many others of its kind and time, isn't afraid of tenderness and humour. Nor of literacy: Jack the narrator is a more sensitive man than usual, given to quoting from Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, from The Passionate Pilgrim and from Thomas Gray. A Man With A Maid may not be Literature writ large, but it is skilful, entertaining and in the best sense stimulating.
The language is a flexible mixture of direct bawdy with the euphemisms, periphrases and above all the puns so dear to the Victorians. Connoisseurs of the genre will be familiar with the varied and rather charming usages - pego, futter, pintle, ram, essence, gamahuche, buck, dishabille, bubbies, orgie, a 'crummy' figure, cunny, towzle, course (for period), posteriors (in the plural), etc. The author occasionally achieves an epigrammatic precision, as in 'I stooped down to receive the first kiss she would give as a woman, having had her last as a girl.' A nice, balanced punning ambiguity there.
The author employs the conventional serio-comic exaggeration: 'my pent-up torrent of boiling virile balm', and there's many a 'rapturous crisis'. Luckily Jack's 'seminal reserves' are copious, and he 'spends' recklessly and generously. Edmund Wilson, the eminent critic and, in Memoirs of Hecate County, himself a distinguished erotic writer, observed in his posthumously published journals: 'It is certainly very hard to write about sex in English without making it unattractive. Come is a horrible word to apply to something ecstatic. The French jouir is much better." Agreed, but 'spend' at least improves upon 'come', implying a certain reckless, irretrievable pleasure as well as a very ordinary transaction; it suits the Victorian age and very likely ours. (2)
A Man With A Maid's author is at times quite a black humourist. Examples: 'She was the first to stir (possibly incommoded by my superincumbent weight)' or Jack's sly pagan retort to Alice's fright during the thunderstorm: 'By Jove, it is bad!' followed by his bland 'Won't you then take refuge in the Snuggery?... I don't think you will see the lightning there and you certainly won't hear the thunder, as the room is soundproof ...' Alice's reaction to Jack exhibiting himself before her clad only in shoes and socks: 'Oh!' she ejaculated, horribly shocked by the unexpected apparition of my naked self, turning rosy red and nastily averting her eyes - but not before they had caught sight of my prick in glorious erection!' Jack's comment as he caresses Alice's 'quivering buttocks', his tone half clinically detached, half one of mock-reassurance: 'think a moment, larger things have come out than what is going in!' This sort of joke, and phrases like 'the phenomenon of the masculine discharge at the crisis of pleasure' remind one of that master of black comedy and Surrealist forefather, Lautréamont. Lautréamont might well have chuckled over the would-be lovers' exchanges - all deadly gentility - at the start of Chapter 2, and the appropriate unconscious irony behind Alice's choice of language when she furiously upbraids Jack: 'You forget yourself. Be good enough to consider our friendship as suspended till you have
recovered your senses and have suitably apologized for this intolerable insult.' Forgetting themselves along with the rules of 'civilised' behaviour is precisely what they will both shortly do, while under the circumstances 'suspended' is le mot juste. And to crown it all, near the end of Part One, we find 'the freshly opened asylum' of Alice's cunt - the pun par excellence, the place to which Jack, mad with lust, is committed, in and with every sense, and where he also finds asylum-as-peace, shelter, haven. He is 'caught', taught too, just as Alice is herself.
This is therefore a subversive book but one which doesn't need to resort to the cheap and nasty shock tactics so often encountered in the pornography (as opposed to the erotica) of the time. Here, to use Marcus's words, 'All our aggressions are perfectly fused with our sexuality, and the only rage is the rage of lust, a happy fury indeed.'
We enter a privileged self-contained world though, a world without disease, poverty, squalor or genuine cruelty. The reader is not expected to agonize over that other Victorian world, whose composite image on the gaslit pavement outside might be that of a starving and diseased child prostitute. (3) No wonder Jack retires to his Snuggery with his true love Alice; her maid; Alice's friend Connie, the attractive young widow; Lady Betty and her daughter Molly - they can all be conventionally vouched for, guaranteed; they represent a classy and classless ménage, fit companions in every sense for Jack's devices. Yet despite these very devices, despite some customary (and custom-built) slavish subservience to erotic convention, this alternative insulated/isolated world Jack built and escaped into is also pleasurably anarchic rather than inhuman.
How does this unknown author manage to involve us with a protagonist who seems to typify the Victorian gentleman imposing his droit de seigneur, using money and ingenuity to gain his sexual ends? I assume most readers male or female would deplore the more extreme sort of capitalist/sexist behaviour exemplified by 'Walter' in My Secret Life - the buying of desperate children, or fucking his wife when fairly sure he has contracted venereal disease from a prostitute. Such vicious male amorality, such ruthless arrogance is contemptible: Walter's absolute frankness in recounting his repellent actions in no way excuses them.
By contrast with the actual Walter, the fictional Jack may be obsessive but he isn't wicked. Neither innocent nor corrupt - and certainly no case-history... Virile without being vile, he has a code, and a motive for acting as he does (whereas the awful Walter so often just fucks anything that appears to move), together with a commendable end - mutual orgasm.
In conclusion, it seems this padded room/womb is saner (healthier) than at first sight. Not surprisingly Jack gets caught up in his dream! But he has had his visionary experience and now must proselytize, make converts, as must Alice, to their shrine, their church of pleasure: such pleasure is both sacred and profane, it demands reverence and awe. Yet being essentially a pagan mystery it also requires a fitting tongue, and the language with which our narrator speaks comes complete and replete with religious imagery (eg. 'Her Holy of Holies', 'my catechism', 'destined bride', 'praying', 'Maltese Cross', 'the way to Paradise'). All these and many other words and phrases with religious associations now set in a sexual context culminate with 'Alice's first sacrifice to Venus' - pagan ekstasis induced (of course) orally by Jack as a worshipper and High Priest at Venus's temple. And it is absolutely right, whether artful or unconscious on the author's part, to precede this with Jack's 'long look' at this very shrine, 'expressive of the deepest admiration'. Here shame and shamelessness can perhaps be reconciled, tension turn to energy.
For such tension undoubtedly exists in most relationships. This tension between public and private, secrecy versus openness - the special sexual ambivalence which was the Victorian problem even more than our own - is well expressed by phrases such as 'the appalling goal of absolute nudity', by the graded bursts of exclamation marks and the rhetorical yet irresistible conclusion to Part One: 'As the train started, I raised my hat with the customary salute, to which she reponded in quite her usual pleasant way; no one who witnessed our parting would have dreamt that the pretty ladylike girl had just been forcibly ravished by the quiet gentlemanly man, after having first been stripped naked and subjected to shocking indignities! And as I drove home, I wondered what the outcome of that afternoon's work would be!' Now, as they say, read on ...
Eroticism has always been a weapon against the products of unnatural tensions - social repression and intolerance. Good erotic books, like this one, try (and each reader must decide if they succeed) to celebrate the individual quest for sexual happiness and guilt-free pleasure. This is an enjoyable and in many ways surprising book.
Alexis Lykiard, 1981
(1) Not implausible. Acquaintances of this writer lived for a time in what was formerly 'The House of Correction' in a Cumbrian town. Apparata still existing there resemble Jack's descriptions.
(2) As for our view of the Victorians' 'naivety' for imagining that women 'spent' almost as copiously as men, emitting a particular female fluid at orgasm, correspondence from numerous women to Dr Delvin of She magazine (Aug/Sept 1981) emphatically confirms this to be, on occasions, the case. Here, as with pre-menstrual tension and post-natal depression (neither condition originally acknowledged by the medical profession) opinions must be revised.
(3) Ronald Pearsall notes in The Worm in the Bud that towards the end of the 19th century an estimated 66% of prostitutes in Western Europe had syphilis.