For my Victorian Queer Archive project, I chose to include the second preface of My Secret Life. Privately published in 1888, this 4,000 page and originally eleven volume memoir features an incredibly detailed account of one man, “Walter”‘s, experiences with sex and sexuality, beginning when he but a small child. My Secret Life gained notoriety for both it’s unapologetically detailed (and somewhat crude) descriptions of sexual encounters, sexual desire, masturbation, interactions with prostitutes, and obsessive nature of the text itself. Every single detail: every passing thought, every single time Walter is sexually aroused, every time Walter lets his “prick” make his decisions for him is carefully documented with a special attention to every single gory detail can be read in its entirety online on Project Gutenberg, which I will link down below.
Because it was published anonymously, it is difficult to discern how much of the text is fact and how much is fiction, and due it’s obsessive nature, it is easy to dismiss My Secret Life as nothing more than the world’s longest erotic novel. While we as readers will never be fully able to discern the fact from the fiction, that does not take away the text’s value as insight into a few aspects of Victorian Queerness, which Holly Furneaux defines as “that which differs from the life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction”. With this definition in mind, My Secret Life could perhaps be seen as an epic retelling of one man’s experience with queerness as it pertains to deviations from the typical heteronormative Victorian marriage plot. To put it simply: if Walter’s well-intended mother were to read about his experiences with masturbation, sexual awakening by his wet-nurse, experiences with prostitutes (which he refers to as “gay women”), it’s possible that she would have a heart attack.
Instead of choosing one of Walter’s sexual encounters as the excerpt to post to the archive, I instead chose to include the author’s second preface, in which he addresses the issue of whether or not his memoir should even be published. What I found particularly interesting about the preface was the author claims that “it would be a sin to burn all this, whatever society may say it is but a narrative of human life, perhaps the every day life of thousands, if the confession could be had” (Anonymous 21). That is, the author contends that his memoir is not so much about chronicling his own experiences with sexuality, but instead chronicling his experience with a side of society which he is not alone in interacting with. My Secret Life therefore serves a dual purpose: to tell the story of Walter’s queer sexuality and to shed light on an area of Victorian society that is oftentimes left unexplored because it is not consistent with heteronormative ideals.
Citation: Anonymous. “Second Preface.” My Secret Life , 1st ed., vol. 1, Auguste Brancart, Amsterdam, 1888, pp. 21–22.