It was a reflection of this phenomenal verbal sensitiveness that the Victorian developed, what had never been known before, a system of laws devoted to the suppression of obscenity, and it was a reflection of their obsession with sex that they produced a pornography of unprecedented richness in spite, or perhaps because, of them. The eighteenth century had paid little heed to obscenity, though it had been ruled in 1729 that an obscene libel constituted a common-law misdemeanour. It became an offence to expose obscene books and prints in public in 1824; in 1857 an Act was passed dealing directly with obscene publications and giving the police power to seize and destroy stocks of such publications upon the laying of an information at a police court. The bill was enacted only after intense opposition in both Houses, and on the assurance of the Lord Chief Justice that it was to apply only to works
“written with the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the feeling of decency in any well regulated mind”.
The circulation of literary works (he said, looking at a copy of “La Dame aux Camellias” in his hand) could only be stopped by public opinion. But eleven years later a ruling by Lord Chief Justice Cockburn nullified this assurance, by redefining the word obscenity, and made it possible to ban literary works and even scientific studies. Before long, it was applied in the new sense, and the seventy year-old Vizetelly was imprisoned for selling a translation of Zola’s “La Terre“. Subsequently, works as important as Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Havelock Ellis’s Psychology of Sex, were the subject of prosecutions. The Act remains on the statute book, and continues to be applied. Meanwhile, the Customs Consolidation Act had empowered the customs to seize not only books and pictures but manuscripts, should they think them obscene, without reference to a magistrate and without any right to appeal on the part of the owner. Some of Lawrence’s poems were lost in this way.(47)
In these circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that the period produced the greatest pornographer since the days of Rome in the person of Edward Sellon, and possibly the most lascivious book ever written in The Romance of Lust. The great cataloguer of erotica who wrote under the name of Pisanus Fraxi has drawn attention to the pitiful literary standard of Victorian pornography and has contrasted it with the superior achievements of the eighteenth century. Books such as Cleland’s “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” and King’s “The Toast” are frankly sexual in character, but they have a human warmth: the characters convince by their naturalness, and the activities in which they engage, though unashamedly sensual, are not obsessive. Very different is the pornography of the Victorians, which is shot through and through with sadomasochism and which is quite unredeemed by an air of the protagonists even getting any enjoyment from their desperate attempts to stimulate lust. All spontaneity is gone.