What the Victorians Read One-Handed

First emerging in 1877, Henry Spencer Ashbee’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (so titled in parody of the Catholic Church’s own index of forbidden books) has been republished under various names – mine is a late-1960s paperback copy entitled Index of Forbidden Books. Published under the pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi, it is the first of a three-volume series he did chronicling the expansive body of erotica in his book collection. Were it a mere book catalogue, there’d be little interesting about it; fortunately, as a bibliophile who had also published a number of bibliographic works about less scandalous subject matter, Ashbee had very developed opinions about literature, books, writing, and for that matter sex, and he freely comments on the books cited here as well as offering synopses and extensive quotes.

To an extent this means we end up with more of an insight into Ashbee’s preferences than we might have expected; he certainly seems to have a lot of works on the subject of flagellation, and sufficiently developed opinions on the subject that it’s clear that he’s given it a lot of thought. However, Ashbee’s commentary and analysis isn’t just restricted to giving an overview of what got his Victorian rocks off – it also gives us an insight both into the sheer variety of erotic literature available to those who knew where to look in the time period, but also a snapshot of social attitudes surrounding it, as well as an insight into a realm where, in part because more or less all overt discussion of sex was forbidden, there seems to have been little barriers between subject matter we would today find completely innocuous and material which we still consider taboo.

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