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Victorian Studies 45.4 (2003) 777-779



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Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914, by Lisa Z. Sigel; pp. ix + 228. New Brunswick, NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 2002, $60.00, $24.00 paper, £45.95, £18.50 paper.

In Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith (2002), modeled in part on "erotomaniac" and pornographic bibliographer Henry Spencer Ashbee, the character who believes herself to be Maud Lilly is raised by her uncle to act as secretary to his project to archive an extensive collection of "dirty books." When she first enters her uncle's library at the age of thirteen, he shows her—embedded in the floor—a brass hand with a finger pointing towards the shelves. "These are uncommon books, Miss Maud, and not for ordinary gazes," he tells her. "That hand marks the bounds of innocence here" ([Virago, 2002]: 188). [End Page 777]

Although the field of Victorian Studies has been pushing the bounds of innocence for some time in work running the gamut from feminist scholarship of prostitution to queer criticism of the Wilde trials to postcolonial examinations of the imbrication of sex, race, and empire, surprisingly few have sought to point the finger at pornography. Steven Marcus's pioneering The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid- Nineteenth-Century England (1966) today seems rather dated, and his failure to include same- sex pornography in his purview on the grounds that it did not seem to exist says more about his own biases at the time than it does about Victorian culture. Moreover, feminist criticism about pornography has tended to focus on representation, rather than aiming to historicize how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century forms of erotic production both gave birth to the modern pornography industry and offered quite different incentives to readerly arousal than do contemporary films, magazines, and romance novels.

For these reasons, a book like Lisa Z. Sigel's is long overdue. Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914 rightly contends that pornography was not the "underworld" of Victorian literature, but part of its mainstream, and demands its integration into our understanding of the intersection of popular and political culture, of state surveillance over sexual practices, and of "the submerged ideologies of empire" (1). Its archival base makes a significant contribution to the history of sexuality by exposing the range of materials available to consumers and by mapping the shifts in variety, distribution patterns, and use that followed technological developments (such as photography and cinema), social developments (such as the expansion of literacy), and political and legal developments (such as the regulation of postal services). The book recognizes the centrality of the relationship between Britain and her empire both to the overall culture of the era and to the form and function of the sexual imaginary in particular (although how pornography was marketed within the empire to, by, and among colonial subjects remains uncharted).

The chapter "Sexuality Raw and Cooked: Empirical and Imperial Pornography" focuses on radicalism. It offers an intriguing analysis of Richard F. Burton and the Cannibal Club, stressing how and why the sexual proclivities of "these leading Victorians" were far from ancillary to "their work as writers, adventurers, scholars, intellectuals, and politicians" (51). This argument allows Sigel to telescope from such specifics to astute generalizations about pornography's relationship to race, science, and the exotic. While a more nuanced reading of the emergence of sexology would have strengthened this section—if it is true that "many generalizations about early sexologists" such as Sigmund Freud and Richard von Krafft-Ebing "apply equally well to the Cannibals" (62), the reason probably lies in a shared body of sources—the chapter nonetheless brings together an impressive array of materials and themes.

"The Pearl before Swine: Fetishism and Consumer Culture" identifies and inventories market changes in the period from 1880 to 1914. Sigel adroitly details the shifts in textual practice that mutated pornography into a stripped-down formula for focusing on specific sex acts, as well as the development of the mail-order trade...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 777-779
Launched on MUSE
2004-02-06
Open Access
No
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