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  • A Purveyor of Garbage?Charles Carrington and the Marketing of Sexual Science in Late-Victorian Britain1
  • Sarah Bull (bio)

On 6 March 1897, The Lancet ran a short piece about a book that had been recently forwarded from Paris for review bearing the “innocent” title Untrodden Fields of Anthropology (1896). The review’s anonymous author coyly pondered “in which category” the publisher, Charles Carrington, self-described as a purveyor “of medical, folk-lore and scientific works,” would place the volume, before denouncing it as “a record, and a very badly written record, of garbage from the sewers of human nature” (“Purveyor of Garbage” 681). “[The work] has no scientific importance whatever. It is of no interest to a student of human nature or of natural history,” the reviewer declared, before threatening to “supply the Paris police with Mr. Carrington’s address and … hand over the book with its accompanying prospectus to Her Majesty’s Postmaster-General, so that he may … take steps to stay the dissemination of such abominations by the agency of his department” (681). In doing so, the reviewer established Untrodden Fields of Anthropology as “pornography” of “a semi-scientific appearance,” a topic that The Lancet addressed frequently throughout the 1890s and early 1900s (“Vile Trade” 468). The journal’s editors anxiously hoped that in broadcasting the names of the “men of filth” who trafficked such works, they would save readers from the embarrassment of unwittingly purchasing “lewd” materials and prevent the “unmentionable crime” of blackmail that might result (468).

There is no evidence that these books were produced as part of an elaborate blackmail plot, but the scientific community still had good reason to fear what it saw as a rampant “masquerade of pornography in the guise of science” (“Les eunuques” 905). Even as practitioners of emergent disciplines like sexology and anthropology struggled to persuade Britons that their scholarship was important and respectable, shady book dealers threatened to undermine their efforts by capitalizing on the erotic appeal of its “detailed empirical descriptions of … sexual behaviour,” which could “simultaneously function as science and pornography” (Dawson 128). These dealers not only traded in pornography that mimicked scholarly conventions and used new scientific language to describe erotic books and images to potential readers but also published and sold genuine sexual-scientific studies, disturbing the patterns of production and circulation that, for many Victorians, divided legitimate scientific expression [End Page 55] from indecent sexual depiction (Sigel, “Overly Affectionate” 117–18). As critics continue to scrutinize nineteenth-century science’s relationship to a broader Victorian culture, this curious route of sexual-scientific dissemination has emerged as a topic of increasing interest, inflecting the arguments of studies such as Matt Cook’s London and the Culture of Homosexuality 1885–1914 (2003) and Gowan Dawson’s Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (2007). Yet, since it is seldom examined head-on, many of the details of its processes, scope, and cultural impact remain to be documented. Most strikingly, the method of marketing sexual-scientific works that these book dealers adopted has yet to be examined in detail, even though it was their representation of science to potential readers that profoundly concerned the scholarly community. Without an accurate grasp of how, and to whom, these materials were framed through the pornography trade, it is difficult to understand their specific impact on sexology and anthropology’s development and reception in Britain.

This case study attempts to begin to fill that gap in scholarship. Drawing loosely on Pierre Bourdieu’s formulation of the literary field and Clare Squires’s definition of marketing as “a form of representation and interpretation … surrounding the production, dissemination and reception” of texts (3), I look at how Charles Carrington, one of the most notorious pornographers of the late nineteenth century, marketed sexual-scientific works in Britain between 1896 and 1907, at the height of his influence (3). I argue that like many smut dealers before him, Carrington perceived that science and pornography’s overlapping terrain in the Victorian imagination presented him with an opportunity to expand his catalogue. What set him apart was the scale and sophistication with which he manipulated those overlaps to shape a marketing strategy for his books. Following...


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pp. 55-76
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