Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Mysteries of Verbena House

One of the most difficult challenges confronting writers on the subject of flagellation is to decide where to begin. There is an immense and diverse body of open and clandestine publications on flogging, spanking, birching, and beating and much of it can be construed or consumed as ‘erotica’ (however you define it). I’ll commence, therefore, with a discussion of one of my favourite clandestine books, The Mysteries of Verbena House; or, Miss Bellasis Birched for Thieving, by Etonensis.

The first volume of Verbena House was published in 1881, probably by William Lazenby in London, under the half-title: Birched for Thieving, or the Punishment of Miss Bellasis. A second volume and the full title appeared in 1882. Only 150 copies were printed at the exorbitant price of four guineas — close to a fortnight’s wages for a middle-class worker. According to the Victorian bibliographer and collector Henry Spencer Ashbee, who wrote under the scatological pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi, the first edition was illustrated with ‘4 coloured lithographs, obscene and of vile execution.’ (Catena Librorum Tacendorum, 1885: 260) Like many clandestine texts, it is riddled with typographical errors and inconsistent spelling.

There are numerous nineteenth- and turn-of-the-century reprints, albeit with different illustrations and pagination. The aquarelles reproduced here, which are far from ‘vile,’ are from an edition dated 1882 but most likely published in the late 1880s or early 1890s. The black and white illustrations in this post are by Adolphe Lambrecht; they are from a French translation of Verbena House issued by Charles Carrington in 1901: Les Mystères de la Maison de la Verveine.

I have been unable to find any later twentieth-century reprints of Verbena House. The Kinsey Institute Library catalogue records a ‘Venus-Phoenix edition, 1950’ but I haven’t been able to determine if it was ever released. I have not been able to find a record of it elsewhere or locate a copy. Significantly, the Kinsey catalogue description refers to manuscript ‘leaves’ rather than pages, which suggests that, whilst this edition was prepared for publication, it was not issued. Verbena House is an extremely rare book but a new paperback edition is available here.

As in most flagellant erotica, the plot is rather slim. Verbena House is a fashionable school for young ladies in Brighton. Miss Montes, a student from Cuba, is robbed of two golden “ounces” or doubloons. The nominal ‘mystery’ centres on the discovery of the culprit: Miss Catherine Bellasis, the beautiful sixteen year old daughter of an eminent Chancery barrister and the granddaughter of an earl. She compounds her crime by attempting to frame a younger student, Lucy Summerfield. During the hunt for the stolen coins, a number of other offences are detected: Miss Hatherton possesses an obscene book, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and Miss Hazeltine has hidden a bottle of gin. The girls are condemned to be flogged before the school. Volume I is taken up with the narration of these events.

Volume II is primarily concerned with the castigation of the culprits. Up until the detection of her students’ misdemeanours, Miss Sinclair, the headmistress, has been averse to corporal punishment. After deciding that the girls’ are to be beaten, she seeks the advice of the school’s spiritual advisor, the Reverend Arthur Calvedon, on the appropriate disciplinary procedure. A devotee of the rod, he becomes Miss Sinclair’s lover. In the process, and during the course of the girls’ chastisement, Miss Sinclair undergoes a remarkable conversion: she is transformed from a “maid-mistress” into a lewd votary, registering “a vow to become a fearless heroine of the birch, and make the sufferings of her pupils minister to her devices.” (1882, Vol. 1; p. 6 and Vol. II; p. 53) The book’s title hints at this lascivious metamorphosis: the psycho-spiritual transformation it represents is a deeper ‘mystery’ than the question of who stole Miss Montes’ doubloons. It resonates with and draws on the devotional language of Christianity.

Whilst the ostensible mystery of Verbena House is soon resolved, a compelling conundrum remains: who wrote it? ‘Etonensis’ simply signifies an old Etonian – that is, someone who has been to Eton College, which had a great reputation for birching students. According to Ashbee, Verbena House was written by two authors, and, as a prominent collector with excellent connections in the field of clandestine publishing, he was in a good position to know:

The first part of the work… is attributed… to a gentleman well known in London literary circles as a constant contributor to the daily press, a keen student of London and Parisian life, a pleasant writer of travels, of fiction, and of articles of an ommiscient [sic] and cosmopolitan character, a most versatile genius… Being unable to complete the tale, in spite of his prodigious industry and astonishing facility for work, it was brought to a conclusion by the gentleman whose notes have already enriched this volume. (1885: 261)

Ashbee doesn’t identify the authors explicitly but his hints have enabled them to be identified, probably correctly, as the popular Victorian journalist George Augustus Sala and James Campbell Reddie, an author and collector of erotica whose collection and notes, purchased by Ashbee in 1877 for ₤300, was the foundation on which the latter built his bibliographical account of nineteenth-century English sexual fiction. By the close of the nineteenth century, Sala’s authorial role appears to have been common knowledge: Verbena House is attributed to him directly in another clandestine classic, Raped on the Railway (1894 [1899 and 1904]).

Sala and Reddie are excellent candidates for the authorship of Verbena House but it would be interesting to see if a comparative analysis of it with work that is known to have been written by them would support their candidature.

Regardless of who wrote Verbena House, one thing is certain: there are significant stylistic differences between the two constitutive volumes. Volume I is written in a light and entertaining style with numerous digressions, which provides much of the book’s charm. It contains few obscenities and little in the way of explicit sexual description. In contrast to it, Volume II digresses rarely; its tone is more serious (as perhaps the punishment of the girls warrants), and, as the following passage indicates, it contains numerous overt depictions of sexual activity, and it is frequently obscene:

[Miss Sinclair] was all to pieces, her hand ached—the hand that had clutched the rod; her bosom had started and worked itself out of her stays; there was a gentle perspiration on her noble forehead, and, to tell the truth in the plainest of English, she felt awfully randy.
She panted fitfully as she reclined with her legs apart, letting the inflamed parts cool themselves as best they might. Her tongue uneasily licked her parched lips as she murmured to herself the bawdiest words she could think of—“fuck! fuck!” she gently whispered; and then she murmured, “prick, prick; cunt, cunt.”
Her hand stole then slyly to her slit. She caressed herself, and moistening her fingers at the entrance to the vagina, rubbed her damp digits over a fat, crisp, and robust clitoris. (1882, Vol. II; p. 40)

The differences between the two volumes in terms of sexual explicitness are reflected in the aquarelles. Illustrations in Volume II depict genitalia and explicit sexual acts, which are not portrayed in the set of aquarelles accompanying Volume I.

One of the most significant features of Verbena House is an obvious delight in representing characters’ accents —a stylistic device that Sala employed in his signed open fiction (‘The Conversion of Colonel Quagg,’ for example). The following passage from Verbena House provides a good example of this characteristic:

Fraulein Schrobbs [one of the teachers] rushed into the room….
“O, Miss Zinglair,” she cried, “you af mate von grade misdague. You af wip dis boor tear innosent liddle cal, and it is nod zhe who af stole te money. Ach! mein Gott! it is anoder cal. Id is —” (1882, Vol. I; p. 53)

As this example indicates, rendered speech in Verbena House sometimes verges on parody, but it is effective in animating characters — a considerable literary achievement in a clandestine text of this period.

Another notable stylistic feature is the use of irony, especially in Volume I. For example, the narrator asserts dryly that the story is realistic rather than fantastic:

I am not narrating fiction, but fact; and throughout the entire story of Miss Bellasis I shall have but very rarely to draw on my imagination. (1882, Vol. I; p. 24)

The joke, of course, is that both volumes are primarily fantasies. The long digression on the lascivious effects of wearing close-fitting underwear, which Ashbee quotes and is cited in Raped on the Railway, is a fabulous example of the author’s rampant imagination:

The greatest enemy to a woman’s chastity is contact. Let her wear her things loose, and she may keep her blood cool…
When drawers are made of linen, and are bifurcated at the bottom and belly, they are feminised to an extent which may neutralise the elements I have spoken of; although, as far as I am concerned, it tickles me somewhat when I look from the windows of a railway carriage into suburban back gardens to see the white drawers of women hung to dry on clothes lines, and fluttering in the breeze. My imagination fills the empty galligaskins with cosy bottoms and hirsute quims. Were those drawers loquacious, like Tennyson’s “Talking Oak,” what mysteries might they not reveal.
A lady, putting on her riding trousers becomes, consciously or unconsciously, akin to a hoyden assuming man’s clothes, or nearer still, to a ballet girl drawing on her tights. She is subject to contact of the most perilous kind. The warm close substance that passes close to her flesh, that clasps her loins, and embraces her bum, and insinuates itself between her thighs, has, all senseless leather, cloth, or silk, as it may be, something of the nature of a man’s hand in it.
Let the graces be stark naked, or vest them only with flowing drapery, and they may be as chaste as Susannah. Put them in drawers or tights and they become prostitutes. (1882, Vol. I; pp. 28-29)

Verbena House is pure fabrication but Ashbee seems to have been taken in by the narrator’s assertion of its factuality. He opines:

The Mysteries of Verbena House… is one of the best books of its kind, and a truthful picture of what is passing around us; further, I believe the author when he writes: “I am not narrating fiction, but fact” (1885: 264).

Although I agree with the statement that Verbena House is ‘one of the best’ Victorian flagellant fictions, it is difficult to comprehend how Ashbee came to the conclusion that it is ‘truthful.’ I’ll leave it to other readers and critics to venture possible explanations.

Verbena House is a work of the erotic imagination but the name, curiously enough, may be modelled on a real place, Verbena Lodge, a flagellant brothel in London frequented by one of the greatest Victorian poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne, an old Etonian and an admirer of Sala’s work. It is tempting to think that the book and school’s title is an intentional allusion to the brothel, a joke conflating bordello and school that knowing Victorian readers would have grasped and enjoyed.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, so two people wrote it? It is not possible to obtain the original one unfortunately, only if the man buys the subsequent copies. So much however I don't care the f/f.