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FEBRUARY 15, 1999:  VICTORIAN'S SECRET: Now that you've thoroughly plumbed the information in this week's feature story, we thought you'd be interested in a little smut-perspective on days of yore.

While our own, terribly innocent age struggles with questions about Internet porn and whether we want a President capable of loving in the adult way, previous eras have not been so confused about sexuality.

Take the Victorians: They had a great system. First, the "establishment" would condemn all manner of sexual expression, then groovy Bohemian-types could get it on in orgiastic excess while feeling like they were being decadent and rebellious and romantically doomed by an oppressive, asexual regime.

In the laudanum and absinthe parlors of the day, when the Rossettis and Wildes needed a break from their debauchery, they could enjoy the forbidden literature of love in the form of the monthly journal The Pearl. Now available in several collected editions, it's interesting not only from a prurient perspective, but also in showing just how pornographic these supposedly repressed Victorians could be.

The Pearl was published from 1879 to 1881, the height of both Victorianism and the Decadent and Aestheticist movements in England. Edited by the mysterious Anonymous (speculation as to his or her identity at the time pointed towards an MP, a certain Lord, or even the long-vanished poet Algernon Bedford St. Suive), the magazine was a compendium of (as the subtitle put it) "Facetive and Voluptuous Reading," by such obviously pseudonymous authors as "Miss Coote" and "Lady Pokingham."

Every manner of kink is covered, with an emphasis on "birchings" and lesbian love. Many of the stories detail someone's initiation into the delicate arts of the voluptuary. Complementing the stories are jokes, satires and comic poetry, much of which remains funny if only in being so paradoxically old-fashioned and smutty. For example, the poem "How He Lost His Whiskers" has the following bit of light rhyme:

And though mostly fit for a fucking game,

Yet it sometimes in mourning is decked.

Then beware how you go with the darling then,

Or perhaps sorely punished you'll be:

For cunt won't be the sport of men,

When it wants its privacy.

For caprice is part of cunt's own plan

To enhance its joys to an Englishman.

Some of the language is nicely dated, and yet could serve as a model for our politically correct times. One frequently happens upon the word "gamahuche," for example, which is a transitive verb meaning "to perform oral sex upon," but it is entirely gender neutral. One could just as easily gamahuche a man as a woman (some will debate this question of ease in the material world, but it holds semantically).

Other terms may provide solutions to that sticky problem of what to call the genital region. For women's private, The Pearl favors "pussey" and "cunny," both of which roll off the tongue nicely. Men's organs of pleasure are generally called "pricks," but in the context of the refined prose of these anonymous tales, the term seems to acquire a quaintness it never has in our modern impolite conversations.

Which is one of the great advantages of this fin-de-siecle smut: Even though it's every bit as graphic and perverted as anything available in modern adult entertainment, the late 19th-century syntax and vocabulary give it an air of respectability, even in the midst of a vivid description of bodice-free birchings and gamahuching-oriented encounters.

--Lance Lyndon-Berry, Litt. D.

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