Mar 162007

One of the key texts in the evolution of kink is the correspondence columns in Victorian popular magazines, the great-great-grandparents of Penthouse Forum. Even magazines as staid and middle class as The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, published by the Beetons, ran fetishistic letters about corporal punishment and corset tight lacing.

There’s three ways of looking at these letters.

  1. They’re written in house and therefore wholly fabricated
  2. They’re written by the readers and mainly genuine
  3. They’re written by the readers and mainly fantasy

Stephen Marcus, in The Other Victorians, makes no mention of these publications. For Valerie Steele, such fetishistic letters are fantasies (and the source of widespread misunderstandings about the real prevalence of tight-lacking in the 19th century.) For Ian Gibson in The English Vice (Pg.219), “It seems likely that the editor of the magazine [Beeton] deliberately inaugurated a debate on corporal punishment by the insertion of this unpleasant item. Because he knew it would boost sales?”

However, David Kunzle, in his Fashion and Fetishism, says that Beeton was not the type to fabricate sensational material or skew his publication towards sensationalism.

We must insist on the evidence for Beeton’s honesty and probity, which has been recently doubted by certain historians, who impugn his character and deny authenticity to the fetishist correspondence he published…. To knowingly publish fake correspondence was a dishonesty to which he would not have stooped. The Englishwoman’s Domestic Monthly was, unlike so many frivolous ladies’ magazines of the age, both serious and practical. [One of his biographers] exonerates him thus: ‘He had certainly no particular interest in either of the mild perversiond later discussed in his magazine, which surprised him as much as they did the majority of his readers.’ It is indeed unlikely he shared the ‘perversions’ in any way.

[Pg. 170]

Kunzle says that Beeton wanted to print reader contributions, but decided that personal experiences were more interesting than bad sentimental poetry. The fetishist letters grew and grew, finally taking over. There was little pretense of editorial control anymore. The fetishists talked to each other.

However, I think Beeton couldn’t have printed every letter he received on the subject. He must have exercised some degree of editorial control, if only for space. This could have created a kind of feedback loop, Beeton printing the “heavier” letters and encouraging the fetishist correspondents to meet or beat them.

So, if we accept that Beeton printed genuine, over-the-transom letters (and I suspect that he would have had no shortage of them), then the question remains, how genuine are the letters themselves? How many are real and how many are fantasy? Or were there people who really took the tiny waist well beyond what fashion dictated?

I’m inclined to say that they’re “genuine fantasies.” They’re created and published from the heart (and/or groin), not calculated for commercial gain or any other motive. They’re an expression of fantasy, only now given an anonymous means of expression to a mass audience. This spontaneously evolved into a kind of literary genre, just like the self-contributed case studies published in Psychopathia Sexualis.

PS: Interesting link: In 1852, Beeton paid Harriet Beecher Stowe 500 pounds for his edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, making it the first legitimate edition of the bestseller in England. The money from the abolitionist classic was the foundation of the Englishwoman’s Domestic Monthly. In 1866, Beeton had to sell his copyrights to Ward, Lock and Tyler. This may be the same Ward, Locke and Co. that published the previously mentioned edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the flagellant illustrations in 1867.

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