Jul 152007

Hughes, Kathryn. The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs. Beeton Fourth Estate, London, 2005

I’ve read about the fetishist correspondence in mid- and late-Victorian magazines in several sources. These were the 19th century precursors of Penthouse Forum letters, people apparently writing in about their personal experiences and/or fantasies. I take the position that most of these letters were genuine, in that they were not fabricated in-house, but came in from outside.

The question is, however, why were these letters published in such mainstream, middle-class publications?

The Beetons’ Englishwomen’s Domestic Magazine was launched in 1852 and ran for 25 years. It could be seen as an instruction manual for women of the new middle class, on how and what to think, act and buy. In effect, a down-market version of the upper-class women’s magazines of the previous generations for an aspirational bourgeois readership.

For much of its run, EDM was exactly that, edited by Isabella Beeton, known to her contemporaries as “Mrs. Beeton”. Sam and Isabella Beeton had a string of misfortunes, including two stillborn children and several miscarriages. In 1865, she died six days after childbirth, most likely from puerpal fever. This ended a marriage in which Sam Beeton truly regarded his wife as an equal.

Sam Beeton’s company was bought out by Ward, Lock and Tyler, rival publishers, when he was in bad financial shape in the aftermath of “Black Friday” in May 1866. I discovered that the Ward, Locke & Co. that published the edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the erotic illustrations is a later incarnation of this Ward, Locke and Tyler.

There’s a whole sub-story in the publishing history of UTC in England related to Beeton. When Sam Beeton was a young man in publishing, Stowe’s novel was a surprise hit. As there was no copyright agreement between the US and the UK, pirating the novel was entirely legal. The novel was published in editions that ranged from 1s weekly serial to a luxury edition for 7s 6d. Like Harry Potter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was more than just a book, it was a franchise that could brand many different goods and media.

…Sam was determined to get first dibs on Mrs Stowe’s follow-up book [The key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin which was actually a commercial flop]. And so late in that delirious summer of 1852 he took the extraordinary step of tearing off to the States to beard the middle-aged minister’s wife in her Massachusetts lair. Initially she refused to see him, then relented and almost immediately wished she had not. The young man’s opening gambit, of presenting her with the electrotype plates from the luxury British edition, was sadly misjudged. Included among these was a cover illustration comprising a highly eroticized whipping scene, exactly the kind of thing that Mrs. Stowe had taken pains to avoid. ‘There is not one scene of bodily torture described in the book – they are purposely omitted,’ she explained reprovingly to him in a later letter, probably wondering whether this brash young Englishman had really got the point of her work at all.

Pg. 93, emphasis in original

Beeton eventually won her over and later leveraged his connection with Stowe to advance his publishing career.

Beeton also figured out the importance of reader participation. In 1855, he started a correspondence column in EDM called Conversazione, which encouraged people to responde to each other. it was largely unremarkable stuff. By 1866 it was up to 4 pages.

In the spring of 1867, the kinky stuff started, with a woman complaining that she had come home from abroad to find her daughter tight-laced down to two handspans by a headmistress. Next issue. “Staylace” spoke up in favor of tightlacing. From there it continued with more kinkiness.

Beeton claimed in November 1867 to be shutting this down, but he also said he would publish a book called The Corset an the Crinoline which would contain a selection of fetishist letters.

Then the flagellation letters started, from both people who spoke in favour (and in great detail) of the whipping of maidservants and young girls, and from women who had been flagellated with gratitude. Correspondents even wanted to be put in touch with each other.

Beeton denied there was any fabrication, and I agree. Certain people, however, took them literally. The Telegraph (18 Jan 1869) wrote, “This correspondence is a serious thing; it reveals the existence of a whole world of unnatural and indefensibly private cruelty, of which the law ought to have cognisance.” Others thought the letters were just hoaxes.

Beeton could only work with the approval of his publishers, so they couldn’t have minded too much. This was, after all, the company that published the pillow book version of Uncle Tom, and in 1870 they published a supplement of the whipping correspondence.

Apart from “sex sells” or a desire to sully the reputation of his publishers, Hughes attributes this, in part, to Beeton being afflicted with tertiary-stage syphilis, which can cause personality changes and dementia. Hughes presents some indirect evidence that Beeton had contracted syphilis as a “gay” youth (“gay” in the sense of being involved in the demimonde of prostitutes and clients.) which would also explain the Beetons’ long struggle to have healthy children.

Personally, I think this could be just Beeton, after years of economic struggle and family tragedy, going on a “Screw the world” kick. His sadomasochistic efforts were followed by pointed satires about the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the Prince of Wales. This seemed to be a harkening back to the early days of libertine pornography when erotica usually came with attacks on the political and religious elites.

Later Beeton biographers made the mistake of taking all this too literally, insinuating that Conversazione represented Sam Beeton’s own fantasies and fetishes, which he imposed on Isabella and contributed to her ill health, or that they were real accounts of domestic cruelty.

Regardless of why Beeton published all those letters, plenty of people wrote them and sent them to EDM and other magazines. I think those letters in Conversazione were the nucleus of modern day kink culture, before London Life Magazine, before Harmony Productions and before the Internet.

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