The Grumpy Old Bookman explores the possibility that the classic of Victorian flagellant literature, The Mysteries of Verbena House, was at least in part written by George Augustus Sala, and that the name of the flagellation school in based on a real world flagellation brothel in London’s St. John’s Wood, patronized by Algernon Swinburne.
Sala was certainly known to perhaps the most famous poet of the late nineteenth century, Algernon Swinburne, and Swinburne is said to have admired him greatly. And Swinburne was yet another Victorian who, as a result of his experience at Eton, was totally obsessed by flagellation. Though in his case his interest was masochist rather than sadistic; his sole sexual interest was in being the slave of a beautiful, violent woman.
We know for certain that, in the late 1860s, Swinburne was a regular visitor to a flagellant brothel in St John’s Wood. Here he was able to act out his fantasies. According to Edmund Gosse, writing in 1919, ten years after Swinburne’s death, the brothel was staffed by ‘two golden-haired and rouge-cheeked ladies’; there was also an older woman, who welcomed the guests and took the money.
During the course of a discussion about whether to include such sordid details in an official biography, Gosse wrote to various interested parties and asked them what should be included and what left out. And it is in the course of this correspondence that the poet A.E. Housman is said to have ‘let slip’ that the name of the brothel was Verbena Lodge. The correspondence between Gosse and the others is stored in the British Museum, and one scholar says that few people have been privileged to see it.
I’d really like to see Verbena House, which must have lapsed into public domain long ago, but I can’t find a copy, so far.