The known history of My Secret Life prior to the 1966 printing of all eleven volumes by Grove Press is murky at best. The Grove Press edition marked a historic turn for the book, a point from which it is relatively easy to confirm that My Secret Life has remained in almost continuous print up to the present day (ref. Ennumarative bibliography).
Prior to that point, the history of the text is more rumor than fact. There are only two English language editions that can be confirmed, and of those, it is unclear which surviving copies belong to which edition. The publishers themselves are known to have existed, but what has come down to us through the years is very little more than that simple fact. This paper looks at what little information is available.
The 1888(?) Edition
My Secret Life was printed in eleven volumes in the late 1800s. The general consensus is that the volumes were published separately from 1888 through 1893. This date range is based entirely on two facts: the date “1888” is on the title page of the first volume, and a 1902 sales pitch of an entirely unreliable pornography publisher named Charles Carrington who claimed to have several copies of the book and was trying to sell them (Marcus, 1964, p.79-80).
A significant problem in gaining an accurate picture of this early printing is that there were possibly two, or even three, imprints. The author, who refers to himself as Walter and thus will be so referenced here, claimed to have had printed no more than five or six copies at his request. Bullough states that “most evidence points to an original printing of about twenty additional copies” (Bullough, 2000, p. 39) although what that evidence is remains unexplained. However the edition owned by the Harvard Library (and the only digitized copy available for study) is also dated 1888, but is marked as copy number 353 (out of an unknown total) “printed privately for subscribers.”
A 2003 bibliography by Sheryl Straight hosted online at The Erotica Bibliophile claims that the original 1890s edition was printed in 20 to 25 sets (again with no explanation), while dating the “printed privately for subscribers” (in a batch of 475 copies) to 1932 as a reprint of volumes 1-3. This becomes problematic as the Harvard Library catalogue dates their copy as an 1888 original. Without being able to inspect the volume in question in person, it is impossible to tell which attribution is correct. This completely throws into question how many copies were printed in the 1890s. Straight gives a fairly detailed description of a first edition that she attributes to “Christies Sale #5445 / Lot 39, April 27, 2006” but how this compares to other imprints/editions is unknown.
The volumes were published unbound and “covered in a colored paper wrapper which varies with the volume number and seems to have been selected merely on the basis of what wrapper paper was available at the time” (Bullough, 2000, p. 39), which is supported by Straight’s description of the first edition listed in her bibliography. Later bindings were added by the owners. How many surviving copies of this edition is unknown, and there is the issue of whether either the Harvard Library or British National Library copies are from the 1890s printing or are a later reprint.
The publisher is reputed to be August Brancart, a Brussels based printer with a reputation for printing salacious works. The most information we have on him comes from a study of decadent writer Rachilde, in a footnote to the text, and is worth repeating in full here:
“Brancart was investigated in connection with another publisher in 1895, and the dossier of that investigation provides some information about him. He was born in Saint-Quentin on July 21, 1851, married a woman from Brussels and moved to Antwerp on August 3, 1894. By the time of the police inquiry the following year, the couple had four children. The Petit Bottin des lettres et des arts of 1886 refers to him reaching “la Néerland hospitaliére (Fénéon et al 12),” perhaps a flight from persecution. He was already known to police authorities as early as 1885, having published Paul Adam’s Chair Molle, which was prosecuted that year for outrage aux bonnes moeurs (Archives de Paris D2U8 188). He also appeared before a judge in Brabant in May 1886 and April 1888.” (Hawthorne, 2001, p. 244)
Scholar Steven Marcus does not ascribe publication to Brancart, but notes that errors in spelling and syntax “make it almost certain that the compositor or typesetter possessed French—not Dutch—as his native language” (Marcus, 1964, p.82), which does at least match with the history presented by Hawthorne in her footnote about Brancart but would imply that Brancart was both printer and publisher, which is a leap made without evidence.
The most solid attribution to Brancart comes from Bullough, who states that type ornaments at the beginning of chapters can definitely be traced to a print shop used by Brancart (p. 39). Which print shop that was remains unidentified, so how many other publishers that print shop worked with who might also be in the running as the publisher of My Secret Life is unknown.
A number of questions are thus raised and unanswered:
- When is the correct start and end date for publication of all original eleven volumes?
- How many copies were made in the initial print (and why is the number 20-25 consistently assumed by multiple researchers, who do not explain the reasons for their assumptions?)
- Were there multiple reprints?
- Are the Harvard and British National Library copies original first editions or are they later reprints? If reprints, is the date of 1932 (as claimed by Straight) correct?
- Was August Brancart the printer/publisher? What is the evidence for this ongoing assumption other than that he was French and published controversial books in Brussels?
Steven Marcus, in his book The Other Victorians, which devotes a significant portion to the study of My Secret Life, gives a very short history of the book which includes the following:
In the early 1930s the first three volumes of the original English were reprinted in New York. Police intervention in the shape of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice stopped the project at that point, but it seems that someone was able to bribe a policeman to smuggle out Volume V, and in 1934 this, with about thirty pages of the original omitted, was published under the title Marital Frolics. (Marcus, 1964, p. 81)
Straight’s online bibliography states that a 1932 version is “a reprint of the first 3 volumes of the original 11. This c.1932 edition, following the original edition as to title and imprint, was the first American attempt to re-publish all 11 volumes of the orignial [sic] c.1888 but the police (Sumner) shut the production down after this edition was published. The second attempt was done in 1934 as an abridged version of volume 5, titled Marital Frolics” (Straight, 2006).
These reports not only contradict each other, they contradict fact. A thorough search of the New York Times newspaper between 1930 and 1939 on reports of book seizures results in only one possible time frame for the seizure of My Secret Life, which was in a bulk seizure of two tons of books by the NYSSV on April 10, 1934. All other book seizures reported before and after that date were for singular books, which were always named in the article. The April 10th, 1934 seizure is the only possible one that could include My Secret Life as no titles were listed in the article (barring the Times simply not reporting on its seizure at all).
That this seizure included My Secret Life is supported by a secondary source citing the records of the NYSSV, which are held at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The book Bookleggers and Smuthounds (2010) by Jay A. Gertzman discusses the seizure in a footnote on page 324, confirming the date by way of a New York Evening Sun news report and the inclusion of My Secret Life in that seizure according the ledgers notes of NYSSV’s director, Sumner. He does not mention the rumored volume five release as Martial Frolics, a possible oversight or simply left out due to lack of verification.
Straight’s identification of the “1932” reprint as the batch of 475 copies, and thus possibly the version as represented by the Harvard copy, further clouds the situation. That copy, even in its rough digitized state, looks like an actual imprint of the 1888 version, or a facsimile thereof. Which begs the question of who (and moreso, how) would have saved the original printer’s working plates for four decades, a near impossibility in practical terms.
While it is unpleasant to throw out the stated facts of two earnest professionals, there seems little for either Marcus or Straight to stand on in regards to a rumored “early 1930s/1932” printing. It is possible that the printing company that suffered the seizure of 1934 (the delightfully named Treat ‘Em Right Publishing) printed the book itself in 1932, and what was seized in 1934 was what they had left in stock. However, short of verifying the dates of surviving copies of any pre-1966 edition, it is impossible to say.
There is simply too much rumor, assumption, and speculation in regards to the publishing history of this book to state anything concrete without a thorough study of the copies of the pre-1966 books that are known to exist. Erroneous statements have compounded and reinforced each other over the decades, and scholars who have studied the different editions have not been transparent. This is not to accuse anyone of hiding facts or resources, but simply to point out that what a researcher may take as “understood” is sometimes anything but.
Bullough, V. L., "Who wrote my secret life? An evaluation of possibilities and a tentative suggestion", Sexuality & Culture 4 (2000) 37-60 doi:10.1007/s12119-000-1011-y
Hawthorne, M. (2001). Rachilde and French Women's Authorship: From Decadence to Modernism. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.
Gertzman, J. (1999). Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Marcus, S. (1964). The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
New York Times. (1934, April 10). 2 tons of books seized: Three men arrested charged with selling obscene literature. New York Times, p.21.
Straight, Sheryl. (2006). My Secret Life: English and French Editions. Retrieved from: http://www.eroticabibliophile.com/books_mysecretlife.php