Taking Liberties: Sex, Pleasure, Coercion (1748-1928)

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Women and Porn: The Erotics of Reading in G.W.M. Reynolds's Mysteries of London

G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London was published in weekly penny instalments between 1844 and 1856. Though it attracted an enormous contemporary readership, neither work nor author attained literary respectability, remaining out in the critical cold for most of the twentieth century. In this paper, I explore the serial’s plentiful sex and seduction scenes, arguing that they display a sophistication with which Reynolds, and authors like him, are not usually credited. With a self-awareness notably lacking from more canonical Victorian fiction, Reynolds interrogates the social expectations by which women were forced to engage in a performance of a particular kind of sexuality, and then condemned for playing their parts too well. As I discuss in the last section of my paper, the large female readership which the Mysteries attracted suggests parallels between male anxieties about female sexuality and the concerns about female (and working-class) literacy which have more obviously prejudiced the Mysteries’ critical reception.

The women of the Mysteries are beautiful, and their portrayal earned Reynolds a reputation for salaciousness: in 1868, The Bookseller lamented the ‘equivocal and compromising situations’ into which he regularly carried his female characters. However, the Mysteries’ heroines are more than just passive objects of male desire. Reynolds’s women are empowered by their sexuality, exploiting their beauty – and their acting ability – to exert influence over men. Explicitly addressing the relationship between art, pornography and sexual voyeurism, Reynolds turns the spotlight onto the wealthy, educated men habitually understood as the audience for all three. Skilfully carried out, this reversal evokes what must have been uncomfortable parallels between the practise of reading and the erotic compulsion to get beneath the surface of female display, challenging contemporary prejudices about growing literacy amongst the working classes by questioning the uses to which art was put by those who had historically enjoyed it. If literature corrupts, then the men of the privileged classes must be most corrupt of all.
Period17 Jun 2012
Event typeConference
LocationNewcastle, United KingdomShow on map


  • sex
  • pornography
  • reading
  • G.W.M. Reynolds
  • women