Transgression, Trespassing and Taboos in the Long Nineteenth Century

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Violating the Secret Museum: Art, Pornography and the Mysteries of London

In The Secret Museum (1987), Walter Kendrick establishes a useful analogy between nineteenth-century pornographic literature and the erotic artefacts recovered, during this period, at Pompeii. Considered unsuitable for general display, such material was separated from more orthodox archaeological finds in a room to which only wealthy men could gain admission: mirroring the model of cultural exclusion by which Victorian censorship discourse was characterised. In this paper I use Kendrick’s model of the secret museum to contextualise contemporary reactions to G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-56), a penny serial whose titillating content, radical politics and substantial popular success made it a source of considerable conservative anxiety.

Parliamentary discussions around the 1857 Obscene Publications Act suggest that the mid-century censorship movement related less to the content of pornographic texts than to concerns about this material’s growing availability and increasingly eclectic readership. Women, the young and the working class – the bulk of the audience for the new mass literature – were conceived as emotionally vulnerable, unable to distinguish fiction from reality. Texts which traditional elites could consume with impunity might have significant effects on these less practised readerships: hence their exclusion from the secret museum, and the wider cultural sphere it represented.

Modern accounts of Reynolds’ serial reveal surprising echoes of this Victorian prejudice, situating Reynolds as a profiteer exploiting his credulous audience with populist politics and pornography. Although it does contain elements of the conventionally erotic, I will suggest that The Mysteries exhibits a self-awareness that challenges this depiction of mass fiction and its readership, repeatedly addressing questions about art and its effects; most notably, through the depiction of a pornographic gallery that provides a provocative counterpart to Kendrick’s secret museum. Here and elsewhere Reynolds exposes censorship discourse and its rhetoric of safeguarding as a mechanism for maintaining the cultural status quo. The working class will always be vulnerable to manipulation by media whose terms they do not fully understand.

Reynolds’s understanding of cultural texts as instruments of political power demands a more considered reading of his work. Where critics have historically read the Mysteries’ sexual content as a lowbrow bid for popular success, I suggest in this paper that Reynolds’s deliberate transgression of contemporary literary conventions should be read as a calculated political act. Pornography targeted at the working class meant something different to pornography as encountered by the rich: subversive, liberating, even revolutionary.
Period10 Apr 2013
Event typeConference
LocationCardiff, United KingdomShow on map


  • pornography
  • G.W.M. Reynolds
  • popular culture