Lecture Notes: On Edward Sellon – I
When I’m researching material for lectures, I often find myself poking into a variety of fascinating areas and characters, which unfortunately time often precludes me from doing anything more than briefly summarising their relationship to the main topic at hand. So a lot of material ends up on “the cutting room floor” as it were. What follows is the first of two posts (expanded from the preparation for my forthcoming Treadwells lecture) focusing on Edward Sellon (1816-66). Sellon is noteworthy as his his writings can be located as emerging out of the blurred zone between “serious scholarship” and erotica (sometimes referred to as “ethnopornography”). Sellon wrote both pornographic books and more sober, scholarly works, both of which provide a window into the period’s attitudes to India, sexuality, and Tantra. This first post will look at Sellon’s pornographic writing in the context of the nineteenth-century demand for pornography and Imperial attitudes to India & sexuality, and I will follow up with an examination of his “scholarly” works – the papers he delivered to the Anthropological Society of London and his book Annotation to the Sacred Writings of the Hindus.
Edward Sellon (1818-1866) entered military service in the East India Company at the age of 16, and rose to the rank of captain at the young age of 21. His time in the Army seems to have been not without incident, as he was arrested at one point and charged with “scandalous and infamous behaviour” towards fellow officers in 1836. He was nearly discharged, but the president ruled that he was “insane” at the time of the offences, and he was acquitted.
In 1844 he returned to London and married Sarah Ann Wilds, the daughter of a prominent Brighton surveyor and architect. The marriage, by all accounts, was not a happy one. Not only was Sarah not as rich as Sellon had initially supposed, but she also disapproved of his numerous affairs with other women, including his seduction of a parlour-maid and some of the pupils of a girls’ school where he worked for a while. The couple frequently broke up and made up, but managed to have four children together. Sellon held down a number of jobs, including driving the London to Cambridge coach for two years, and running a fencing school. In 1860, he left his family in the country, and moved back to London, where he began writing erotica for William Dugdale, one of Britain’s most notorious pornographic publishers.
It’s often supposed that Victorian pornography was restricted to an all-male, upper-class elite of gentlemen bibliophiles and collectors. This was, in actuality, a middle-class pretension, which emerged out of the tension expressed between “high culture” – literature and art which, being a product of men of refined taste, had merit, and a “low culture” of items which were cheap and mass-produced, which was associated with the sensibilities of the lower classes, and which of course, had no artistic merit. In James Whistler’s words: “The world was flooded with the beautiful, until there rose a new class, who discovered the cheap, and foresaw fortune in the facture of the sham”. The lower classes were thought to be particularly susceptible to the “poisons” of pornography, and some gentlemen of “refined taste” argued that certain books and works of art be restricted in access, and only available to those capable of appreciating them. Henry Ashbee, in the introduction to his pseudonymonously-published Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1877) opines that:
“Improper books however useful to the student or dear to the collector …. should, I consider, be used with caution even by the mature; they should be looked on as poisons, and treated as such; should be (so to say) distinctly labelled, and only confided to those who understand their potency, and are capable of rightly using them.”
As both Ronald Hyam (1990) and Allison Pease (2000) have shown, the extent of the nineteenth-century trade in pornography was quite widespread. According to Pease, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, between 1834-1880 seized over 380,000 obscene prints and photos; 80,000 books and pamphlets, and five tons of other printed matter. The Society recorded that there were 57 pornographic bookshops open in Holywell Street, London, until the Obscene Publications Act (1857 & 1868) forced them to close down. A police raid on one such shop in Holywell Street in 1845 found 383 books, 351 copperplates, and over 12,000 prints. An 1874 raid on the home of one Henry Hayler turned up over 130,000 obscene photographs. Pease argues that such quantities – which probably only represent a small portion of material sold throughout the century – make it unlikely that such material was only intended for a small, upper class elite, although “elite” productions did continue to circulate, particularly in the wake of the Obscene Publications Act.
The growth of the press also fed the public appetite for scandal. The Crim.Con.Gazette which first appeared in 1830, reported on trials for adultery and divorce (Crim.Con or “criminal conversations” was a popular euphemism for adultery). The Accurate reporting on criminal trials was one way that newspaper editors could argue that details which would otherwise be considered “objectional” should be disclosed. The trial of Boulton & Park (1870) for example, excited much press comment. Michael Diamond (2004), reviewing the press reports of the trial, shows that whilst the Pall Mall Gazette reported delicately only that a surgeon had “given evidence of a medical character which it is impossible to print”, Reynold’s Newspaper had reported directly the results of the surgeon’s examination of the state of the anuses of Park & Boulton, including the revelation that one doctor had found evidence of of “two syphilitic sores in the anus … which had been created by an unnatural intercourse with another person” (quoted from Diamond, p121-122).
There was too, a popular demand of books which detailed the bizarre marital and sexual practices of the strange peoples encountered at the margins of empire – ranging from popular “oriental romances” such as Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh (1817) and GWM Reynold’s serialised The Loves of the Harem, a Romance of Constantinople (1855) to erotic journals such as The Pearl (1879-81) to which Swinburne contributed – to pornographic novels such as The Lustful Turk (1828) the infamous My Secret Life (1880); The Story of a Dildoe: A Tale in Five Tableaux (1891) and Venus in India (1889). Steven Marcus observes, in The Other Victorians (1966) that:
“By the mid-Victorian period the pornographic scene had established itself in very much the same modes, categories, and varieties as exist today. Alongside of works which fumbled towards a scientific account of sexuality were grouped volumes describing the ‘rites’ and ‘practices’ of certain curious sexual and religious cults, volumes which purported to be anthropology of some kind, volumes of folklore, and a whole range of sex and marriage manuals of differing inflammatory intensity but uniformly equal ineptitude and disingenuousness.”
As the century progressed, there was increasing concern about sexual health, the state of the nation, and the effects of pornography. The Hungarian Max Nordau, for example, makes an explicit link between the health of a nation and the state of its literature in his 1892 book Degeneration (which appeared in England just in time for the trial of Oscar Wilde):
“… a society composed of individuals sexually overstimulated, knowing no longer any self-control, any discipline, any shame, marches to its certain ruin, because it is too worn out and flaccid to perform great tasks. The pornographist poisons the springs whence flows the life of future generations. No task of civilisation has been so painfully laborious as the subjugation of lasciviousness.”
Nordau might just as easily have been describing India, as much of the same ideas had been trotted out earlier in the century about the Hindus, and William Ward had in fact, described Hinduism as a “poison” which, if left unchecked, could corrupt the rest of the world. Lord Campbell, the main sponsor of the Obscene Publications Act, referred to pornography as “a poison more deadly than prussic acid”.
Anthropologists and Rakes
Sellon was a member of two related groups – the Anthropological Society of London (ASL), and a radical dining club which formed the ASL’s “inner coterie” – the Cannibal Club, both of which were closely associated with Richard Burton.
The ASL was founded by one Dr. James Hunt (a staunch advocate of comparative racial anatomy) with the aid of Burton, although his various diplomatic postings prevented Burton from playing too active a role. Andrew & Harriet Lyons (2004) state that part of the impetus for the foundation of the ASL was that the more prominent Ethnological Society proposed admitting women as members. When Burton, for example, wrote about the need for exercising “liberty of thought” and “freedom of speech” in print, he certainly did not have the lower classes in mind, and seems to have been in favour of the application of the Obscene Publications act to “cheap and nasty” literature, though not of course, to the tasteful “erotica” favoured by his fellows.
According to Deborah Lutz (2011), the Cannibals brought together men of letters and scholars interested in the discussion and analysis of “deviant” sexual practices with those with a keen interest in art and the “outer reaches of sexual behaviour”. In addition to Sellon and Burton, members of the Cannibal Club included James Campbell Reddie (aka “James Campbell”), the atheist Charles Bradlaugh (founder of the National Secular Society), Algernon Swinburne, Simeon Solomon, Richard Monckton Milnes, Frederick Hankey (who had a passion for binding his collection of erotica in human skin), novelist George Augustus Sala and Thomas Bendyshe, translator of the Mahabharata. Several of the Cannibals – Swinburne, Solomon, Milnes, Reddie – and of course, Sellon, were actively involved in the production of erotic writing for publishers such as Dugdale and Hotton, and several were friendly with the bibliographer of erotica, Henry Ashbee. Some of them were “serious” collectors too. Milne apparently had one of the largest collections of erotica in Europe, and his intimates referred to his country house, Frystan Hall, as “Aphrodisiopolis”. Bradlaugh would later be prosecuted (together with Annie Besant) for attempting to distribute a “malthusian” tract on birth control and contraception. Solomon was arrested twice in the 1870s for cottaging, and is sometimes credited with co-authoring (along with Reddie) Sins of the Cities of the Plains (1881) – one of the first exclusively homosexual pornographic works published in England. Likewise, Sala (with Reddie, or sometimes, Sellon) is credited with writing The Mysteries of Verbena House (1882), a novel of flagellation set in a school for fashionable young ladies in Brighton.
Some Cannibals – Burton, Milnes, Swinburne, Hankey and Studholme Hodgson (who earned the sobriquet “Colonel Spanker”) shared an interest in flagellation and, according to McConnachie (2007) some of this circle were “almost certainly” clients of one Sarah Potter, a madame “who kept a string of brothels where her ladies could be spanked or even pricked with pins.” It was out of this tightly-woven network that Burton’s Kama Sutra would later emerge. By all accounts, they were a “wild bunch.”
Sellon wrote and illustrated a number of erotic books for Dugdale – The New Epicurean; or, The Delights of Sex, Facetiously and Philosophically Considered, in Graphic Letters Addressed to Young Ladies of Quality (1865) and Phoebe Kissagen; or, the Remarkable Adventures, Schemes, Wiles and Devilries of Une Maquerelle (1866). He illustrated James Campbell’s The Adventures of a Schoolboy and The New Lady’s Tickler (a novel of flagellation). He also produced in 1866, his erotic autobiography, The Ups and Downs of Life which contains an enthusiastic account of Sellon’s amorous encounters with Indian courtesans:
“I now commenced a regular course of fucking with native women. The usual charge for the general run of them is two rupees. For five, you may have the handsomest Mohammedan girls, and any of the high-caste women who follow the trade of courtesan. The’fivers’ are a very different set of people from their frail sisterhood in European countries; they do not drink, they are scrupulously cleanly in their persons, they are sumptously dressed, they wear the most costly jewels in profusion, they are well educated, and sing sweetly, accompanying their voices on the voila da gamba a sort of guitar, they generally decorate their hair with clusters of clematis or the sweet-scented bilwa flowers entwined with pearls or diamonds. They understand in perfection all the arts and wiles of love, are capable of gratifying any tastes, and in face and figure they are unsurpassed by any women in the world.”
Such seeming praise for the sensual delights of Indian courtesans – the “succulent houris” of Sellon’s erotica – was not uncommon, particularly for men who had served in India. Dr. John Shortt, who had been Surgeon-General of Madras Presidency gave a paper to the ASL entitled Dancing Girls of Southern India wherein he reported that he had met several devadasis who lived as mistresses with European officers, and was “greatly surprised at their lady-like manner, modesty and gentleness.” although he went on to say that “they know but one form of pleasure, vice, in which their lives are spent” and that temple dancing is one of “the worst institutions connected with Hinduism.” His paper indicates that he only recognises Indian women as either being respectably married, or being prostitutes.
The beauty of Indian (and other “oriental types”) was frequently favourably contrasted with the dullness and general undesirability of English women, the kind of move explained by bell hooks (1992) as “within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”.
Sex and Empire
In the late eighteenth century it was a fairly common practice for British administrators and soldiers to keep Indian mistresses, and they were frequently defended as a way of increasing one’s knowledge of Indian affairs (such women were colloquially referred to as “Walking Dictionaries” or bibis – the latter a Hindustani word meaning “high-class woman” which in Anglo-Indian parlance came to refer to native mistresses). Colonel James Skinner (founder of the crack regiment “Skinner’s Horse) for example, was said to have a “harem” of fourteen Indian wives, and have fathered eighty children. Although the East India Company had initially encouraged Anglo-Indian intermarriage, this declined by the beginning of the nineteenth century, but the bibis remained popular. Richard Burton reported that “I found every officer within the corps more or less provided with one of these helpmates. We boys naturally followed suit…” (from Hyam, 1992, p117).
For other ranks, the situation was less easy. There were strict marriage quotas, and the army was reluctant to increase them, partially due to the expense involved, and partially because it was believed that unmarried soldiers were thought to be more efficient. However, it was recognised that allowing soldiers free rein to visit native brothels would cause not only unrest, but also increase the incidence of venereal disease – which was a major concern. Banning prostitution though, could lead to, in the words of Lord Elgin, an “increase in unnatural crimes”.
There were military scandals (see James, 1997 for two examples) involving soldiers accused of “sodomy” with other ranks and native troops, but as Hyam (2010) notes, such cases were rarely reported in the press. The only “memoirs” indicating same-sex activity on the part of the British in India in the nineteenth century are the case study of one “G.R” – a British Army officer discussed in Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex (vol III) and the as yet unpublished manuscript of Captain Kenneth Searight (see Hyam, 2012 for an extensive discussion). There is also the matter of Burton’s infamous report on the male brothels in Karachi, “in which not women but boys and eunuchs, the former demanding nearly a double price lay for hire” which by Burton’s own account he was asked to investigate by Sir Charles Napier. But this report has never actually turned up, and there is considerable speculation amongst Burtonists as to whether it was destroyed, or indeed if it ever existed in the first place (see for example Godsall, 2008).
The army’s solution to the tricky problem of catering to the sexual needs of the troops (and it was widely believed that the rank and file, like factory workers, were “naturally” promiscious) came in the form of a network of regulated brothels across India, Burma and Ceylon – established within regimental cantonments and (supposedly) reserved for the exclusive patronage of British troops. This was thought to be preferable to inter-marriage, unnatural vice or masturbation. A series of “lock hospitals” were created for the treatment of venereal disease, and by 1864, all native prostitutes within regimental cantonments were subject to enforced regular medical examination. It was widely assumed that Indian women lacked any sense of shame regarding their bodies, and thus would not object to medical examination. This was soon followed by Indian versions of the controversial “Contaigous Diseases Act” although the CDAs for India which much harsher and draconian in their scope and power than in Britain. It was specified that Indian prostitutes had to be registered with the authorities and submit to periodic medical inspection, and if they were found to be carrying venereal diseases, they were required (on pain of fines and imprisonment) to submit to compulsory treatment in lock hospitals. It was required (and assumed) that women would present themselves voluntarily for registration and examination (in the English CDA, in constrast, a senior police officer had to provide evidence to a justice for a woman being a prostitute before any complusory action could be taken in regard to her).
Although the focus of the Indian CDA was on Indian prostitutes as a source of “disease” it fostered the widespread belief that all Indian women were potentially disease-ridden The Acts were contraversial and a campaign was launched to overturn them, spearheaded in the UK by Josephine Butler, and they were rescinded in 1888. There was an attempt to revive them in the late 1890s, which again, drew vigorous opposition (for a full account, see Butler, 1994).
India as a country was often represented as “effeminate” due its climate, and its “depraved” religions. Missionaries such as William Ward saw these two factors as evidence in determining that “Hindoos” were “the most effeminate and corrupt people on earth.” A similar argument was applied to the British working classes – where the heat of factory work was also thought of as encouraging promiscuity, and the poor came to be seen as a race apart, the savages within England. Both were seen as lacking discipline and self-restraint, particularly in matters of sex. This view was widespread, even amongst those Europeans who agitated for reform of the empire. Josephine Butler, who actively and vigorously campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in India, shared this general view of Indian women, describing them as “…helpless, voiceless, hopeless. Their helplessness appeals to the heart, somewhat in the same way in which the helplessness and suffering of the dumb animal does, under the knife of the vivisector” – going on to place “pitiful Indian women” somewhere “half way between the Martyr Saints and the tortured ‘friend of man, the noble dog”.
By the 1860s the keeping of Indian mistresses by officers and administrators was in decline. According to Hyam this was a consequence of the 1857 Rebellion, after which it was felt that more “distance” was necessary between the British and their Indian subjects and also that the Rebellion caused the British to drastically improve the communications infrastructure in India, which, together with improvements in steamship design and the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) made it much easier for English women (the much-maligned “memsahibs”) to reach India. Alain Danielou is said to have laid the blame for the British losing the Empire entirely on the memsahibs -as the presence of English women in India prevented European men from enjoying native sexual customs (Obituary: Alain Danielou).
An anonymously-written article in the Pall Mall Gazette of 1887 fretted over the immorality of the Empire, arguing that the “500,000” men who maintained the empire were usually unaccompanied by women, and as a consequence, formed “immoral relations with natives” and regarded English morality as something that could be left behind “along with Crosse & Blackwell’s pickles” and complained that they were beginning to think “like Burton and his appalling footnotes” (Hyam, 1990, p91).
Some closing thoughts
A common theme which connects both pornography, anthropology and legal texts of the period in respect to India was the idea that women were “naturally” exotic and sensuous, passive – willing to please, and lacking the constraints and sensibilities of english women. This discourse worked in a number of ways. For missionaries like Ward, it could reinforce their general argument that India as whole was corrupt and degenerate; for travel writers and pornographers like Sellon (and Burton) they were rendered as available (and anonymous) sexual objects, and for colonial administrators, the belief that Indian women lacked any shame regarding their own bodies led to the idea that women would voluntarily submit to compulsory medical examination. The medical/anthropological gaze treated women (and men) as objects for scientific study; measured and categorised – blank slates onto which could be written racial, moral and sexological theories.
Anjali R. Arondekar, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Duke University Press, 2009)
Antoinette Burton Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture 1865-1915 (University of North Carolina Press, 1994)
Michael Diamond Victorian Sensation Or the Spectacular, the Shocking and the Scandalous in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Anthem Press, 2004)
Jon R. Godsall The Tangled Web: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (Matador, 2008)
Joscelyn Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (SUNY, 1994)
Bell Hooks Black Looks: Race and Representation (Turnabout, 1992)
Ronald Hyam Empire and Sexuality: The British Experience (Manchester University Press, 1990), Understanding the British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2010)
Lawrence James Raj: Making and Unmaking of British India (Little, Brown & Company, 1997)
Deborah Lutz, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Andrew & Harriet Lyons, Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)
Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth Century England (Basic Books, 1966)
James McConnachie, The Book of Love: In Search of the Kama Sutra (Atlantic Books, 2007)
Allison Pease, Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (University of Cambridge Press, 2000)
Ashwini Tambe Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)
Donald Serrell Thomas A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England (RKP, 1969)