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A mini-guide for writing Victorian erotica

Ashbee

This post is about the language of sex.

“I loved cunt, but also she who had it; I like the woman I fucked and not simply the cunt I fucked, and therein is a great difference.” Excerpt From: Anonymous. “My Secret Life, Volumes I. to III. / 1888 Edition.

Erotica is a growing field of literature, especially in eBooks. Erotica is also a growing branch of historical fiction. My Secret Life by Walter is a great place to go for tips on how to make your nineteenth-century characters talk dirty to each other, until I am able to give you a copy of the Dictionary of Victorian Insults & Niceties of course!

My Secret Life is the memoir of a nineteenth-century gentleman’s sex life. It was first published over the course of about seven years, beginning in 1888. It’s long and repetitive, but offers a frank discussion of hidden aspects of nineteenth-century life.

Although the work is attributed to Herbert Spencer Ashbee, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would talk about ‘fucking a cunt,’ but ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ were commonly used in Victorian pornographic literature. The words, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ predate Victorian literature by hundreds of years. That means it wasn’t just Victorians, who used those words, their grandparents used those words!

NaughtyWords

Other old words for female genitals include: ‘chose,’ ‘privy chose’ (the vulva), ‘honour,’ ‘muff,’ ‘pussy,’ ‘cunny,’ ‘bearing place,’ ‘lap,’ twat,’ and my personal favourite ‘crinkum-crankum.’ ‘Shell’ and words related to shells could also be related to female genitalia, like ‘conch’ and ‘cunnus.’

Male genitalia could be referred to as: ‘jock,’ ‘arrow,’ ‘loom,’ ‘member’ or ‘virile member,’ ‘virility,’ ‘needle’ (though if you used that now, it would sound like you were diminishing its size), ‘cock,’ ‘other thing,’ manhood,’ propagator,’’handle,’ ‘shaft,’ and ‘Roger.’ There are more specifically Victorian words for penises though, like ‘organ,’ ‘intromittent apparatus,’ ‘root,’ ‘middle leg,’ ‘pisser,’ and words that sound like names, including: ‘Dick,’ ‘Mickey,’ ’Johnson,’ ‘Peter,’ and ‘John Thomas.’ I’m sorry to anyone actually named ‘John Thomas.’

‘John Thomas canoodled her honour’ is a very Victorian sounding sentenced, but it doesn’t sound very sexy, like: ‘His middle leg was now in her lap.’

There are fewer words that are anachronistic to Victorian erotica. ‘Pecker,’ ‘willy,’ ‘dong,’ ‘wang,’ and ‘schlong’ have no place in nineteenth-century bawdy talk, whereas ‘cock’ is perfectly acceptable. If you are talking about lady parts, don’t say ‘snatch,’ or ‘beaver,’ but ‘cunt’ is fine, as Ashbee demonstrates (I think it was Ashbee, who wrote or compiled My Secret Life).

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Make your own Victorian colloquialisms

Lucy Westenra as portrayed by Carol Marsh in Dracula (1958).

Lucy Westenra as portrayed by Carol Marsh in Dracula (1958).

There are lots of words that we use in formal writing that were only beginning to be tossed around in the nineteenth century, like ‘noticeably,’ which first appeared in print in 1845, and ‘blithering,’ which was coined by Punch in 1889.

A colloquialism is a word, or phrase, that is used in informal speech, but not in formal writing. English had not yet been standardized by the nineteenth century, which makes identifying colloquialisms that were colloquial within the period trickier. There were no set rules about which words could and couldn’t appear in formal writing, but upper- and middle-class Victorians often had strong opinions about what words counted as slang.

“I do not, as you know, take sufficient interest in dress to be able to describe the new fashions. Dress is a bore. That is slang again, but never mind; Arthur says that every day.” – Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

Bram Stoker’s character of Lucy Westenra provides an interesting study of late-Victorian opinions on language. In the same letter that she writes the sentence: “Just fancy!” she calls the noun ‘bore’ slang. I could write a whole book on this problem alone, but the key is that there’s nothing random about the quirky opinions women, like the character of Lucy Westenra, had about language.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, women’s intellectual abilities were on trial, as women began entering university programs and demanding a role in politics. Moreover, they lived in a world that was literally inventing itself as it went along. It seemed clever to turn the verb ‘notice’ into the adjective ‘noticeably.’ If you are writing historical fiction, your character might try it with other verbs as well.

Words that you invent this way will be appropriate to the period and can add some levity to scenes that require it. ‘Grieve’ can become ‘grieveably’ and ‘shout’ can become ‘shoutably.’ I can’t create the context that those words will be hilarious in, but I know you’ll think of something!

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