Ian Gibson, more famous for biographies of famous Spaniards Frederico Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali has now written the life of a little-known Victorian collector of pornography. It is a curious story, and interesting in a shamefaced sort of way. Ashbee enjoyed an affluent 19th-century existence with wife and family, renting a separate apartment in which he stored his collection of thousands of erotic books and paraphernalia. With a nicely Victorian pedantry, Ashbee catalogued his entire collection and published a limited edition Index Librorum Prohibitorum or "Index of Books Worthy of Being Prohibited", which Gibson calls "a thing of beauty" on account of its high production values. Apart from this, and a number of so-so travel books, Ashbee is not an especially noteworthy character; except that Gibson wants to argue that it was Ashbee who wrote the anonymous Victorian porn-bonkbuster My Secret Life. Gibson makes a good case and Ashbee may indeed be the author, but we may also find ourselves asking "so what?"
This is a peculiar sort of biographical production, an unusual addition to Gibson's otherwise excellent list of books. It is certainly written and researched with care, and constitutes a genuine scholarly contribution to this little-studied aspect of Victorian life. But it is also oddly dispiriting to read--not because of Gibson's immaculate writing, but because of Ashbee's monomaniacal proclivities. Pornography, at the very least, should be sexually exciting; but only a very particular sort of individual will find much stimulation in the depressing array of flagellation and violence that crops up all through this material. As Gibson concedes at the end of his book, Ashbee is "sad--in, we assume, the traditional as well as the modern sense of the word: nobody with a reasonably happy affective life is going to spend years writing and collecting this sort of 'obsessive, reiterative' material". --Adam Roberts