In early middle age (his forties), and after a variety of occupations, ranging from cinema manager through insurance salesman to store detective, the writer Ronald Pearsall stumbled across a largely unexploited mine of social history and cleverly proceeded to work it to his advantage virtually for the rest of his life.
Until the 1960s, quaking holidaymakers had had to smuggle across the Channel such books as Lady Chatterley's Lover, Terry Southern's Candy, Nabokov's Lolita and most of Henry Miller. These were now gradually made more freely available, thanks to sympathetic juries (quite often urged on by the persuasive tones of John Mortimer), and earlier erotic texts were also dusted off and reprinted.
John Cleland's Fanny Hill, The Perfumed Garden, The Kama Sutra, A Night in a Moorish [sometimes Turkish] Harem all began to find their way, as brightly covered, perfect-bound paperbacks, into mainstream bookshops. At the same time classics of out-and-out pornography " My Secret Life by 'Walter', The Way of a Man with a Maid, Lady Pokingham, or They All Do It, volumes of The Pearl, now usefully issued with (largely spurious) scholarly introductions " emerged from behind the curtained recesses of Soho used-magazine stores in such quantities that Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Squad hardly bothered to seize them.
Fascinated by the more outr aspects of the Victorian pornographic book trade, with its buccaneering publishers and booksellers such as Leonard Smithers and 'Charles Carrington' (i.e. Paul Fernando), as well as collectors such as Henry Spencer Ashbee, Pearsall began to study the subject in depth. He discovered that the British Museum Library had a special 'Private Case' that contained hundreds of rare specimens of 18th- and 19th- century pornography, principally from the vast collection of Ashbee, a rich Victorian businessman who had his own 'secret life' and, as 'Pisanus Fraxi', had compiled an extraordinarily detailed bibliography of the genus.
The fruits of Pearsall's researches were packed into The Worm in the Bud: the world of Victorian sexuality, which was published in 1969 to some critical acclaim, as well as a good many scandalised reviews thanks to his policy of quoting extensively, and without recourse to asterisks, from the gamier examples of the breed.
Pearsall was not the first to investigate the largely underground activities of Victorian smut merchants. In America Gershon Legman's The Horn Book: studies in erotic folklore and bibliography (1964) and Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians (1966) were both ground- breaking works, and in the UK the indefatigable H. Montgomery Hyde (who really could turn his typewriter to just about any topic under the sun) had gone into the Victorians in some detail as part of a wider review of the subject in A History of Pornography (1964).
But Pearsall's study was reader-friendly, entertaining and (though on occasion bewildered) largely non- judgemental. He recognised, for instance, the often hideous ramifications behind the Victorians' generalised obsession with children, and their ugly hypocrisy " what the Victorians themselves dubbed the 'whited sepulchre' effect, where rotten corruption exists behind a serene and often noble fascia " but at the same time could not …