By all accounts Ian Gibson has taken apart a legacy of secrecy of which the revelation of its known identity must be sourced only in diary entries, historical records, authored artefacts, and limited correspondance and study, to have a crack at piecing together a case for the authorship of My Secret Life (A whopping 4,200 pages worth of debauchery) attributed to Henry Spencer Ashbee. Henry Spencer Ashbee was a wealthy Victorian business man who publicly was known as a scholar of Cervantes, travel writer and a bibliophile. His private life consisted of amassing an enormous collection of 'obscene' literature and penning three exhaustive bibliographies under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi on banned and erotic/lewd books from around the world.
Part One of The Erotomaniac sets up the inquisition of Part Two, which is vitally important. A thorough examination of Ashbee's diaries, acquaintances (Fellow bibliophiles, authors, publishers), friends, family (Particularly his son), and travels. Ian does so in order for the reader to grasp the sheer duality of Ashbee's double-life. It all concludes in a very Victorian scandal and reprise of Ashbee's identity as Pisanus Fraxi, which bases much of its testimony on Ashbee's will, which is featured at the end of the book in full.
Part Two is where Ian is heading, and through some quite skilful dissection between what is known of Henry Spencer Ashbee (Life, interests, references, dates, travels) and the penmanship of the fictional editor of the My Secret Life; Walter.
At first I wasn't sure what to expect as I followed Ian's extensively referenced mapping out of this seemingly ordinary Victorian businessman, but then when I delved into the second part, my own curiosity kept me chasing the mystery until the end. I thought Ian did a good job of researching particularly difficult material, i.e. diary entries that were at times infrequently entered and unrevealing, missing years, and a life that obviously wanted to be kept separate from the one recorded for the public.
A few missing links I would have chosen myself to reveal, such as suggesting that the mysterious scandal that befell family life for Ashbee might have been attributed to the work of My Secret Life (If discovered accidentally), and also the argument by Ian that My Secret Life was a work of fiction, which I think stemmed from a previous scholar's view that it was fact, I would ascertain that it was both - having felt that Ian might have looked at Ashbee's life too studiously at times, whereas I feel that Ashbee, like so many who live a duality, can live out their desires without a single soul ever knowing, or only those close in the fold ever knowing. Lastly some speculation on Ian's behalf that the author of My Secret Life had little actual knowledge of his expeditions - here the examples Ian gives, I would argue otherwise, as poetic license or those intrinsically immersed in sexual exploration would easily reach the same observatory tones when approaching experience as descriptive prose.
However, all said and done, The Erotomaniac is comprehensive enough to provide the reader with what must of been arduous research at times presented in a well thought out fashion about a man who is a curio of our times, living in a period of horrific conservatism and prudishness; cuckolded by fantasies that could only be nurtured in secret.
Paperback, 442 pages
Published Jan. 4, 1997 by Thomas Nelson and Sons.