Ronald Pearsall: Obituary - Historian of Victorian Sub-Culture

Historians in the News

Ronald Pearsall, who has died aged 77, was a literary jack-of-all-trades, writing on matters as diverse as antique dolls and the history of monarchy as well as publishing children's books, thrillers and even pornography; he was best known, however, as a historian of Victorian sub-culture.

In his book The Worm in the Bud (1969, the title a quotation from Twelfth Night: "But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, Feed on her damask cheek") Pearsall investigated the often seamy reality behind the Victorian "whited sepulchre" ideal of sexuality.

Pearsall' investigated what went on behind the lace curtains and suggested that repressive attitudes created a climate in which the fetishistic, the illicit and the depraved thrived. He examined Ruskin, his erotic nightmares, unconsummated marriage and preoccupation with young girls; Swinburne's predilection for flagellation; the cult of the corset ("tight lacing produced a very close simulacrum of hysteria and could result in certain erotic sensations"); the buccaneering trade in pornography, and the orgies that took place at grand country houses.

But he emphasised that even in the twilight world of illicit sex, conventional Victorian social heirarchies still prevailed. In a chapter on prostitution, Pearsall noted that Henry Mayhew, the Victorian sociologist, divided prostitutes into six broad categories, their status mirroring the class of their clientele.

Far from being a marginal activity, Pearsall noted, prostitution was an important element in the capital's economy. One contemporary authority estimated that around pounds 8 million a year was spent on prostitutes and that, out of a London population of two and a half million, there were about 80,000 women plying their trade. As a result of high levels of illegitimacy and infanticide, Pearsall reported, "dead babies in the Thames were so common that attention was not drawn to them".

Pearsall was particularly fascinated by the thriving underground trade in erotic books and discovered a "private case" in the British Museum that contained hundreds of examples of 19th-century pornography, mainly from the collection of Henry Spencer Ashbee, a Victorian businessman and erotomaniac who under the "scatological pseudonym" of "Pisanus Fraxi", privately printed three bibliographies that established him as Britain's leading authority on pornography.
Ronald Pearsall married, in 1983, Josephine Casassa; she died in 1993. Pearsall died on September 27 and is survived by two stepsons.

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