Ronald Pearsall

Historian of Victorian sexuality
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The Independent Online

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 outré 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 entirely condemn the publishing high jinks of the piratical pornographers themselves.

Ronald Pearsall was born in Birmingham in 1927, the elder son of a machine-tool worker. During the early part of the Second World War his school, King Edward VI Grammar, was evacuated from Camp Hill in the city to Warwick. Later, during the worst of the bombing, he and his family went to live in the black-and-white village of Ombersley, Worcestershire, site of a Civil War clash. He left school at 14 and thereafter led a peripatetic life - apart from army service - wandering from job to job until the late Fifties when he determined to become a commercial writer.

He had already had a thriller, The Scarlet Mask (1941), published as a slim "blackout" paperback, at the startling early age of 14, receiving a dozen copies but no payment since the publisher vanished. Now he set to with a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Year-Book beside his typewriter and began to write articles on any subject that seemed sellable.

The Worm in the Bud certainly opened doors - the News of the World serialised the spicier parts, then sent Pearsall on a fact-finding tour of Copenhagen, "sex capital" of the world, much to his bemusement. The British Council also sent him to Sweden to lecture on "English Wit and Humour" - a subject he was well able to cope with (in The Worm in the Bud there is a wry section on the trials and tribulations of the researcher trying to gain access to the BM's banned books).

Sparked off by his original research he wrote a series of books on aspects of the Victorian world - The Table-Rappers (1972), an excellent study of the Victorian fascination for the occult and mediums such as Daniel Douglas Home; Victorian Sheet Music Covers (1972); Victorian Popular Music (1973); Night's Black Angels: the forms and faces of Victorian cruelty (1975); Collapse of Stout Party: Victorian wit and humour (1975); Public Purity, Private Shame: Victorian sexual hypocrisy exposed (1976) - as well as a fine, atmospheric novel, The Belvedere (1977).

An interest in antiques led to an astonishing number of related volumes: Inside the Antique Trade (1974, with Graham Webb), The Joy of Antiques (1988), Antique Furniture for Pleasure and Profit (1990), a whole series of "Connoisseur's Guides" (Antique Clocks & Watches, Antique Dolls, Antique Glass, Antique Jewellery, Antique Toys etc) for the American market, as well as The David & Charles Encyclopaedia of Everyday Antiques (1992) and others for the same publisher, whose headquarters, usefully, was close to his own home in Devon.

Ronald Pearsall wrote children's books under the pseudonym "Ronald Rawlings", travel books, practical books on art (he executed many paintings of his tribe of Jack Russells), books on myths and legends, and even pornography. He was writing well into his seventies, and in 1999 published seven books - Mysterious Places of the World, Kings and Queens: a history of British monarchy, The Romance of Travel and no fewer than four "Connoisseur's Guides" - which, if nothing else, revealed his enormously catholic tastes.

Jack Adrian

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