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1879 The Pearl title page.jpg

The Pearl: A Magazine of Facetiae and Voluptuous Reading was a pornographic monthly magazine issued in London during the mid-Victorian period by William Lazenby. It was closed down by the British authorities for violating contemporary standards of obscenity.



The Pearl ran for eighteen issues from July 1879 to December 1880, with two Christmas supplements. As an underground publication, it was limited to 150 copies and cost twenty-five pounds, which made it unusually expensive relative to comparable contemporaneous pornographic periodicals. The Christmas Annual, a crudely produced supplement that ran sixty pages, sold for three guineas. Only the special numbers contained illustrations. The publisher and editor, William Lazenby, also wrote some of the content.[1] The magazine was distributed discreetly through mail order.[2] Based on the cost and subject matter, the target audience appears to have been middle- and upper-class professionals.[3] Two of the flagellant poems were composed by Algernon Charles Swinburne, though it is unclear whether he authorized their publication.[4] The format of the magazine, in combining a mix of short stories, serial fiction, current events, and letters to the editor, parodied contemporary family magazines such as Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, which itself contained depictions of corporal punishment.[5] Parts of the magazine were later compiled and translated into German.[6]

After the magazine was shut down, Lazenby would go on to publish three subsequent pornographic magazines, The Cremorne (1882), The Oyster (1883), and The Boudoir (1883). The popularity of pornographic magazines like The Pearl were part of a trend that began in the 1860s of capitalizing on the profitability of writing about sex, which served to proliferate discourses about sexuality by the time of the fin de siècle in England.[7]


The general format of the periodical was to publish three serial erotic tales simultaneously, devoted to sex in high society, incest, and flagellation, respectively. The novels, six in total, were interspersed with limericks, hymns, odes, songs, facetious nursery rhymes, acrostic poems, parodies, faux advertisements, and fabricated letters to the editor. The topics depicted in the novels and poems were wide-ranging, including women's suffrage, physical disability, sexual impairment, secret sex societies, bestiality, India-rubber dildos, slave rape, duels, mock crucifixions, Turkish harems, and prophylactic devices.[8]:498 The Pearl often contained extensive political commentary, including references to the Reform Bills and Contagious Diseases Acts, and portrayed or alluded to many controversial public figures, including Annie Besant, Charles Spurgeon, Wilfrid Lawson, Newman Hall, Edmund Burke, William Gladstone, and Robert Peel.[8]:516

The Pearl contains the first obscene tale about slavery in the Americas. The story, entitled My Grandmother's Tale, depicts the brutal sexualized flogging of a black West Indian slave girl by an overseer of ambiguous racial background acting under the authority of a white plantation owner.[9]

The Pearl's serial novel Lady Pokingham, in which a consumptive invalid recounts her sexual adventures from a wheelchair, has been noted for its depiction of transience, bodily decay, and death, which thus provides counter-evidence to the idea advanced by Steven Marcus that Victorian pornography portrays a pornotopia.[10]

Legal and Cultural LegacyEdit

Swinburne’s flagellant writings from The Pearl have been cited in British legal arguments as evidence against the safety and utility of corporal punishment in schools.[11]

In 2011 an Australian alderman was convicted for possession of "child exploitation material" because a digital copy of The Pearl was found on his laptop.[12] Greg Barns, the director of Australian Lawyers Alliance, noted that the conviction would imply criminality for possession of any number of works of art and literature, and media reports pointed out that Harper Collins had republished the magazine in 2009, and was currently available on Amazon.[13] When the Victorian origins of the materials were identified on appeal, the conviction was set aside.[14]

A selection from the story Lady Pokingham is read during a scene in The Master (2012).

The Pearl's characters and venues, being Victoriana, are featured in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. A girls' school seems to be haunted by a ghost (The "Holy Spirit") that is raping and impregnating the students. The headmistress is Rosa Coote, a character from one of The Pearl's serials. The "Holy Spirit" turns out to be Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Donald Thomas, A Long Time Burning (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), 276.
  2. ^ Lisa Z. Sigel, Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University press, 2002), 8.
  3. ^ Rachel Potter, "Obscene Modernism and the Trade in Salacious Books," Modernism/modernity 16.1 (2009): 96.
  4. ^ Donald Thomas, Swinburne: The Poet in His world (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 216.
  5. ^ Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 140
  6. ^ Werner Heilmann, ed. (1984). ANONYMUS. Die Perlenkette. Eine Auswahl aus dem erotischen Untergrund-Magazin des viktorianischen England. Translated by Helmut Fleskamp. München: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag. ISBN 3-453-50292-2.
  7. ^ Tanya Pikula, "Bram Stoker's Dracula and Late-Victorian Advertising Tactics: Earnest Men, Virtuous Ladies, and Porn," English Literature in Transition 55.3 (2012): 287.
  8. ^ a b Thomas J. Joudrey, "Against Communal Nostalgia: Reconstructing Sociality in the Pornographic Ballad," Victorian Poetry 54.4 (2017).
  9. ^ Colette Colligan, The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley (New York: Palgrave, 2006), 106.
  10. ^ Thomas J. Joudrey, "Penetrating Boundaries: An Ethics of Anti-Perfectionism in Victorian Pornography," Victorian Studies 57.3 (2015): 426.
  11. ^ Frank Bates, "Corporal Punishment in Legal, Historical and Social Context," Manitoba Law Journal 12 (1982-1983), 337.
  12. ^ Blair Richards (1 March 2011). "Councillor's child porn guilt". The Mercury. Archived from the original on 7 October 2012. Retrieved 27 July 2011.
  13. ^ "Tasmanian Alderman David Traynor Gets Child Porn Conviction for Book Still Sold in Australia," The Courier Mail, March 2, 2011.
  14. ^ Matt Smith (11 August 2011). "Child porn finding revoked". The Mercury. Archived from the original on 8 October 2012. Retrieved 11 August 2011.


  • The Pearl: A Journal of Voluptuous Reading, the Underground Magazine of Victorian England, Grove Press, 1968, ISBN 0394171268

External linksEdit