The Infidel Strain is the second book in Carter’s Blake and Avery Mystery series, following on from her New Blood Dagger shortlisted and Bailey’s Women’s Prize long-listed The Strangler Vine.
The new novel, which is out now, sees her protags Jeremiah Blake and William Avery returning to London from India in 1841. Both have difficulty adapting to life in Victorian England. Then, a shocking series of murders in the world of London’s gutter press forces them back together. The police seem mysteriously unwilling to investigate, and as connections emerge between the murdered men and the growing and unpredictable movement demanding the right to vote for all, Blake and Avery must race against time to find the culprit before he kills again.
Blake and Avery’s investigations take them into some of the grubbier corners of the city, and in her guest post Miranda discusses the murky — and mucky — world of Victorian pornography…
For most of the 19th century the heart of the Victorian porn industry was a dingy little street off the Strand—then the most fashionable and swanky thoroughfare in London—called Holywell street.
Some of the printers and booksellers had been there a while—in the 1820s before Queen Victoria came to the throne, they had sold dirty comic cartoons sending up the bad behaviour and multiple mistresses of the Prince Regent and his spoilt brothers. But in the 1830s, as Britain in general became more prim, a new wave of pornographers arrived (I have to confess I’m cheating here slightly, as the words pornography and pornographer wouldn’t take on their current meaning until 1906.).
These men (and they were all men) were ex-revolutionaries and radicals who, inspired by the French Revolution, had once fought for press freedom and the vote. Some had even been linked to attempts to overthrow the government. But as age and the desire for a steady income had prevailed, they turned to pornography. And the striking thing about their material was that it wasn’t just smutty and obscene (though it was that), it was full of social satire and attacks on church, government and the aristocracy—just as in France before the revolution, there had been a lively market in obscene pictures attacking the hypocrisy of the rich and the church.
A particular Holywell street speciality were engravings of churchmen (the church was thought to be incredibly financially corrupt) behaving badly: jokes about arse bishops and nuns (naked except for their wimples so you knew they were nuns) having group sex.
This was straight out of French revolutionary porn. Then there were books—for example The New Epicurean or The Delights of Sex—which between the explicit engravings and tales of sexual escapades, attacked accepted morality and the law, which the writer claimed were just the ways a hypocritical corrupt aristocracy kept the rest of society under its thumb.
Of course far from all the porn was political. The ex-revolutionaries were also big on erotic parodies of famous books— Nickelarse Nickelby for example—the ancestors of those porn versions of popular films. There were lewd poems, particularly about what famous figures like the Queen and Prince Albert or Lord Byron got up to in bed; and short stories with racy titles: Lady Bumtickler’s Revels, and The Lustful Turk. And there was a very lively market in flagellation, even then regarded as a particular favourite of the upper classes —it was called ‘birchen sports’ and described and drawn in loving detail.
For twenty years they plied their trade. But by the 1850s, Britain had lost its appetite for politics, and the angry pornographers and their dirty prints gave way to nude photographs sent by post in anonymous brown paper envelopes. But they were such an odd and unlikely group, I thought they deserved to be resurrected in my new novel, set in 1840s London.