EYE SPY: Rebecca Dowman – The princess and the pornographer

Two hundred years ago, the Bedford Estate strove to keep Bloomsbury a residential enclave of respectable, upper class families. But the huge houses were frequently converted, illegally, into private hotels, pub and boarding houses, fracturing the genteel uniformity the estate desired.

The tenants too were not always what they claimed, or seemed to be on the outside. Princess Olive, of Arthur Place, for one, was known to some as plain Olivia Serres, artist.

Oliv-ia/e had herself baptised as the ‘daughter of the Duke of Cumberland’, George III’s brother, at St Mary’s Church, Islington in 1821, aged 49. Announcing her royal parentage via pamphlets and letters to the press, the ‘princess’ explained her long absence from the public eye followed her having been substituted at birth for the stillborn child of a house painter, Robert Wilmot.

Olive had the royal coat of arms emblazoned on her carriage and her servants dressed in regal livery. With her claims backed up by credible documents and, with a resemblance to the duke, she hoodwinked many influential people.

Having insisted that King George III gave her £5,000 and an annual pension of £500 – with the Polish monarch, her ‘grandfather’, also chipping in – it must have startled followers when Olive was thrown into the King’s Bench Prison for debt. Undaunted, she appealed for public aid, with posters declaring: ‘The Princess of Cumberland in captivity!’ The following year, she published further details of her royal links and – despite the emergence of her birth certificate and a statement from Robert Wilmot asserting he was her natural father – never renounced her claim.

Henry Spencer Ashbee did not have to go out of his way to be accepted by society, he was at its heart. A City merchant, scholar, international traveller and collector of first editions of Don Quixote, he lived with his wife and four children in gracious Bedford Square.

But Ashbee was a Janus. Behind his mask of respectability, he was the most prolific erotic bibliographer, translator, polemicist and (probably) author of his age. And there was stiff competition, not least among what his biographer calls his “coterie of erotomaniac cronies”[1].

He privately published three huge bibliographies of erotica, under the pseudonym Pisanus Fraxi. These tomes include countless erotic plot summaries and quotations, with one – Centuria Librorum Absconditorum (‘A Hundred Books that Should be Hidden’) – including 300 pages on anti-Catholic pornography alone. Aptly enough, he is also thought to have been the author of My Secret Life, a 4,200-page sex ‘journal’ of a Victorian gentleman.

Ashbee intended to reveal all after death but was outmanoeuvred by the British Museum; to which he left his entire literary collection on condition it accepted the erotica. Keen to get their hands on his Cervantes, the trustees accepted the bequest but hid much of the porn in a private case in the British Library. Further proof that you don’t always know what you’ll find behind a Bloomsbury facade.

Rebecca Dowman

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[1] The Erotomaniac, Ian Gibson, Faber, 2001