Even with the whole of the 20th century and a decade of the 21st separating us from the Victorians, that era continues to fascinate, as the success of director Guy Ritchie's recent Sherlock Holmes movie shows. No wonder, for few other periods offer such a wealth of contrasts. On the surface, there was all that respectability and propriety embodied in the starchy image of the queen, a time when it was actually thought proper to cover the legs of pianos as well as women lest they appear too suggestive. But then there was that very different underside of society, what Victoria herself referred to in German as the schattenseite (shadow side) of life, a murky world of violence existing behind the facade.
There have been many candidates over the years for the true identity of Jack the Ripper, from actual royalty (the Prince of Wales' eldest son, Albert Victor, second in line to his grandmother's throne) to literary royalty, James Stephen (Virginia Woolf's first cousin). For the saga of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer in London's poverty-stricken East End during the late 1880s, is a Victorian tale that continues to exert its own very special pull on contemporary imaginations. A huge story in its own time -- how could it not have been, particularly as it was the first such crime spree illuminated in the glare of a newly emerged gutter press hungry for such fare? -- the fact that it is still unsolved contributes to its enduring appeal. Now comes "Jack the Ripper's Secret Confession," a hyperventilating contribution to the enormous literature of Ripperology, which boldly claims "the identity of Jack the Ripper finally revealed."
If you believe authors David Monaghan and Nigel Cawthorne, a television director and a journalist, respectively, he was none other than the infamous "Walter" who wrote the underground classic of pornography, "My Secret Life" -- fewer than 20 copies of which were clandestinely printed round about the time these murders took place. Unfortunately, despite the vehemence of their argument, they offer little that is convincing by way of evidence: Their attempts at showing congruence between the text of "My Secret Life" and the crimes are weak, and their analysis of the pseudonymous author Walter and his tome lacks psychological and sociological insight. Their subject is undoubtedly a meaty one. The trouble, though, is that there is not only far more sizzle than steak in their superheated narrative but that the whole enterprise emits a rank odor.
Certainly, it has to do with the nature of Walter and "My Secret Life." Not to put too fine a point on it, this is pornography at its most rebarbative, involving incredibly detailed descriptions of all manner of sexual acts, complete with sundry bodily fluids spilled, often as a result of violence. As if this were not enough to turn the stomach of even the most hardened reader, there are intricate descriptions of child rape. The book is what it is and obviously it is necessary for these authors to point to what it contains in order to buttress their argument that it constitutes a "confession" to the Ripper murders.
What they definitely did not have to do -- but have chosen to -- is to wallow in the depravity of the text, giving extract after extract. Fortunately, it is not possible to quote any of these in this, or I would think any other, newspaper today. Suffice it to say that if "My Secret Life" had been used as a test case to end restrictions on what the public could read, we would all still be living under the restrictions of censorship, since it is totally without any redeeming features. Literature this definitely ain't. So why go on and on providing all these examples when most readers will very soon be crying "Stop!" When the authors of "Jack the Ripper's Secret Confession" are not actually quoting Walter's foul prose, they too often paraphrase it in the breathless style of a penny novelette with a dose of obscenity thrown in, again still not fit to print in a 21st century newspaper.
The author of "My Secret Life" undoubtedly had a diseased mind that encompassed a world of depravity. But there has always been a question with his oeuvre as to how much of it was fantasy and how much actual autobiographical testimony. The only way in which a jury could have convicted him of the Ripper murders on the basis of what these authors serve up is that this would have so prejudiced them against him that they would have concluded that he deserved to hang anyway. But all that "Jack the Ripper's Secret Confession" would do is gross them out: There's precious little to enlighten them on the subject, and they'd have to be pretty depraved to find this noxious stew in any way titillating.
Rubin is a critic and the author of "Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life."