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The journal appeared monthly between July 1879 and December 1881, and declared as its imprint, Oxford: Printed at the University Press, entirely spuriously and a potential libel. The entire run, in three volumes, contained 36 obscene coloured lithographs. The Pearl contains, across its various issues, six serialized short novels: Sub-Umbra, Miss Coote's Confession, Lady Pokingham, La Rose D'Amour, My Grandmother's Tale, and Flunkeyania. In addition, it includes short stories, bawdy poetry and ballads, gossip and anecdotes, amounting to a total of five hundred pages. Some items, in translation, were simply stolen from elsewhere. Others are original and each issue appears to be the work of many writers. There are, in addition to the monthly issues, two further issues, the 1881 Christmas Annual and 'the extra special number' of 1879, entitled Swivia: or, the Briefless Barrister, which is of a significantly different character to all the others and all but guaranteed to offend every modern reader.
The Pearl was neither the first nor the last of its kind; it was the most (in)famous and amongst the longest lasting. Previous journals include Le Bon Ton (1792-1795), The Exquisite (1842-1844), The Cremorne: a Magazine of Wit (1851) and The Boudoir: a Magazine of Scandal (1883), the latter of which is attributed to 'D. Cameron'. Edited by Anonymous, William Lazenby, alias Duncan Cameron and possibly Thomas Judd, is now attributed as the publisher, editor and part-time author of The Pearl, in collaboration with long-time publisher of erotica, Edward Avery. Lazenby was active as a bookseller and publisher of clandestine erotica in London between c.1873 and 1886. Sometime in 1884 he began collaborating with Edward Avery. Lazenby was arrested in 1876 for 'soliciting and inciting Charles Drew Harris to sell or publish certain obscene, wicked and lewd books' and again in 1886 when he was prosecuted and imprisoned at age 61 for 'unlawfully selling in an open public shop certain lewd books, indecent photographs and other articles'.
The Obscene Publications Act of 1857 had very real consequences for the erotica trade in Britain, since it allowed police to search premises, but not people, where such publications were on sale, and Customs Officers and Post Office officials to destroy consignments, and to prosecute offenders. Authors were not the subject of prosecution, but booksellers and publishers were. The Obscene Publications Act was introduced in September 1857 by Lord Campbell, the Lord Chief Justice. The first arrests were made that same month, and included the pornographic publisher William Dugdale, one of the men whose actions prompted Lord Campbell to act. Lord Campbell had stressed that the Act was:
He stated that it would eliminate the 'sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic', and would protect 'women, children, and the feeble-minded'.
Before 1857, the only law against sexually explicit material (outside of the theatre which was strongly regulated) was King George III's 1787 Royal Proclamation 'For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality', including the suppression of all 'loose and licentious Prints, Books, and Publications, dispersing Poison to the minds of the Young and Unwary and to Punish the Publishers and Vendors thereof'. This was policed by groups such as the Proclamation Society, which became The Society for the Suppression of Vice which was instituted in 1802 to 'check the spread of open vice and immorality, and more especially to preserve the minds of the young from contamination by exposure to the corrupting influence of impure and licentious books, prints, and other publications'. This had little effect, because they had no power to destroy the material.
It is perhaps interesting that many of the publishers of pornography, William Dugdale included, moved into that line of work in the aftermath of the European revolutions of the 1840s. Having begun as political radicals producing pamphlets urging a revolutionary uprising in Britain, and that uprising having failed to materialise, while at the same time they were being persecuted and prosecuted for blasphemy and treason, many elected to turn their printing presses over to the production of other clandestine material and to use their skills and contacts in underground publication to produce pornography.
Many of the episodes of the serialised novels contain references to girls 'opening their drawers'. Underwear in the late 19th century bore little resemblance to underwear now. For practical reasons, given that women were wearing many layers of petticoats and a heavy silk or damask frock (unless they were servants), the removal of underwear for toileting purposes was all but an impossibility. The solution to this was a design of drawers in which the crotch was split from just below waist level, and could be pulled apart by simply reaching behind. Open drawers have long legs, side button or ribbon closures, and a semi-drawstring waist (see illustrations).
Unlike male homosexuality, which before 1885 would attract a sentence of death for sodomy, commuted to life imprisonment between 1861 and 1885, there has never been a law against lesbian sexual activity in the UK. Apocryphally it is said that, when an attempt was made to introduce legislation in 1885, Queen Victoria refused to believe such things were possible and that therefore there was no need for a law to prevent it. A second attempt in 1933 was quashed because the House of Lords thought it would teach women that they could do it and that they would therefore want to do it. The representation of lesbian sex in The Pearl, therefore, is not describing anything illegal, just something 'impossible'.
Until 1885 the age of consent for girls and boys was 12. This means that all references to girls of 12 and over engaging in sexual activities in The Pearl are not describing criminal behaviour. In 1885 the age of consent was raised to 16, but the journal appeared before that change in the law.
The stories in the journal pay considerable attention to the signs of early puberty in girls. In 2005 the average age of the onset of puberty in western cultures is 11 and falling. However, it is much harder to know with any certainty what that age was in the 1870s and 1880s. Sources cannot agree on the average age of puberty in the late 19th century. Some have it at 12 or 13, more at 17 or 18. 'Evidence' from Victorian erotica, The Pearl and other publications, has it at 11 or 12.
In contrast to the five other serial novels in the journal, Miss Coote seeks to establish its authenticity in an altogether different way. While the others use various devices of letters received or autobiographical revelation, Miss Coote uses actual historical figures to set its scene. The inclusion of General Eyre Coote as the lascivious grandfather with a shady past makes direct reference to a reputable British soldier and his less reputable nephew. Sir Eyre Coote (hereafter Coote II) (1760-1823) was a British soldier and Member of Parliament, and the nephew of Sir Eyre Coote (hereafter Coote I) who saw active service in the Jacobite rising of 1745 and India. In 1761 Coote I was given the command of the East India Company's forces in Bengal, and in 1762 he returned to England, receiving a jewelled sword of honor from the Company and other rewards for his great services. Coote I died at Madras on the 28th of April 1783 and a monument was erected to him in Westminster Abbey. Coote II in 1776 aged 15 entered the army as an Ensign in the 37th Regiment., the same regiment in which his famous uncle had also served, and from 1776 to 1780 he took part in most of the battles of the American War of Independence. In 1816 he was expelled from the Order of the Bath for alleged indiscretions with schoolboys at the Bluecoat School (Christ's Hospital). He was dismissed from the army, the official enquiry into the affair deciding that his brain had been affected by severe wounds and illness contracted during tropical service, that he was eccentric, not mad, and his conduct unbecoming to an officer and gentleman. Coote II never belonged to the East India Company, unlike his uncle. The author of Miss Coote's Confession seems to have, accidentally or deliberately, conflated the two Eyre Cootes. Rosa Belinda Coote, the declared author of the text, may plausibly be a real person or a conflation of real persons. Research has yet to reveal the answer to this, or why real personages have been used in this way in this story.
As an intriguing aside, in 1995, the American General Colin Powell wrote in his autobiography that his family were originally slaves in Jamaica at Government House, where one of them, a slave girl called Sally, contracted a liaison with Sir Eyre Coote II, from whom he claims descent.