Monday, 23 July 2012

Horse play

When is a horse not a horse? That is the question. Or the question that comes out of the book I’ve just been reading.
Let me explain. Our family visit has ended and one of our visitors left a book behind, which I’ve been reading it. It’s detective fiction, which I don’t usually go for, but I’ve really got into this one.
It’s called ‘Shadow of the Serpent’ by David Ashton. What I like best is that it’s set in Victorian Edinburgh, which is making me want to go back to writing about my ‘A Month in the Country’ characters.
Anyway, here’s the thing. All of the sudden the action moves to an upmarket brothel run by a woman called Jean. Among the ‘menu’ of experiences  on offer is a dominatrix in the cellar.
David Ashton writes: "Jean had spent a fortune on that cellar, the high point of which had been the purchase of the Berkley Horse. The apparatus had been shipped from London and arrived shrouded in thick white canvas like apiece of sculpture…"
The cellar was also kitted out with a range of flogging implements including "an array of canes which ranged from thin and pliant to thick and thunderous". Jean is called to deal with a customer who has a complaint about the thoroughness of the treatment he is getting from the house dominatrix, Francine.
Jean puts her straight. ‘"The client’s desires are paramount. Give him what he wants. Here I’ll make a start for ye.’ So saying, she took a thin birch rod from where it had been soaking in water to keep it green and pliant, then brought it down with considerable force on the man’s buttocks. There was a indrawn breath in response, and a thin smear of blood showed where the blow had landed.’
So, a little startle and then the story moves on. But it left me wondering what a Berkley Horse could be...
A bit of searching online sort of answers the question. But also poses another others. I’d imagined something like the vaulting horse we used to have in school and that’s how it looks here.
But then elsewhere it’s more like an A-frame shape, like an artist’s easel. Some confusion, but I did like reading about Mrs Theresa Berkley, who sounds a great character; I’m thinking that a sequel to ‘A Month’ needs to have its own Mrs Berkley and her horse, too.
So, was there a real Berkley Horse? Apparently there was and it was named after it's creator. Or I guess she didn't actually get handy with the saw, but she had it created to her spec.
One article I came across says Mrs.Berkley became famous for her invention "a multi-functional device which combined the delights of being a spanking bench with several other erotic functions". Apparently she made a fortune estimated at £15,000 during the eight years running her Establishment in central London.
Personally, being tied to furniture isn't my thing so I'm quite happy to be left wondering about the horse's shape and form. But I'm rather fascinated by Mrs B herself.
There's an interesting essay on women like Theresa at a site called the Flagellation Sourcesheet. It quotes Henry Ashbee's 'Index of Forbidden Books', which was written in the late Nineteenth Century, saying: "Mrs Theresa Berkley, of No 28 Charlotte Street, Portland Place; she was a perfect mistress of her art, understood how to satisfy her clients, and was, moreover, a thorough woman of business, for she amassed during her career a considerable sum of money."
I find myself wanting to know much more about Mrs Berkley. How did she get into such a specialised line of business? What sort of background did she come from? Was flagellation purely business, or was she mixing business with pleasure?
The Sourcesheet essay throws up one intriguing detail. It says that after Theresa's death her brother, who had been a missionary in Australia, arrived in England. He was in a position to inherit his wealthy sister's estate, but "when he learned the source from which the property she had left him had been derived, he renounced all claim".
Apparently, in his absene her estate went to her doctor, including old letters. They including some "from the highest personages, male and female, in the land". Clearly, Theresa wasn'#t a girl from the slums (given that her brother was a clergyman) and she provided a service to a nicer class of bottom. 
Last, but not least. I wanted to find an image to post as a parting though so I googled for 'victorian' and 'dominatrix'. It offers up a very wide and varied selection of images, but given issues of copyright I didn't feel comfortable posting any - instead I'll leave you with a series of links to look at, if you care to.
It seems that those two words conjure up thoughts of vampires,updos, scary ladies, chic ones and dressing-up.

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