Some people can look with pride upon their family trees, pointing out the mad scientists, cattle rustlers, burlesque dancers and Ping-Pong champions inhabiting the familial branches like the homicidal squirrels in our black walnut tree. A friend of mine can even claim a genuine saint (St. André Bessette) as a forebear. (It goes without saying that I am rendered a lurid shade of lime green with envy when she flaunts this relation.)
For years we have sought such illustrious ancestors, and come up – how shall we say this? – short. Until recently, when a certain cousin of mine(maternal side), the only member of our generation to carry the illustrious name of our Belgian grandfather in the New World, discovered an ancestor we can wholeheartedly claim.
Auguste Brancart was born in St Quentin, Belgium in 1851. From 1880 to 1885 he was a bookseller and publisher in Brussels. He then moved with his wife and young son to Amsterdam, where he fathered four daughters, and gained his worldwide reputation as a man on the cutting edge. He published the first known edition of My Secret Life, originally anonymous, now attributed to Henry Spencer Ashbee*; Rachilde’s The Mysteries of Venus, Fanny Hill and countless other books with titles in the vein of The Adventures of the Cross-Dressing Abbot, The Callipygian, or The Delights of the Penis; Lessons of a Voluptuary, or General Confession, and The Phallic Hotel: Vaudeville in Two Acts.
Yes, our ancestor was “one of the most important, and prolific, publishers of erotic books at his time.”
Or put more succinctly, a pornographer. A distinguished pornographer, to be sure, the founder of the Société des bibliophiles cosmopolites. A publisher credited with being the “link between the 19th and 20th centuries, between the ‘quality’ publishers …and the sordid colporteurs like Elias Gaucher.” A pornographer wanted by the police in two countries, but still, a pornographer.
It has always been a dream of mine to share with my children and grandchildren stories of their Old World ancestors. Now I can. While your forefathers and mothers were building railroads, wiping out indigenous populations, sailing to China and making fortunes in soon-to-become-endangered natural resources, ours was pandering to the public’s eternal and invincible demand for porn.
So what happened to the family fortune? After too many unfortunate interactions with the Amsterdam police, Brancart fled to Antwerp in 1894 and disappeared from the public record. There remains much to be discovered.
*Another interesting character of which I may write more later. For the time being, it is worth noting that one of his various pseudonyms was Apis, which as you know, means Bee. See his personal bookplate.