The British Library Digitizes Its Collection of Obscene Books (1658–1940)

Many peo­ple are cheat­ed out of an authen­tic edu­ca­tion in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture because of a long­stand­ing puri­tan­i­cal approach to its cura­tion. One might spend a life­time read­ing the tra­di­tion­al canon with­out ever, for exam­ple, learn­ing much about the long his­to­ry of pop­u­lar porno­graph­ic British writ­ing, a genre that flour­ished in the 18th and 19th cen­turies as the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the nov­el explod­ed. Every­one knows the Mar­quis de Sade, even if they haven’t read him, not least because he lent his name to psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic the­o­ry. Many of us have read Voltaire’s randy satire, Can­dide. But few know the name John Cle­land, author of Fan­ny Hill, a bawdy British nov­el pub­lished in 1748, over forty years before de Sade’s Jus­tine.

A book that serves up its own wealth of psy­cho­sex­u­al insights, Fan­ny Hill does not dis­ap­point either as porno­graph­ic writ­ing or as enter­tain­ing fic­tion. Cle­land wrote the book while in debtors’ prison, after he “boast­ed to James Boswell, him­self no mean pornog­ra­ph­er… that he could write a sex­u­al­ly excit­ing sto­ry of ‘a woman of plea­sure’ with­out using a sin­gle ‘foul’ word,” writes John Suther­land at The Guardian. Cle­land suc­ceed­ed, in a nar­ra­tive loaded with crude­ly Shake­speare­an puns and euphemisms. The word­play in the title character’s name, an Angli­ciza­tion of mons vener­is (mound of Venus), will be imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent to speak­ers of British Eng­lish.

Upon its pub­li­ca­tion, how­ev­er, Cle­land was pros­e­cut­ed for “cor­rupt­ing the king’s sub­jects,” and the book was “duly buried and went on to become a cen­turies-long under­ground best­seller.” Such was the fate of many an obscene British nov­el. Thou­sands of these became prop­er­ty of the British Library, which “kept its dirt­i­est books locked away from the rest of its col­lec­tions,” notes Brig­it Katz at Smith­son­ian. “All vol­umes deemed to be in need of extra safe­guard­ing so that mem­bers of the pub­lic couldn’t get their hands on the saucy stories—or try to destroy them—were placed in the library’s ‘Pri­vate Case.’” Now, they are being dig­i­tized and made avail­able to Gale sub­scribers.

2,500 vol­umes from the Pri­vate Case col­lec­tion have become part of Gale’s Archives of Sex­u­al­i­ty and Gen­der research library, the first time much of this mate­r­i­al has been avail­able. “Pret­ty much any­thing to do with sex,” says British Library cura­tor Mad­dy Smith, was locked away “until around 1960, when atti­tudes to sex­u­al­i­ty were chang­ing.” Librar­i­ans only began cat­a­logu­ing this mate­r­i­al in the 1970s, but most of it remained obscure and fair­ly inac­ces­si­ble. The col­lec­tion dates to 1658. It includes a series called the Mer­ry­land Books, writ­ten in the 1740s by authors who took pseu­do­nyms like “Roger Pheuquewell” and described “the female anato­my metaphor­i­cal­ly as land ripe for explo­ration.”

It is not over­all a body of work giv­en to sub­tleties. Aside from some excep­tions, like Tele­ny or The Reverse of the Medal, a trag­ic gay romance attrib­uted to Oscar Wilde, these are also large­ly books “writ­ten by men, for men,” about women, Smith points out. “It’s to be expect­ed, but look­ing back, that’s what is shock­ing, how male-dom­i­nat­ed it is, the lack of female agency.” She might have also point­ed out that many women in the mid-18th cen­tu­ry were writ­ing and pub­lish­ing pop­u­lar nov­els, large­ly read by women, with frank com­ing-of-age descrip­tions of sex­u­al edu­ca­tion, seduc­tion, and even rape. And both men and women wrote about homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der flu­id­i­ty in ways that might sur­prise us.

The response to such books tend­ed to be moral­is­tic correction—as in the best-sell­ing Pamela, or Virtue Reward­ed by Samuel Richard­son—or las­civ­i­ous satire, as in the Mer­ry­land Books, Fan­ny Hill, and Hen­ry Fielding’s Shamela, a par­o­dy that turns Richardson’s chaste hero­ine into a schem­ing pros­ti­tute. These two nov­els were mas­sive­ly pop­u­lar and show the form as we know it devel­op­ing as a lit­er­ary con­ver­sa­tion between men about women’s sup­posed vices or virtues. We should read mid-18th cen­tu­ry porno­graph­ic lit­er­a­ture as an essen­tial part of the for­ma­tion of the British nov­el tra­di­tion.

At the Gale online col­lec­tion of these British Library trea­sures, one can do just that, then reach back a cen­tu­ry ear­li­er and for­ward 200 years to 1940, the last date in the Gale col­lec­tion, which “makes avail­able approx­i­mate­ly one mil­lion pages of con­tent that’s been locked away for many years, avail­able only via restrict­ed access.” (We must note that access is still restrict­ed to Gale sub­scribers). These pages come not only from the British Library but also from The Kin­sey Insti­tute and the New York Acad­e­my of Med­i­cine, who have both sup­plied a share of text­books and schol­ar­ly mono­graphs on sex. The “obscen­i­ty” of this mate­r­i­al lies in the eyes of its keepers—much will seem unre­mark­able today, and some can still seem plen­ty scan­dalous.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read 14 Great Banned & Cen­sored Nov­els Free Online: For Banned Books Week 2014

A Com­plete Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Eros Mag­a­zine: The Con­tro­ver­sial 1960s Mag­a­zine on the Sex­u­al Rev­o­lu­tion

John Waters Reads Steamy Scene from Lady Chatterley’s Lover for Banned Books Week (NSFW)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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