Imagine a collection of reading material so lusty and erotic — so downright, what’s the word here?, naughty — that it was kept under lock and key for almost a century and a half.
Such was the British Library’s ‘Private Case’ collection: 2,500 volumes — and almost one million pages — of writings and images, deemed obscene by the powers that be, and kept from the clutches of the common Londoner. Now, the entire collection has been digitised, and anyone (of appropriate age) can delve into its grubby crevices.
“The smuttiest French novel ever written”
Originally held at the British Museum from 1850, the Private Case collection houses books dating back to 1658’s Rare Verities: the Cabinet of Venus Unlocked and Her Secrets Laid Open. Other titles include Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which was first issued in 1748-49 and considered to be the first pornographic novel written in the English language.
The Merryland Books were a series of English erotic novels, published in the 1740s, and written by various authors, including one ‘Roger Pheuquewell’. Uh huh.
My Secret Life is the so-called memoir of the extensive sexual exploits of a gentleman called Walter in Victorian England. And Story of O, published in 1954, is “the smuttiest French novel ever written,” which must take some doing. It’s written by a woman (Anne Desclos) — something that can’t be said for most of the collection’s titles.
Another infamous title in the collection is Harris’s List of Covent-Garden — an 18th century ‘Yellow Pages’ of sex workers, and their specialities.
In 1973, the Private Case collection was moved to the then-new British Library, where it continued to be held in lockable bookcases, and issued to readers only with the keeper’s special permission. The volumes were locked up for their own safety as much at the public’s; it was feared the books might be thieved by especially dissipated Londoners, or mutilated by furiously puritanical ones.
Some of the naughtiest quotes
From Fanny Hill:
Her sturdy stallion had now unbutton’d, and produced naked, stiff, and erect, that wonderful machine, which I had never seen before, and which, for the interest my own seat of pleasure began to take furiously in it, I star’d at with all the eyes I had…
From Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies:
This lady is tall and rather lusty, she is remarkably fair, which we take to be the gift of nature, as we believe she is an utter stranger to pearl powder… One pound one is the usual fee of this female… but two pieces will afford her much greater satisfaction, and give her such a flow of spirits, as induce her to make uncommon exertions.
From Story of O:
Would she ever dare tell him that no pleasure, no joy, no figment of her imagination could ever compete with the happiness she felt at the way he used her with such utter freedom, at the notion that he could do anything with her, that there was no limit, no restriction in the manner with which, on her body, he might search for pleasure?
Where can I get my mitts on this?
All 2,500 volumes that make up the Private Case collection have now been digitised, and are being made available online by publisher Gale as part of its Archives of Sexuality and Gender academic research resource.
The collection is also available by subscription to libraries and higher education institutions, and is available for free via the British Library’s reading rooms in London and Yorkshire. This time, the keeper will give you permission.