November 29, 2018
Hester Prynne, eat your heart out: naughty books previously on lock-down now on display
by Susan Rella
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Oxford University is in lust with The Scarlet Letter.
As Matthew Taub delightfully tells us in Atlas Obscura, the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library hid a secret stash of delightfully naughty books from the general public for more than a century. But not only did they shovel these books out of public view. No, that is not a harsh enough penalty for such wickedness. They marked them with a special symbol. Some might even say the books were branded. With a letter, of sorts.
Seriously, contact Nathaniel Hawthorne and tell him he should sue for copyright infringement. Because while these books are now being celebrated in a new exhibit at the Library, from 1882 until 2010 (!), the library marked the spines of its scandalously sexy shelf-dwellers with the Greek letter Phi (Φ) — “like a mark of sin,” as Taub says. During the time the Phi classification was still active, students could only access its materials if faculty submitted a request on their behalf. And the librarians, even then, didn’t have to honor the request.
The library was founded at the turn of the 17th century, but the restricted collection was created in response to the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, says Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston, an Oxford grad student and author of a 2015 history of the Phi collection. Houston told Taub that the standards for obscenity in print were set by the ridiculously subjective “Hicklin test,” which defined obscenity as anything which could “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences.” Shakespeare was a safe bet. Oscar Wilde? Not so much. As Taub said, “in practice, the test often gave more latitude to works of the old Western canon rather than rising literary stars.” Per Kristian Wilson for Bustle, there were about 3,000 items in the Phi.
But it’s not all pseudo-fascist doom and gloom. The Phi also helped save some important works from destruction and/or obsolescence, safely housing them after they were banned or publicly condemned. As Wilson reported, the Bodleian, as a legal deposit library, is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. One such example is a signed first edition (smuggled into Britain) of D. H. Lawrence‘s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, forbidden to U.K. readers until the insane 1960 trial against Penguin Books, the U.K. printer. And librarians also ensured that all books in the Phi collection were read with a librarian chaperoning, at a location unfortunately known as the “wanker’s desk” — to prevent damage and defacement. Which is, sadly, very wise of them; as anyone who’s ever worked in book retail can tell you, the depreciation of erotica is, um, … swift. But this measure also kept important materials from being lost for good, preventing both theft and the potential very, very, very late return.
The Story of Phi: Restricted Books exhibit, curated by Jennifer Ingleheart from the University of Durham, opened earlier this month and runs through mid-January. Head on over to Oxford to see all the nudie fin de siècle illustrations your heart has been yearning for. And also Ulysses. And Madonna’s Sex book. And, apparently, Monty Python? Honestly, what the hell was available to read at the Bodleian for 128 goddamn years?
Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.