Oxford University’s Bodleian Library

by Amit Roy

Oxford University’s world renowned Bodleian Library has revealed it has been collecting books considered “too sexually explicit” for ordinary users of the library for well over a century.

On the list of 3,000 once restricted books are several Indian titles, among them the Kama Sutra by Vatsyayana (complete translation from the original Sanskrit by S C Upadhyaya, with a foreword by Moti Chandra).

There is also a 1928 edition of The loves of Rādhā and Krishna (English versions from Chandīdāsa, Amaru and Mayūra) by Edward Powys Mathers (1892-1939).

“We also have The Pop Up Kama Sutra!” a Bodleian spokeswoman said, referring to the translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton, (1821-1890) with Andrew Crowson as illustrator.

The Bodleian has organised a scholarly display of some of the books in its Weston Library, to run from 15 November 2018-13 January 2019.

“In the Victorian age, the Bodleian created a restricted category for obscene books, known as Phi,” it said. “This display, showcasing many items never previously exhibited, explores changing ideas about censorship and sexuality.”

Examples of restricted books include a signed first edition of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover which had to be “smuggled into Britain in a diplomatic bag in order to evade British censorship laws”.

“In the Victorian age, the Bodleian created a restricted library within the Library, a special category for books that were deemed by librarians to be too sexually explicit,” the Bodleian explained. “These books were given the shelf mark Φ – the Greek letter Phi. Students had to submit a college tutor’s letter of support in order to read Phi materials.”

According to the library, “the Phi shelf mark was established in 1882 and remained in use until recently. It was designed to protect young minds from material that was considered immoral while also protecting the books themselves from unwanted attention or damage.”

The display is called Story of Phi: Restricted Books.

“The estimated 3,000 items in the Phi collection are extremely diverse, ranging from scientific works and scholarly studies of ancient cultures to novels that were once controversial but are now recognised as important works of literature.”

Other Indian titles on the list include Marriage ceremonies and Priapic Rites in India and the East, by a member of the Royal Asiatic Society (1909); Erotic Art of India, published by Thames & Hudson (1977); Nights of the Rajah: or The Indian Loves of Captain Charles de Vane (New York Grove Press in 1984); and The Photographic Kama Sutra: exotic positions inspired by the classical Indian text (Hamlyn, 2001).

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was “restricted presumably because of its homoerotic subtext and Wilde’s notoriety”.

Sex manuals such as Alex Comfort’s best-seller, The Joy of Sex, were restricted for a while. The first modern European work of pornography, the Satyra Sotadica, written in Latin in the 17th century, is on the list.

“Children’s stories, classics, and scientific studies have faced bans in various countries across the world because they were deemed obscene, Islamophobic or simply too controversial,” the Daily Mail has added.

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is mentioned, as are George Orwell’s Animal Farm; Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago; Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (“because the story depicts a sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old girl”); Adolf Hitler‘s Mein Kampf; and Roald Dahl’s The Witches (Colour Edition), with illustration by Quentin Blake.

Curiously, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter is also included because her first four books stand accused in America of being a “masterpiece of satanic deception”, and of “promoting witchcraft and the occult”.

The free display is curated by Jennifer Ingleheart, Professor of Latin at Durham University, who said: “Many people would never guess that a major academic university library like the Bodleian holds one of the world’s most extensive collections of works deemed ‘obscene’.

“The display invites visitors to consider the complexities behind what is currently in the Phi collection versus the hundreds of items that have been reclassified over the years, revealing how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.”

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s librarian, commented: “This display.…shows the varied and sometimes surprising functions that libraries perform in order to preserve culturally important works for the nation and reveals how librarians have navigated the tension between making materials available for scholarly research while also protecting readers and books.