Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 11. 1967.
Vigilantes book war
Vigilantes book war
Private Case — Public Scandal: Secrets of the British Museum. Peter Fryer. Published by Seeker and Warburg. NZ Price $2.20.
In the past few weeks, and with rising momentum, the puritan vigilantes have raised their ugly heads. The Sunday News featured in a recent issue books they considered unsuitable for New Zealanders to read. They also approved of the activities of various organisations who have appointed themselves into a position where they can force booksellers to remove from their shops books considered "indecent" and "offensive." In the forefront of these new guardians of public morals are the Catholic Women's League. A report in the Evening Post (July 31st) described a meeting organised in the East Coast Bays (Auckland) at which speakers inveighed against what was called "smut," "dirt" and "dregs of literature," at the same time "extracts" were read because "it was necessary in order that those at the meeting should know what kind of material was involved." Call it hypocrisy if you like, or "prurient prudery" as Swinburne did, but their actions are far from farcical.
They are, unfortunately, to be taken seriously, for their opinions seem to be having real effect in the echelons of the arbiters of taste, the Indecent Publications Tribunal. Two recent decisions have banned Francis Polling's Glover (Four Square paperback) and restricted the "Sammy" books to persons over sixteen. I have seen copies of these books on bookstalls since the beginning of the year. Yet the Tribunal did pass the two Tropic novels by Henry Miller, and these should be available soon as Panther paperbacks.
The real issue here is the question of whether publishers are willing to submit their books to the Tribunal. The present is a most unsatisfactory system, for publishers have shown themselves to be singularly un-venturesome. However. Panther Books have submitted to the Tribunal Krafft-Ebing's classic study Pcychopathia Sexualis, and one hopes that if this is cleared then more paperbacks, which have been available for some time in England, will also be submitted so that the backlog I have written about in previous issues will eventually be reduced. This plea, of course, relates equally to hardbacks, although it seems that paperbacks are discriminated against because of the availability — for certainly these days cost is almost irrelevant.
The vigilantes will use both availability and lack of quality in their search for material to further their cause. The question of quality can only be related to individual books, and certainly some in the Luxor Press range (these books were specifically singled out by the Sunday News) are of low quality (e.g. Secret Techniques of Erotic Delight) On the other hand some are the best in their field (Lesbian Love), and it is these quality books which are the first to suffer in any purge.
Peter Fryer has spent much of the last ten years combatting the forces of prudery in that venerable institution which has the largest collection of erotica in the world, the British Museum. Fryer found out about this more or less by accident. Like most people he knew there was erotica in the BM. but was unable to find out where this was kept or catalogued until he asked for a sex manual by William Claxton. He was informed that this was in the "private case" and thus not made available to the public, nor to scholars. Following this discovery Fryer instigated a one-man crusade to make available the Private Case to those who wished to examine its contents for serious research.
Fryer was to some extent successful, and he describes all his actions and the attitude of BM officials in readable detail. The main content of this fairly short book, however, is concerned with describing the contents of the Case, thus giving people an idea of what they are deprived of for leisure reading. Only the academics can experience the wealth of erotica at the present time, and Fryer certainly isn't to blame for this state of affairs. In fact, he is lucky to have got as far as he did when one reads how entrenched the officials were at first, yet trying to compromise this with the BM's liberality of access to all other books on its shelves.
But the prime objects of interest remain the books themselves. Fryer quotes, with obvious delight, many of the more succulent items from the Case. One example in this review will suffice, and can be found in The Present State of Bettyland (1684) attributed to the Staffordshire poet Charles Cotton (1630-87). and is part of a prolific literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which depended for their impact on the extended sexual metaphor
"The Country of Bettyland is a Continent adjoining the Isle of Man, having the Isle of Man wholly under its Jurisdiction . . . For Tillage the Soyl is so proper, . . . that. . . men take the greatest pleasure in the world to plow it and sow it, nay there are some men that take it for so great a pastime, that they will give some a thousand some two thousand pounds a year for a little spot in that Country, not so big as the palm of your hand." And so in similar vein for another 181 pages.
But it is the longer quotations which are more rewarding, enabling one to appreciate some of the atmosphere and style from such classics of erotica as My Secret Life (Brussels? (1888-94) of which the author is unknown, but has been identified by some as H. S. Ashbee, Steven Marcus (The Other Victorians) called him "Pornographer Royal" because he owned one of the largest collections of pornography and erotica in England. Under the psuedonym of Pisanus Fraxi he published in 1885 the most comprehensive bibliographical study (at that time) of the "Curious and Uncommon Books." My Secret Life is a monumental eleven volume autobiography of a nineteenth century English gentleman in which he describes his sex life, from childhood to middle age, in copious detail and with the utmost frankness. From what Fryer says about the book and its erotic and social detail, we can only look forward to his promised abridgment.
Private Case — Public Scandal is not intended as a learned or academic book, as was the same author's Mrs. Grundy (Corgi paperback), but it does contain a wealth of interesting information about many of the books in the Case. There is no separate index or bibliography, which is disappointing, but I understand that Fryer intends to publish full bibliographical details of all the books and pamphlets in a future volume. So far we have only consumed the appetiser the full meal comes later.