A tale of same-sex pleasure has become the most-read titillating title at the British Library as favourites from the institution’s cache of erotic books are revealed.
The institution’s Private Case collection includes 2,560 volumes spanning Oscar Wilde works, pornography, and catalogues of 18th century London prostitutes.
Curators once kept the array of racy writings under tight restrictions from 1850s to 1990 on grounds of obscenity, with special permission required to read them.
Since being derestricted in 1998 volumes have been requested 7715 times and a Victorian work of homosexual pornographic literature has now been revealed as the most popular title from the collection.
The pioneering 1881 erotic work titled The Sins of the Cities of the Plain has been requested more than 100 times by visitors at the library members, Telegraph figures show.
A 4000-page account of sexual conquests, a fictional French “whore dialogue” between nuns, and a best-selling "man of pleasure’s calendar" listing Georgian sex workers have had scores of requests to read them.
The British Library said that after the erotic archive was made digital the books “brought a wider range of researchers into the British Library’s reading rooms to examine the original volumes”.
The collection has proved popular because it “represents a unique resource for a wide range of historians and other researchers of gender and sexuality”.
Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal, may have been written by Oscar Wilde
The earliest item dates from 1634 and the most recent was published in 1988, but most of the erotic material dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The most requested of these volumes with 191 requests to read it was The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, penned by Irish prostitute Jack Saul and giving a fictional life story.
The second most popular with 102 research requests was Venus in the Cloisters, made-up dialogue between nuns.
My Secret Life, a million-word account of sexual experiences in Victorian Britain, received 101 requests.
Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies, an annual register of prostitutes in the London area, was requested 85 times and the fictional pornography Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure 38.
The volumes in the Private Collection were mainly published by pornographers and include titles like Nunnery Tales, The Exhibition, Forbidden Fruit, Exhibition of Female Flagellants, The Whores Rhetorick, and The Boudoir.
All these have proven popular with researchers and have been pursued more than 20 times each, with the previously restricted books providing insights into how human sexuality was once expressed.
Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
Other books like A New and Complete Collection of Trials for Adultery provide tamer titillation for readers when the volume was published.
Some more literary books are by recognised authors who met with censorship for their content, including 1893 work Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal written anonymously by Oscar Wilde.
Avant garde works like William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine are also in the archive which runs to
A British Library spokeswoman said: “The Private Case collection is a hugely rich resource covering many aspects and expressions of human sexuality over more than three centuries, including much material that was rare, marginal, censored and taboo.”