Obscene books and the bawdy Bard | Letters

Emily Marsden questions how accessible the British Library’s erotic titles actually are. Austen Lynch says Shakespeare’s Bawdy by Eric Partridge is worth a peek

Maddy Smith of the British Library claims that digitising collections represents “the final push” towards complete accessibility (British Library’s hidden trove of erotic titles goes online, 5 February). It is striking how restricted the library’s idea of complete access seems to be.

To consult the so-called “Private Case” of early pornographic books and much of the library’s other digitised material requires either membership of a subscribing library or on-site access at the British Library itself. Specialist subscriptions are not usually a priority for cash-strapped local authority libraries. Academic libraries may subscribe, but often deny external users access to digital resources. That leaves a potentially costly trip to London or Boston Spa, and with no guarantee of being accepted for a reader’s pass.

I understand that digitisation is expensive and the subscription model may recoup some of the costs, but it effectively restricts access to a limited and privileged audience.
Emily Marsden
Newcastle upon Tyne

• That the British Library is to digitise “extraordinary insights into many facets of human sexuality over three centuries” by making texts such as Merrylands and its topographic sexual metaphors available online is to undervalue the contribution of Eric Partridge to this academic field.

Published in 1947 at a prohibitively high cost of two guineas, no doubt to discourage prurient attention outside strictly literary circles, Shakespeare’s Bawdy delves deep into the colourful world of 16th- and 17th-century sexual proclivities so graphically depicted in the texts of the Bankside writer. Though even the great lexicographer draws the line at mention of the veiled description of his mistress by Malvolio in Twelfth Night II (v) 83/4 and substitutes the Latin et caetera for Mercutio’s altogether earthier Old English reference to poperin pears in Romeo and Juliet I (v) 38, though he does admit their resemblance to a scrotum.

And successive governments actually expected the youth of England to study Shakespeare in the classroom!
Austen Lynch
Garstang, Lancashire

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