‘Smutty stuff’ for ‘debauched readers’: The Merryland books in the Private Case
The Private Case is an historic collection of erotica that was segregated from the main British (Museum) Library collection on grounds of obscenity from the 1850s onwards in a moral climate of suppression and censorship. Newly acquired erotica was restricted and ‘obscene’ books already in the Library’s collections were transferred into the Private Case. These included a small but distinct sub-genre of Georgian erotica known as the Merryland books, in which the female body is described as a country to be explored, tilled and ploughed by men. One particular tract volume (P.C.20.b.7) has copies of the key works in this sub-genre: A New Description of Merryland (1741), The Potent Ally or Succours from Merryland (1741) and Merryland Displayed: or, Plagiarism, Ignorance and Impudence, Detected (1741).
These works are full of sexual double-entendres and terrible puns intended to be as humorous that make you want to put your head in your hands. A New Description of Merryland originally belonged to Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753); it was part of the Library’s main collection for a century before the Victorians deemed it obscene enough for transfer into the Private Case.
The inspiration behind Merryland was an earlier work entitled Erotopolis: The Present State of Betty-land (1684) by Charles Cotton, an English poet and writer. It satirised the New World promotional tracts flying around in the 17th century, transforming their messages about land ownership into sexualised puns. The female body became fallow land subject to ‘manuring’ and ‘tilling’ with a phallic ‘plow’. There are two copies of Betty-Land in the Private Case (P.C.30.b.41 and P.C.27.b.37). In both, particularly suggestive passages have been underlined, including ‘the more will the soyl cleave and gape for moisture’, ‘rank and very hot’ and ‘the whole country of Betty-land shews you a very fair prospect, which is yet the more delightful the more naked it lies’. Saucy, indeed.
The bookseller and publisher behind Merryland was Edmund Curll (c.1675-1747). He was notorious for selling pirated editions, inaccurate celebrity biographies, pornography and patent medicine (he sold mercury as a cure for syphilis). Curll made his living from selling this cheaply printed material that was affordable for the masses. He was evidently successful; the Merryland books, all with a false ‘Paris’ or ‘Bath’ imprint, went through several editions. The introduction to Merryland Displayed gives us further insight into their popularity. They were apparently ‘a master-piece of wit and humour’ and in such high demand that ‘in about three months [they] went thro’ seven editions, besides some thousands of pirated copies that were sold in town and country’. It even encouraged other booksellers to dredge up similar ‘smutty stuff’ from their stocks to ‘scratch the callous appetites of their debauched readers’.
The Merryland books demonstrate how attitudes towards sexuality, censorship and obscenity have changed over time, and how books have moved in and out of the Private Case as a result. All of this, and more, can be explored by researchers in our Rare Books & Music Reading Room or online. We have digitised the 2,500 volumes that comprise the Private Case, and they are being made available online by publisher Gale as part of their Archives of Sexuality and Gender academic research resource. The resource is available by subscription to libraries and higher education institutions, and is available for free via the British Library’s reading rooms in London and Yorkshire.
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections