Madonna and Oscar Wilde have more in common than their status as icons of the LGBT+ community: they’re both authors of ‘obscene’ works. After 136 years of censorship, Oxford University is opening its restricted collection—one of the world’s largest—to the public in a historic exhibition.
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Though her pop star persona has somehow eclipsed her literary career, Madonna is the author of controversial coffee-table book Sex. The carefully curated collection of erotic and soft-core photos landed her a spot in the Oxford Bodleian Library’s restricted collection alongside author superstars D.H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde. Lawrence achieved lasting notoriety for his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the distinctly not soft-core tale of an unsatisfied paraplegic’s wife… and her trysts with the estate gardener. The novel was famously subject to an intense obscenity trial: the copy from the trial itself recently sold for a record-breaking $72,689.
Wilde never wrote anything so overtly sexual, but at one point, society deemed his work obscene. The Picture of Dorian Gray faced controversy for its homosexual elements. In Oscar Wilde’s own sodomy trial, accusers used his work as evidence to convict him. Wilde’s imprisonment (and his work’s original placement in the restricted collection) is yet another example of how society has historically conflated homosexuality with deviancy.
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Curator Jennifer Ingleheart acknowledges the censorship and misjudgments of the past, and she has created the exhibit to explore “how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.” The ideas Victorian librarians had about suitable reading material were, in a word, Victorian (read: prudish). These are the kinds of ideas that cause restricted sections. Somewhat unbelievably, Oxford University students (otherwise known as real adults) had until recently needed a tutor’s approval to access the collection. Starting on November 15, 2018, the Bodleian Library’s ‘obscene works’ will be available to the public for eight weeks.
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