Towards the end of my first year at university, I discovered the library. It took a while to navigate, but after a week or two, I wandered into the Special Collections department, watched over – if memory is to be relied upon – by a woman of obvious authority. She explained that she guarded all the old and rare books but she agreed to let me look around.
The major find that day was a cookery book. It contained some basic recipes, the most memorable of which provided instructions for preparing pork, which ran as follows: ‘Take a Pigge. Smite off its head. Doe it in a faire Potte untill it be done.’ It was pretty old, that book, and magnificent in its way, though the smiting could give one pause.
The next discovery was an eighteenth-century collection of the poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. On our course we were studying Rochester, as published in the Muses Library edition, and while we were certainly impressed by the rage and ingenuity of his satires, most of us had fallen slightly in love with the limpid beauty of his lyrics – especially ‘Absent from thee I languish still’ and ‘All my past life is mine no more’. It was a little mysterious that this early collection should be kept under lock and key but, as I was briskly informed, this was an unexpurgated and obscene book, definitely not suitable for impressionable undergraduates. And, actually, would I go away now and only come back with written permission from my tutor? That is, if I really needed to return.
I was scared of my tutor, with reason, and decided to let the matter drop. However, curiosity piqued, I looked more closely at the little book of poems we had been set, and noticed odd remarks such as, ‘This poem has been excluded from the present edition at the request of the Publishers.’ Still, there was a lot going on at the time, and it was hard enough to keep up with the essays and the carousing demanded by student life. Rochester settled on the back burner.
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in