UBC first university to house rare gay literature

UBC recently acquired two rare books through the efforts of a PhD candidate, an associate professor and a crowd-funding campaign.

The UBC Library Rare Books and Special Collections is thrilled to welcome in its stacks the renowned novels Teleny and its prequel, Des Grieux.

As the earliest pieces of English-language pornography to explicitly concern homosexuality, Teleny and Des Grieux offer the platform for scholars from various disciplinary backgrounds to explore the origins of literary representations of homosexuality. Both books were acquired through the crowd-funding efforts of PhD candidate Justin O’Hearn and Associate Professor Gregory Mackie, with an outpouring of support from the UBC Library and departments as wide-ranging as English, gender studies and history.

Teleny and Des Drieux, originally part of private erotic collection of Tony Fekete, were acquired through Christie’s auction house based in London, England. Upon hearing of the opportunity to obtain the books from the Christie’s, O’Hearn reached out to his supervisor Mackie as well as fellow faculty members and UBC Library personnel, including Katherine Kalsbeek, acting head for the UBC Library Rare Books & Special Collections.

O'Hearn engaged in a crowd-funding campaign to purchase the books, where he successfully received a sum amounting to $3,000 from backers. On Tuesday, November 18 O’Hearn, fellow faculty members and staff assembled in the Conference Room at the UBC Library to live-bid in the auction. In a relatively fast and energetic bidding war, UBC acquired Teleny and Des Grieux.

According to O’Hearn, who was responsible for spearheading the acquisition of the books, incorporating Teleny and Des Grieux as a complement to the Colbeck Collection “offers the opportunity for scholars from all disciplines to conduct exciting academic research on works of literature that have remained private for nearly 100 years.”

Given that the UBC Library is a public institution, the acquisition not only benefits students and faculty members; community members with an interest in the material and an identification card now also have the opportunity to study the texts first-hand.

For Mackie the acquisition of Teleny and Des Grieux in a tangible form is particularly significant.

“One of the things that people tend to think erroneously about literature is that all that matters are the words on the page. However, the book itself is another kind of narrative. Having the first edition will tell us things that we could not really know or would not have access to otherwise. For instance, the way that Teleny was produced and circulated is much more apparent if you are able to read the various codes that operate within the material book,” said Mackie.

Despite the speculated connection of the texts to Oscar Wilde, the link remains contested and open to debate.

“The story claims that Wilde dropped the original manuscript of Teleny, yet there is no evidence to support it,” said O'Hearn.

“The connection is a legend, really. The thing about Wilde is that he always generated these legends and mythologies, and it is another one of these Wilde mythologies that he secretly wrote this first homoerotic novel. However, in Teleny, it is very unlikely and utterly impossible for Des Grieux,” said Mackie.

Whether or not there is a connection to Wilde, the texts are still important, added Kalsbeek.

UBC is currently the only university in the world that houses these novels.

“With the Des Grieux, there is only three copies known to exist, and the two other copies are in private collections. Meanwhile, for Teleny, there are five copies known to exist, one at the British library, one here and the other copies are in private collections,” said Kalsbeek.

Already, there is a lot of excitement beyond the boundaries of UBC, as news of the books’ addition to the Rare Books and Special Collections are transmitted across the Vancouver region. SFU students will be coming in to see the material later this term and it is likely that the scholarly interest will continue to build as classes incorporate these texts into their syllabus.