1 March 2023 Susannah

To Bowdlerise

Bowlderised Statue of David

Thomas Bowdler (1754 – 1825) was a physician who, along with his sister, worked on an edition of Shakespeare’s plays that had removed from the texts anything racy, blasphemous, or which might offend or upset young readers and females. His name entered our language in the verb ‘to bowdlerise’. The Family Shakespeare was popular, but today Bowdler’s name has become something of a joke and to accuse someone of ‘bowdlerisation’ is no compliment!

But sadly, there are a lot of Bowdlers around today. They have started work on Roald Dahl, removing references to ugliness, obesity, small men (they are now ‘small people’), while the witches in one of his books are now said to be wearing wigs (although a note is added to assert that there is nothing wrong with wigs, just in case any cancer patients who have to wear wigs might feel offended). The novels of Georgette Heyer are also under scrutiny by ‘sensitivity readers’ (or should that be censor-tivity readers?). A Jewish moneylender will have to change religion (although Heyer was being historically accurate in portraying the moneylender as Jewish – it was one of the few jobs open to Jews), the enormously fat Sir Bonamy Ripple in False Colours who wears creaking corsets will have to undertake drastic dieting if he wants to remain in the book, while a gentleman who ties his cravat in the ‘Oriental’ style, might have to find a different style. ‘Oriental’ is a word defining geography, but it seems the ‘woke’ brigade want it removed in case any Asian readers are disturbed. (Does this mean we can no longer refer to Persian carpets?) In Sylvester, one of Heyer’s characters is described as a ‘half-wit’. In the Regency era, most villages sadly had an inhabitant who was intellectually disabled. If the term is changed to ‘a natural’, many readers will not understand the term, while those of us who do will still know that the man is a half-wit. ‘Intellectually disabled’ is not a phrase used in the early 19th century, so would be incorrect if used. The English language is so rich and colourful, but it is starting to look like much of its richness will be forbidden to us.

I’m sure Dahl and Heyer would never have given permission for such changes, but they are dead and Netflix has purchased the Dahl estate. Their books are classics, but also works of their time and both writers reflect accurately the ages in which they lived, set their novels, and wrote. If we ‘clean up’ their novels, we remove historical accuracy, damage the quality of the works, and bleach all the colour out of what they left for us to enjoy. Any reader finding him or herself offended by something in a novel is at liberty to put it down. Where is all this lunacy going to end? There are people out there who are going to find offense in something simply because they go looking for it – do we have to pander to them and endure many classic novels being damaged as a result? I personally find rugby an extremely offensive game – does that mean that all references to rugby should be removed in case I am offended? No, it does not! For a start, I’d then be without that brilliant bit in P.G. Wodehouse’s Very Good, Jeeves! where Tuppy Glossop finds himself on a rugby field with disastrous results. If Atheists are going to be offended by religious references or Biblical characters, and Christians are going to be offended by atheist comments, how is that dilemma to be resolved? It’s an absolute minefield and it makes me wonder what sort of mad age we live in!

I will refuse to buy any copy of any novel that has been changed for ‘sensitivity’ reasons. I do so wish that the ‘Woke’ brigade would just go quietly to sleep!

What do you think about changing novels for ‘sensitivity’ reasons? Does it bother you as much as it does me? Tell me your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Featured image- Bowlderised Statue of David, https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/SelfDemonstrating/Bowdlerise
Body image- Advertisement for Thomas Bowdler’s edition of Shakespeare plays, printed in The Times, 10 August 1819, p.4. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61676274

Comments (32)

  1. Marjorie June

    Hi Susannah I agree with you 100% the world has gone mad. Interesting comment about the bible. The way things where is being denied.

    Marjorie June

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am finding most of my newsletter readers agree with me. Where will it all end???

  2. Melody Lord

    Please don’t join the campaign against the ‘woke brigade’ — this is a pejorative term bandied about by extreme right-wingers and it is beneath you to resort to such inflammatory language in arguing your point.

    Sensitivity is important; censorship (or change) is occasionally warranted but often carried to lengths beyond what is needed.

    Jumping onto the ‘anti-woke’ bandwagon is not the way to move forward with this necessary debate, and I hope you will jump off it quickly.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am not an extreme right-winger and nor, I suspect, are the many people who have agreed with me on this issue of censorship. If I used inflammatory language, it is because I feel very strongly that such censorship of classic books is very wrong and I feel it will lead to even further censorship – of art, debates, plays and much more. I am sorry you don’t agree, but I do feel very strongly on this issue and therefore felt justified about using the language I did use.

  3. Pat Kyle

    I also find this censorship appalling. This whole idea of being offended, offends me. It is in the disagreements that we grow and learn. Who believes having everyone think the same would be a good thing? Not to mention totally boring!

    I heard about Roald Dahl, and the “Classic” editions also being offered. Heyer, however, was new to me. I have loved her books for decades and learned a great deal of social history from them. Why peak into another time and world thru reading if it is going to sound the same as our world?

    And I’m with you in manning the barricades if they touch Austen!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am furious about Heyer being changed – her novels are historical, and so accurate in their detail. If you live in Sydney, do watch out for the Heyer conference planned for later this year. Many of the talks will probably be recorded, so you can also get access to those, if you live out of Sydney.

  4. Miland Joshi

    I believe that Dr Thomas Bowdler meant well, but I agree that changing books (especially against the author’s wishes) by removing un-PC material is a distortion of history. But what to do about books written for children that contain it? Perhaps by education in schools about authors of literary classics being people of their times. Inclusion in school libraries could be a potentially a tricky problem, but I suspect that children prefer books written by people of their own generation, so books in frequent and voluntary use are liable to be PC (for their generation) anyway.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Over the generations, children have learned to separate history from their world of today. When they read classic novels, they accept that things were different back then. If we go changing details, they lose that sense of difference. Notes can be added to a text, explaining that things have changed and some words can now be offensive, but the text should not, in my view, be changed, unless the author is alive and wants to make changes himself.

  5. Cliff Reece

    Well, I think we’ve covered that topic pretty well Susannah…..so let’s move on to your comment about rugby – the “game of the gods” …. what is there not to like? 😉

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Sorry Cliff, we might have to agree to disagree on that one. I call it Thugby! Can’t bear to watch it and hate its violence. However, I will NOT call for a ban on any mentions of rugby in books!

  6. Peter Windeyer

    Hi Susannah
    I totally agree with your thoughts.
    My youngest daughter would not read until she was about 12 years old. It was Roald Dahl that captured her imagination. She devoured his books! She went on to tertiary education and has three university degrees. She is now in her 40’s and has been a head teacher for the last five years and her students love her and the inspiration she imparts for love of learning. Authors are an inspiration. Do not tamper with their work for the sake of political correctness.
    How about making the Bible politically correct. The Old Testament has some horror stories in it and what about all the begetting that goes on!!? Imagine the outcry of the Churches!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh no, we definitely couldn’t have all that begetting. And what about crucifiction? Far too violent and upsetting for the sensitive. And as for marriage with underage girls, stoning people, and all the other acts of violence, they would all have to go! In fact, one rather wonders what will be actually left in some of these classic books, once the Woke brigade has got to work??

  7. Patricia Ball

    You have said it all,Susannah!
    Thank you for such stimulating Firsts of the Month. THANK YOU.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      My pleasure, Patricia. I am glad you enjoy my newsletters and agree with the views I expressed forcefully this month.

  8. Professor Chris Browne

    Hi Susannah

    I completely agree with your sentiments and the comments you have received here. I am astonished at the changes to Dahl’s texts, sanctioned by the current copyright holders, as Dahl left explicit instructions before his death that “not one word” of his books should be altered and then re-published after his death. To tamper with Heyer’s immaculately crafted, historically accurate writing is also insanity.

    Even alterations in texts during an authors lifetime are a problem and leave us with dilemmas. The classic case is “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde. It was first published as a novella in Lippincott’s magazine in 1890, with 500 words removed by the commissioning editor J M Stoddart, without Wilde’s knowledge. An expanded form was published by Ward Lock one year later with extra chapters but also further cuts to some of the original text, made by Wilde, made under pressure from the critic Walter Pater.

    The original manuscript of the novella was located in 2011, and only then was an uncensored version of the novella published. No such version of the full text has yet appeared. All of these issues of censorship were due to the homo-erotic allusions in the original text. I would contend that any censorship of an author’s words due to societal pressure and differences in moral values should be resisted at all costs.

    I note that the James Bond books are now having any racist comments removed. Perhaps if all sexist and violent passages were to be removed as well, the books could be republished cheaply as brief pamphlets. The world has indeed gone mad.

    Best wishes

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s really interesting that Dahl left explicit instructions about changes to his works. All these changes are so crazy, and one has to wonder where they will end. Will art depicting the rape of women, or violent crucifixions, or underage marriages, or black servants, all have to go? As you say, there won’t be much left of James Bond once the woke brigade gets started on it.

  9. Jennifer Lord

    Yes Susannah, what a load of codswallop to change original texts! These books were very much of their time – but also a wonderful window into society, history, life, opinions, health and so much more. If we change the original texts, how will younger people and readers in the future gain a rich understanding and appreciation of previous generations. They’re a fantastic educational opportunity for discussion, debate etc.

    Sensitivity? Oh please people, grow up and learn to enjoy the bus ride and stop worrying about whether it’s going to crash.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I fully agree – books should be used for history lessons and discussion and debate, and should not be changed and sanitised.Life is too short to spend time on such things.

  10. John

    I too am certainly concerned by it, and I too wholeheartedly agree that it has been overdone badly too often. However, I think there are exceptional times when it should be done, and occasionally, when authors such as Ian Fleming have been alive, they have agreed to it.

    The original form in which books have appeared has been subject to editors who have insisted upon the removal of words that were offensive at the time. And times change. In particular, some authors casually wrote anti-semitic comments before the Holocaust, with no conception that the Holocaust could ever occur. I think some such authors would probably be relieved now if their comments were deleted or rephrased, having been horrified by the Holocaust.

    Overall, my view on this is related to my view on censorship: I do not want much of it, but I do see a place for it, and I think the critical point is to try to find someone who will only do it with sensitivity to the original book and its historic context.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I feel that if the author is still alive to change his or her own texts, then that is fine. But tampering with texts after the author has died. I can see that perhaps if something is incredibly blatantly offensive, racist or anti-semitic, perhaps altering a word can be done, but isn’t it better to add a note to the text, explaining that while such a word is offensive today, it was not considered that way when the book was written?

  11. Beverley Earnshaw

    Just wait until they start on the Bible — or perhaps they haven’t read that one.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s the problem – where will it all end? Logically, you can find something to offend someone in virtually everything, so where to draw a line? The Bible could well be next!

  12. Ruth Wilson

    Yes, Susannah, I agree that the current trend to diversity has developed a rhetoric that has been adopted and adapted in ways that are intellectually fraught with confusion. A case in point, I believe, is the controversy surrounding the Adelaide Writers Festival that opens with a splendid array of writers this week. Among them are two writers whose language on social media is blatantly racist. Should they have been canceled? Or does the principle of free speech apply to forms of hate speech as well? I wonder what you think.

  13. Vanessa Coldwell

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. The latest news is that the publisher is now going to still publish the unaltered books – now called the classics – alongside an altered collection. That didn’t take very long, did it! They caved in after less than a week.

  14. Cliff Reece

    I totally agree Susannah – the world is going mad. Woke people are causing so much anger and anxiety, which of course is what they aim to do. First break down society then replace it with socialist/Marxist ideology. ‘Normal’ people need to stand up and oppose them at every opportunity.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      There are so many things that really need fixing or deleting in our sociaety – war, famine, illiteracy, for starters – that I wish the Woke brigade would concerntrate on fixing those issues, instead of changing words in marvellous books.

  15. Fiona Shaw

    The irony is that the adults now screaming for Dahl, Blyton et cetera to to be changed are the ones who grew up reading them! Do we alter paintings because they depict nudity or extreme violence? If they touch Tolkien I swear it will be the end of the world as we know it! Educate children by discussing the texts with them, not by changing the texts. It’s a very short step from editing to banning.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      If they ever dare to touch a word of Jane Austen, I’ll be at the barricades! I agree that it is a very short step from editing to banning, and American schools and libraries are currently banning Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird because they use the N word. Don’t they see that both novels have a strong anti-racism message??? It’s all so awful and frustrating.

  16. Karen camer

    Original tests should never be tampered with . I have an old copy of Struelpeter which I adored as a child I was also a bit scared too. I was mortified to find that sadly this book has been tampered with by the woke brigade. I did see one of the newer versions. It’s terrible and loses all if it’s gruesomeness

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I also still have a copy of Struwelpeter, and my kids loved it. I can still recite lines from Augustus who would not eat his soup, and the picture of the Red-legged scissor man was really scary, but I loved it!
      I didn’t know they had done a ‘woke’ version of it, but will refuse ever to purchase that one.

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