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!