'Too Much Succulence'

Mary Wellesley · Expurgate!

I recently heard a couple of stories about health and safety suggestions made by children’s book editors. They are often along the lines of ‘we’re concerned that the character is in danger here,’ but breast-feeding was also a no-no in a book for eight to twelve-year-olds.

The most famous editor as moral policeman is Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 produced his Family Shakspeare [sic]. He was from a long line of Shakespeare sanitisers. A copy of the Second Folio now in the Folger Library in Washington preserves the often frustrated expurgatory efforts of William Sankey (signing himself Guillermo Sanchez), a 17th-century English Jesuit; the edition came from the English College in Valladolid. The pages are covered with Sankey’s redactions. What I like best about the book is the total absence of Measure for Measure. I wonder how much of the play he crossed out before giving up and ripping the whole thing out.

Chaucer, too, suffered at the hands of editors who sought to impose their morality on his verse, especially after the Reformation, when he was co-opted as a proto-Protestant. A specious anti-clerical story called ‘The Plowman’s Tale’ was added to The Canterbury Tales and reprinted in various editions of Chaucer’s works throughout the 1540s and 1560s. John Foxe wrote in his 1570 Actes and Monuments that by reading Chaucer, people in a bygone age were ‘brought to the true knowledge of Religion’.

By the 19th century the concern was about sex as much as religion. Mowbray Morris, the editor of Macmillan’s Magazine, objected to Hardy’s frequent use of the word ‘succulent’ in Tess of the D’Urbervilles: ‘Perhaps I might say that the general impression left on me by reading your story... is one of rather too much succulence.’ Macmillan’s rejected the novel for its ‘immoral situations’. It was serialised in the Graphic magazine in 1891, but not until Hardy had substantially modified the text. He was asked to remove references to characters travelling on a Sunday and to rewrite the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids over a stream – one of the novel’s great moments of muted desire – so that he instead pushed her across in a wheelbarrow.


  • 28 June 2015 at 8:50pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    First, a historical question. Does Ms. Wellesley know whether or not any sanctimonious French editors (or institutions) attempted similar redactions of Rabelais’s work? Or Montaigne’s? Second, it seems that Shakespeare’s works (among many others) are still being assailed by sensitive souls who object to neither eroticism in general nor religious heterodoxy, but rather on the basis of violations of “political correctness”, especially in the current US high-school and college craze of warning students that certain passages of older writing may upset them or make them feel, in some sense, insecure (e.g., race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and gender would be the big areas of contention here). Some school systems just don’t offer such works on their syllabi (in order to avoid controversies with parents and school boards), while even local libraries remove them from circulation, presumably on the basis that our identities these days are so fragile (and important) that they might be further destabilized by descriptions of mores from different times and places. Being “made uncomfortable” is now grounds for this “soft censorship”. Thus, public and private institutions contribute to “dumbing down” and self-censorship, perhaps apt (App-‘d?) in the age of proliferating electronic gadgetry that allows its users to avoid anything that might offend them and even allows them to pretend that they know something about what’s going in the world because they can create their own “news” by selectively accessing sites of information that only reinforce their opinions and/or prejudices. Over here perhaps the most renowned of censors who objected to (and successfully suppressed) works on religious, political, and sexual-morality grounds was Anthony Comstock, whose personal reign of terror ended with his death in 1915 (though he still has many admirers). Succulence as a criterion of rejection is accompanied by blasphemy, frankness, scorn for religious ideas in general, and even historical accuracy in the presentation of the vast record of humanity’s past thoughts, words, and deeds. These fiascos are created by people on both sides of the political-cultural spectrum, as can be seen in the recent Charlie Hebdo fracas.

  • 30 June 2015 at 5:28pm
    gary morgan says:
    My own favourite, not least as I fear that it is still avoided in the U.S. A. in case it be deemed offensive, is that of a college professor who was arraigned for using the word 'niggardly." Not knowing what it meant, the student took offence at what s/he though it must mean and, if I remember correctly, the prof got into serious trouble and the word is now sedulously avoided.
    Is this still so? Are there other erroneous examples of misplaced offence-taking such as this?
    I remain unable to take seriously pubs that advertise something called a "ploughperson's lunch" though in mitigation I find 'humorous' references to Harriet Harperson irritating.
    While I'm here may I ask the entire population to refrain from using the word 'upcoming' since 'forthcoming' is already here and not so ghastly. And drop 'overly' since we already have 'over' which suffices. Thank you.

    • 3 July 2015 at 6:20pm
      MajorBarbara says: @ gary morgan
      As one who maintains birdfeeders in my yard, I am particularly irked by the purchase of 'Nyjer seed'. It seems it must be spelled phonetically, to avoid any possible accidental offence. The problem, though, goes beyond catering to ignorance (although that certainly is a problem); like the current move to banish the Confederate battle flag, not only from venues in which it actually is offensive (e.g., public buildings) but from historical contexts in which it is appropriate (e.g, Apple obliterating it from Civil War games), it is mistaking the symptom for the disease. Treating 'the N-word' and the Stars and Bars like Lord Voldemort who must not be named does not address the underlying problem of racism, much less eliminate it.If anything it gives those banned symbols and words more power. (Spike Lee understood this, I think, when he made 'Bamboozled', a brilliant movie which includes something to offend everyone.)
      An example of misplaced offence-taking in a different area: I watch cable TV, with closed captions on (though I can hear). The censorship of dialogue - even of reruns with words that were acceptable on network TV 20 to 40 years ago! - is astonishing. The Hallmark channel will not let Lt. Columbo say 'damn'; WE TV clips all kinds of words out of Law & Order, including 'ass' and 'crap'. Sometimes 'damn' and 'hell' vanish, too. The most amusing is a Fox movie channel in which the word 'cock' is censored regardless of context, so that when the bird announces dawn, 'the XXXX crowed' or a gunman 'XXXXs the trigger' of his pistol. In dialogue, lips flap in empty air. Sometimes the amount of dropped dialogue renders the show unwatchable, so much is missing; and sometimes the mind cannot help but supply a worse word than the one that was deleted, e.g., a female character is called a 'slut' or 'whore' but the listener fills the silence with a far more offensive word (one which actually does cross my line). Sometimes whoever's in control of the silencer and whoever's censoring the captions don't agree, which means a character is allowed to exclaim 'For Christ's sake!' while the caption reads 'For XXXXXX's sake!' or vice versa. Usually the captions are more heavily censored - I suppose they presume the hard-of-hearing have more tender sensibilities, or are more likely to be very 'conservative', or are on the level of small children who must be protected from the harshness of reality. (Wheelchair users, who get to expect if not accept the phenomenon of waiters etc. talking to the standing companion about them - 'what would she like to eat?' - will recognize the condescension.)

  • 3 July 2015 at 6:03pm
    MajorBarbara says:
    Most of the censorship now is political correctness, not sexual suggestiveness; though the two overlap when the cry of 'rape culture' etc. goes up.

  • 3 July 2015 at 8:15pm
    gary morgan says:
    One example of where political correctness's fine intentions lead can be found when Jesse Jackson met Nelson Mandela on the latter's visit to the U.S.A.. Only fractionally nonplussed, the Reverend introduced Mandela as "the Greatest African American in the world."
    Evidently absurdity is more acceptable than the presumed insult of being denoted Black.

    • 4 July 2015 at 5:15pm
      MajorBarbara says: @ gary morgan
      Perhaps Jackson just assumed any prominent black man must be an American. And that it would be a compliment to Mandela. It's our exceptionalism at work. However, you are right that 'black' has apparently joined 'Jew' as a presumed insult, though it isn't really.
      I recall not so long ago when 'black' or, capped, 'Black', was the designation not only preferred but mandatory. When I was very young, if you called someone with comparatively dark skin 'black' he might well haul off and sock you. The proper designation was 'coloured' man or woman, or 'Negro'. In the 1960s, 'African-American' (with or without the hyphen, and sometimes 'Afro-American') or 'black/Black' was considered correct. God help you if you slipped and said 'coloured'. 'Person of colour' is apparently correct. (Which brings to mind a joke from the old TV series Sanford and Son, in which a cop asks the elder Sanford (Redd Foxx) whether the men who mugged him were coloured. 'Yeah, they was coloured,' he snaps, 'they was coloured white'.
      All these linguistic distinctions are mere shibboleths enabling a certain subset of people to cry 'gotcha', claim an unearned moral high ground, and shut off any kind of honest debate about the real issues of race, class, sex, and the many kinds of invidious distinctions and prejudices all of us (yes, all of us) harbour. (I believe it is in Carol Tavris's book 'Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me', that you'll find an account of a visit to the Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. To enter the museum proper, one must pass through one of two doors, labeled 'prejudiced' and 'unprejudiced'. To make the obvious point: the second one is locked. On her visit, the author observed a group of four Orthodox Jews angrily pounding on the 'unprejudiced' door, demanding to be let in through it.)

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