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.