How literary censorship inspired creativity in Victorian writers

Forbidden Books.
Alexander Mark Rossi

Stephanie Meek, University of Reading

In an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine, 152 writers, including JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood, claim that a climate of “censoriousness” is pervading liberal culture, the latest contribution to an ongoing debate about freedom of speech online.

As we grapple with this issue in a society where social media allows us all to share extreme views, the Victorian writers offer a precedent for thinking differently about language and how we use it to get our point across. How limits of acceptability and literary censorship, for the Victorians, inspired creative ways of writing that foregrounded sensitivity and demanded thoughtfulness.

Not causing offence

There are very few cases of books being banned in the Victorian era. But books were censored or refused because of moral prudishness, and publishers often objected to attacks on the upper classes – their book-buying audience. Writer and poet Thomas Hardy’s first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was never published because the publisher Alexander Macmillan felt that his portrayal of the upper classes was “wholly dark – not a ray of light visible to relieve the darkness”.

Charles Edward Mudie.
Mudie family archive/Ruth Tillyard

However, more common than publishers turning down books was the refusal of circulating libraries to distribute them. These institutions were an integral part of literary consumerism during the Victorian period as the main means of distributing books.

Most influential of these was Charles Mudie’s Select Library, established in 1842. Mudie’s library was select because he would only circulate books that were suitable for middle-class parents to read aloud to their daughters without causing embarrassment.

This shaped how publishers commissioned and what writers could get away with. Victorian literary censorship, while limiting, managed to inspire writers to develop more creative and progressive ways to get their points across.

Censorship as productive

George Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood, criticised her work for showing people as they really were rather than giving an idealistic picture. He was particularly uncomfortable when Eliot focused on the difficulties of working-class life.

In Mr Gilfil’s Love Story(1857), Eliot’s description of the orphan girl, Caterina, being subjected to “soap-and-water” raised Blackwood’s censorious hackles:

I do not recollect of any passage that moved my critical censorship unless it might be the allusion to dirt in common with your heroine.

George Eliot.
National Gallery/Wikimedia

As well as dirt, alcohol consumption was also seen as an unwanted reminder of working class problems. Again in Mr Gifil’s Love Story, Eliot describes how the eponymous clergyman enjoys “an occasional sip of gin-and-water”.

However, knowing Blackwood’s views and anticipating she may cause offence galvanised Eliot to state her case directly to the reader within the text itself. She qualifies her unromantic depiction of Mr Gilfil with an address to her “lady” readers:

Here I am aware that I have run the risk of alienating all my refined lady readers, and utterly annihilating any curiosity they may have felt to know the details of Mr Gilfil’s love-story … let me assure you that Mr Gilfil’s potations of gin-and-water were quite moderate. His nose was not rubicund; on the contrary, his white hair hung around a pale and venerable face. He drank it chiefly, I believe, because it was cheap; and here I find myself alighting on another of the Vicar’s weaknesses, which, if I cared to paint a flattering portrait rather than a faithful one, I might have chosen to suppress.

Here, literary censorship enriches Eliot’s writing. Eliot’s refusal to suppress her work becomes part of the story and reinforces her agenda to portray Mr Gilfil as he really is, a vicar who mixes gin with water because he is poor.

Power in not telling

As well as inspiring narrative additions, censorship was also powerful because of what was left out of a text.

One of Hardy’s most loved books, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, highlights the crimes of sexual harassment in the workplace and of rape. Because Hardy had to be careful about the way that he presented the sexual abuse of Tess, his descriptions were very subtle. This is how he portrays the scene where Tess is sexually assaulted by her employer, Alec D’Urberville:

The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt, and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

The influence of censorship meant that Hardy could not describe this scene in graphic detail. Instead, his depiction is more sensitive and thoughtful. Hardy does not dehumanise Tess by depicting her as a sexual object to entertain the reader.

By focusing on Tess’s “gentle regular breathing” and the poignant image of her tear-stained eyelashes, Hardy avoids gratuitous depictions of violence while at the same time making us painfully aware of the injustice she has suffered. This makes his portrayal of Tess more powerful and poignant. It can be argued that this was achieved because of the limits placed on his writing, not in spite of them.

In these instances, we can see how literary censorship influenced writers to tread more carefully upon difficult territory. It made them think about whether including violence or socially controversial depictions were necessary or gratuitous to their narratives.

For Hardy and Eliot, censorship and its limits inspired creativity, sensitivity and thoughtfulness. These examples can provide food for thought in the debate today about free speech and censorship. As Hardy and Eliot wrestled with as they wrote, can things be said differently and, in some cases, do they need to be said at all?The Conversation

Stephanie Meek, PhD Candidate in English Literature, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Expect sexism’: a gender politics expert reads Julia Gillard’s Women and Leadership

Jonathan Ernst/AAP

Blair Williams, Australian National University

Why are there so few women at the top levels of politics?
This question is at the centre of the new book, Women and Leadership, co-authored by Australia’s first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, and former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Using their personal experiences and interviews with an impressive group of eight women leaders – including Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, Jacinda Ardern and Christine Lagarde – Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala test various academic studies to see if their findings are reflected in reality.

Penguin Books Australia

Theses studies include media coverage of women’s leadership, as well as perceptions of women’s “power-seeking” and gender norms around leadership.

What results is both a sobering reminder that sexism isn’t going away anytime soon and an empowering message about women’s strength and resilience.

As an academic researching women’s political leadership, this book acts as a crucial point between scholarly studies and public debate. It also offers a fresh perspective of the many issues women in leadership face.

Here are four key messages:

1. The fashion police are everywhere

Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala find women leaders are heavily judged for their appearance. This was a problem faced by all leaders interviewed, despite their diverse experiences and locations.

However, there were still differences across the world. Clinton, a former US presidential candidate and secretary of state, was known for her pant suits – which she said helped her feel professional and “fit in”. But former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf noted how she “would have got some eyes as a woman wearing pant suits” and traditional dress worked best for her.

Hillary Clinton has said her pantsuits made her feel ‘ready to go’.
David Moir/AAP

There can also be power in clothing. For example, New Zealand’s Ardern was seen to show compassion, empathy and solidarity when she wore a hijab after the Christchurch terrorist attack. As Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala write,

it became a symbol of love in the face of hate. There was a transcendent power in appearance.

2. Prepare to be judged for your reproductive choices

The book also explores how women leaders are judged for their reproductive choices. While fatherhood increases perceptions of male leaders as affable, relatable and conventional, public motherhood is a far more problematic experience.

Read more:
How Julia Gillard forever changed Australian politics – especially for women

As the authors note, women leaders with young children are frequently asked, “who’s minding the kids?”

Seven hours after her election, Ardern was asked on national television about her plans for having children. When she had her daughter, there was intense media scrutiny about how she would juggle her leadership role and her baby. Yet male leaders, such as former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who welcome babies in office, are not questioned about who will be looking after them.

Jacinda Ardern has taken her daughter Neve to the UN General Assembly.
Carlo Allegri/ AAP

And what about women leaders who don’t have children? Gillard is intrigued by the respectful treatment of former British prime minister May’s childlessness, as she had a polar opposite experience in Australia (who could forget the frenzy sparked by her empty fruit bowl).

Gillard makes a thought-provoking point here about choice. May wanted, but was unable, to have children, while Gillard was deliberately child-free. Perhaps this was the cause of the criticism she faced. As Gillard writes,

in being seen to offend against female stereotypes, is there anything bigger than not becoming a mother by choice?

3. The situation is not getting better

The book makes the point that despite the focus on women in politics, the experience for those at the top is not necessarily improving.

As someone whose research found media reaction to May in 2016 was more gendered than for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, I wasn’t shocked to read this. However, it was still surprising to learn that Michelle Bachelet – Chile’s president from 2006-10 and 2014-18 – noticed things were worse in her second term.

Read more:
Women leaders and coronavirus: look beyond stereotypes to find the secret to their success

Initially assuming the pressure of gendered expectations had improved the second time around, Bachelet realised,

it was the same or worse. I think politics is getting more complicated these days and more vicious. There is less respect. It’s more personalised now.

All leaders interviewed said they were conscious of the difficulties of finding a balance in leadership style. If they were too strong or assertive, they could be seen as “cold”, “robotic” or “bitchy”.

4. ‘Be aware, not beware’

The experiences and advice of these eight high-profile women leaders reveal how sexism is par for the course.

This message is hammered home in the final chapter, in which Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala note “Be aware, not beware”. They argue that they want to inspire women to pursue politics and leadership roles, but glossing over the challenges would be dishonest and insulting.

Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala say women leaders should expect sexist commentary.
Lisi Niesner/AAP

Summarising the insights gleaned from previous chapters, Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala offer some stand-out lessons that will aid aspiring women leaders. These include:

  • expect sexism and sexist commentary relating to your appearance, family and leadership style and figure out early on how you will respond to this

  • support other women, whether through network-building, mentoring, role-modelling or general solidarity

  • persevere.

A reality check

Women and Leadership is, at times, a depressing reality check that feminism still has a long way to go. However, readers should not come away from this feeling hopeless or disheartened.

Rather, they can appreciate the respect the authors have given them by speaking plainly about the realities women leaders face.

Perhaps more consideration could have been given to the experiences of women in less senior positions. Do we need to hear from the success stories when we talk about the struggles of women in leadership, or could we perhaps also learn from those whose glass ceilings were just too thick?

Read more:
Fiction, fact and Hillary Clinton: an American politics expert reads Rodham

While this book might be less useful for women – and men – without leadership aspirations, its general analysis of gender stereotypes and double standards still makes it a worthwhile read.

This is also problem that women cannot fix alone. Men need to do their bit, by calling out sexism and supporting women. The media must also be more active in combating sexism and misogyny.

One enduring message of this book is that progress and equality are not linear.

Sexism doesn’t just one day magically disappear. Rather, it can only be dismantled through constant pressure and the actions of those who persevere.The Conversation

Blair Williams, Associate Lecturer, School of Political Science and International Relations, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.