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.

Literary magazines are often the first place new authors are published. We can’t lose them



Blair Fraser/Unsplash

Alexandra Dane, University of Melbourne

Australia’s literary journals are produced in a fragile ecosystem propped up by a patchwork of volunteer labour, generous patrons and, with any luck, a small slice of government funding.

The Sydney Review of Books, the Australian Book Review and Overland were among a group of publications who sought four-year funding from the Australia Council in 2020 but were unsuccessful.

These publications join the ranks of many others – among them Meanjin and Island – defunded by state or federal arts funding bodies in recent years.




Read more:
The Meanjin funding cuts: a graceless coup?


These magazines are vital for today’s publishing industry. For many authors literary magazines provide the first opportunity for publication. For editors and arts administrators, they provide a training ground for life-long careers in Australia’s creative sector.

The past decade has seen a steady decline in arts funding going to individuals and organisations. According to Chairman of the Copyright Agency and former media executive, Kim Williams, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald:

[…] if funding for literature had been maintained as in the mid-70s, considering inflation and population growth, it should be at $12 million, at least. Today, it stands at just $5 million (compared with $4.2 million 30 years ago).

The list of defunded writing-focused organisations in the most recent multi-year funding round is stark. Those losing their multi-year status include Artlink, Eyeline, Art Monthly, the Australian Script Centre, Playwriting Australia, Sydney Writer’s Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival.

Without securing medium-term support, these organisations face an uncertain future.

Vital discourse

In response to the 2020 funding announcement, editor of Australian Book Review, Peter Rose, stated the decision demonstrates

little understanding of [the magazine sector’s] contribution to the literary ecology, and no appreciation of the dire consequences for readers, authors, contributors and publishers.

The cultural discussions within the pages of literary journals set the agenda for the more higher-profile but slower-moving institutions such as publishers, prizes and festivals.

Literary magazines are often the first place authors are published. Against the backdrop of an industry largely staffed by white, middle-class people, small magazines are at the forefront of bringing more Australian writing to the surface from writers of colour, First Nations writers, disabled writers, trans writers and working-class writers, challenging those who hold power at the top of the sector.




Read more:
Express Media is unique and young people need it


Writing in 2015 about the position magazines such as Island or Overland occupy, Emmett Stinson noted these publications:

[…] are essential to contemporary literary culture: they showcase new and emerging writers; […] offer more extended literary debates and discussions than the broadsheets; comprise a venue for journalism that contains views outside of the liberal mainstream; serve as rallying points for different communities of readers and coteries of authors […]

Ben Etherington’s essay about the parallel lives and deaths of Mudrooroo and Les Murray, Cher Tan’s exposition and critique of taste production on the internet, and Blak Brow – which was written, edited, illustrated, curated and performed by First Nations creators – are among countless examples of the ways literary magazines carve out space for critique, expression, consideration and reflection.

In shifting funding away from small magazines, we lose the place for these discussions.

Not a competition

Uncertainty, instability and fragility are perhaps the defining characteristics of small magazines.

The decisions to not fund literary magazines not only have a significant impact on the individual publications, but also to Australian cultural discourse.

What gets published within the pages of these magazines can entertain us, it can inspire us to critically examine the world around us, and can help us understand culture that moves us.

Vibrant discussion about culture, society and the arts does not happen by accident. It must be carefully nurtured and requires financial support.

The Australia Council make extremely difficult decisions about what gets funded and what doesn’t.

Not every organisation and publication and festival can receive funding. Those who don’t secure funding are no more or less worthy than those who do. Reduced financial support for Australia’s creative endeavours encourages artists to turn against one another in judgement of what should and should not receive funding.

Australian artists entertain us, challenge us and allow us to see things from different perspectives. Fulfilling a capitalist desire for competition, however, only distracts from the importance of Australian artists and the contribution the creative sector makes to our lives.


Correction: a reference to the Wheeler Centre has been removed as they did not apply for funding in 2020.The Conversation

Alexandra Dane, Lecturer, University of Melbourne

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

Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history



The Banquet in the Pine Forest, one of a number of pictures derived from tales in Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Sandro Botticelli

Chelsea Haith, University of Oxford

From Homer’s Iliad and Boccaccio’s Decameron to Stephen King’s The Stand and Ling Ma’s Severance, stories about pandemics have – over the history of Western literature such as it is – offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises.

Literature has a vital role to play in framing our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is worth turning to some of these texts to better understand our reactions and how we might mitigate racism, xenophobia and ableism (discrimination against anyone with disabilities) in the narratives that surround the spread of this coronavirus.

Ranging from the classics to contemporary novels, this reading list of pandemic literature offers something in the way of an uncertain comfort, and a guide for what happens next.

Homer’s Iliad, as the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard has reminded us, opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy to punish the Greeks for Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis. US academic Daniel R Blickman has argued that the drama of Agamemnon and Achilles’ quarrel “should not blind us to the role of the plague in setting the tone for what follows, nor, more importantly, in providing an ethical pattern which lies near the heart of the story”. In other words, The Iliad presents a narrative framing device of disaster that results from ill-judged behaviour on the part of all of the characters involved.

Western literature begins with a plague: the Iliad.
Wikimedia Commons

COVID-19 is certain to shake up economic systems and entrenched institutional processes, as we’re seeing with the shift towards remote learning in universities around the world, to give just one example. These texts give us an opportunity to think through how similar crises have been managed previously, as well as ideas about how we might structure our societies more equitably in their aftermath.

The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, set during the Black Death, reveals the vital role of storytelling in a time of disaster. Ten people self-isolate in a villa outside Florence for two weeks during the Black Death. In the course of their isolation, the characters take turns to tell stories of morality, love, sexual politics, trade and power.

In this collection of novellas, storytelling functions as a method of discussing social structures and interaction during the earliest days of the Renaissance. The stories offer the listeners (and Boccaccio’s readers) ways through which to restructure their “normal” everyday lives, which have been suspended due to the epidemic.

Authority’s failure to respond

The normality of everyday life is also the focus of Mary Shelley’s apocalypse novel The Last Man (1826). Set in a futuristic Britain between the years 2070 and 2100, the novel – which was made into a movie in 2008 – details the life of Lionel Verney, who becomes the “last man” following a devastating global plague.

Shelley’s novel dwells on the value of friendship, and concludes with Verney accompanied on his wanderings by a sheep dog (a reminder that pets may be a source of comfort and stability in times of crisis). The novel is particularly scathing on the topic of institutional responses to the plague. It satirises revolutionary utopianism and the in-fighting that breaks out among surviving groups, before these also succumb.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842) also depicts the failures of authority figures to adequately and humanely respond to such a disaster. The Red Death causes fatal bleeding from the pores. In response, Prince Prospero gathers a thousand courtiers into a secluded but luxurious abbey, welds the gates closed and hosts a masked ball:

The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.

Poe details the sumptuous festivities, concluding with the incorporeal arrival of the Red Death as a human-like guest at the ball. The plague personified takes the prince’s life and then those of his courtiers:

And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.

Modern and contemporary literature

In the 20th century, Albert Camus’ The Plague (1942) and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) brought readers’ attentions to the social implications of plague-like pandemics – particularly isolation and failures of the state to either contain the disease or moderate the ensuing panic. The self-isolation in Camus’ novel creates an anxious awareness of the value of human contact and relationships in the citizens of the plague-stricken Algerian city of Oran:

This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares; we were unable to react against the mute appeal of presences, still so near and already so far, which haunted us daylong.

In King’s The Stand, a bioengineered superflu named “Project Blue” leaks out of an American military base. Pandemonium ensues. King recently stated on Twitter that COVID-19 is certainly not as serious as his fictional pandemic, urging the public to take reasonable precautions.

Similarly, in his 2016 novel Fever, South African author Deon Meyer details the apocalyptic fallout of a weaponised, bioengineered virus that results in enclaves of survivors besieging one another for resources.

In Severance (2018), Ling Ma provides a contemporary take on the zombie novel as the fictional “Shen Fever” renders people repetitive automatons until their deaths. In a thinly veiled metaphor for the capitalist cog-in-the-machine, the protagonist Candace drifts daily in to her place of work in a future New York that is slowly falling apart. She eventually joins a survival group, assimilating culturally and morally to their violent attitudes towards the zombies, “embodying the atomisation of late-capitalist humans in a society stripped to its bones”, as reviewer Jiayang Fang suggests.

For some the end has already come

Consider also that “indigenous futurisms” – a term coined by First Nations cultural and race studies theorist Grace L Dillon to refer to speculative fictions by indigenous peoples and writers of colour such as NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius, and Carmen Maria Machado’s short story Inventory – have long since treated colonialism and the diseases spread by the colonisers as the source of what is currently experienced as an ongoing apocalypse. For many people in formerly colonised places, the apocalypse has already come – pandemics (both literal and metaphorical) have already obliterated their populations.

The catharsis that some of the above-mentioned texts may offer is troubled by the realities of pandemic and apocalypse conditions depicted in much fiction by indigenous peoples. If we used our own likely forthcoming periods of self-isolation to theorise alternative social structures, to tell one another stories about how we live, what stories might we tell?The Conversation

Chelsea Haith, DPhil Candidate in Contemporary English Literature, University of Oxford

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

Imperfect and absurd, the modern literary heroine is a woman of our times



File 20190307 82684 qxgya4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Unapologetically experimental yet utterly captivating, this new type of heroine has become a reader favourite.
JL-Pfeifer/Shutterstock

Sally O’Reilly, The Open University

The way women are portrayed is changing. In film, The Favourite has won numerous awards and features three women, variously wild and untameable, as joint protagonists. Other movies such as The Wife and Can You Ever Forgive Me? show older or unlovely women as sympathetic leads. Brava! But what’s happening in fiction? What are readers looking for in their modern, made-up women?

In this period of widening gender equality, it seems the time is right for new portrayals of women in fiction. Readers are diverse, and want many different things, and various female “archetypes” have existed since storytelling began. Early tales included murderesses and proxy witches such as the Greek figure Medea and Grendel’s mother – who is nameless – from the Old English poem Beowulf.

There were deceiving femme fatales, such as the Sirens who lured sailors to shipwreck, tragic mistresses, including Dido and Cleopatra and poor, resourceful girls like Gretel in traditional fairy-tales.

These enduring archetypes have been customised and reimagined by each succeeding generation. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is full of worldly wisdom and Shakespeare presented women who were wily and devious like Portia and Lady Macbeth as well as tricked and deceived like Juliet and Desdemona.

Victorian heroines like George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke claimed their right to passion and equality – and in the 20th century female characters engaged with the world of work as well as matters of the heart, battling for self-determination. The eponymous heroine of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one example, setting out to impose her will on her impressionable students, though she is ultimately betrayed.

Unpredictable women

So where do we find ourselves now? One notable characteristic of the modern heroine is that her flaws are not only centre stage, they are celebrated. Jane Austen wondered if anyone but herself would like domineering Emma Woodhouse – but now every heroine worth her salt has as many vices as virtues. Women behaving badly fill the pages of books in every genre – from Katniss Everdene, the rebellious heroine of Suzannne Collins’ The Hunger Games to Frances Wray and Lilian Barber, the unlikely conspirators in Sarah Waters’ page-turning novel The Paying Guests.

There is also a recognition that female experience is as universal as male experience. The heroines of contemporary fiction reflect the rich diversity of female lives. Examples include Hortense Roberts, one of the main characters in Andrea Levy’s seminal novel Small Island who finds tenderness in her bleak new homeland, and Elizabeth Strout’s astonishing Olive Kitteridge, whose true complexity is revealed in a narrative that spans decades. Their everyday experiences are compelling and heartrending.

Genres are blending and heroines are complicated. They are morally ambiguous and their behaviour is unpredictable. The doomed mistress is fighting back and taking on the characteristics of the proxy witch. This is demonstrated by the typical heroine of the new crime sub-genre domestic noir which focuses on women’s experience and emotions in the home and workplace. She may find herself married to the modern equivalent of Bluebeard, but he is unlikely to get away with murder. This is exemplified in novels like Gone Girl – Amy Dunne outsmarts her husband and excels in trickery, cunningly creating mantraps while seeming to be the perfect wife.

Scarred, imperfect or absurd

Publishing’s latest passion is for redemptive, feel-good fiction, known as “up-lit”, and this also reinterprets existing tropes. Gail Honeyman’s lonely Eleanor Oliphant hits the vodka behind closed doors and attempts to conceal her dysfunctionality and traumatic childhood from the world, but is stronger and more able to grow than we first realise. One of the reasons for Eleanor’s wide appeal may be that she springs from a line of literary heroines – that of the spirited outsider.

Honeyman draws parallels between Eleanor and Jane Eyre, another abandoned child who finds her own path. Readers are engaged not only by Eleanor’s predicament, but by her determination to transcend disaster. Her most recent antecedent is Helen Fielding’s Chardonnay-swilling Bridget Jones, who is herself the direct descendant of Jane Austen’s best-loved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet.

Women who make their own rules are selling well in literary fiction too. In Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s young Bohemians Frances and Bobbi are brimming with anarchic attitude, sharing “a contempt for the cultish pursuit of male physical dominance” and luxuriating in “shallow misery”. They lead unapologetically experimental lives, creating ripples of sexual confusion.

Following the various cases of male bullying and sexual harassment that have hit the headlines, it seems that fictional heroines reflect a mood of noncompliance with the world that men have organised. The 21st-century heroine may be scarred, imperfect or absurd. True love may be on the cards, but so might illicit sex. And while she may change in the course of the narrative, revealing strengths and strategies that surprise us, conformity is optional. Here’s to the good/bad heroine, long may she remain unredeemed.The Conversation

Sally O’Reilly, Lecturer in Creative Writing, The Open University

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

Decolonising literary studies requires ditching finality and certainty



File 20190115 152986 qbpls7.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

Rodrigo S Coelho/Shutterstock

Peter D. McDonald, University of Oxford

Decolonising literary studies isn’t simply a matter of relieving the symptoms, substituting this author for that or setting up a new canon in place of the old. The challenge is to address the chronic underlying condition by thinking beyond the guiding assumptions and aspirations of any colonial-era curriculum.

To start with, this means ditching the ideas of language that were central to colonial linguistics. On that logic, for instance, the curriculum was thought to affirm one supposedly unitary, national language (let’s say French). Or at best, in the case of Comparative Literature, it affirmed two supposedly unitary, national languages (for example, French and English).

The reason? Language, it was assumed, is the expression of the national “character”, “genius” or “soul” – to put it in the most idealistic terms. Or it is the bearer of “the culture”. This was usually understood as the shared, often ancestral values, practices and forms of knowledge by which a people (or national community) sees itself and understands its place in the world.

This way of thinking informed the selection of great writers that gave the colonial-era literary curriculum its content. And it defined one of its core aims: to provide the means by which the nation could come to know and affirm itself as a community rooted in one language, one history, one culture and one state.

At home this was a quasi-theological exercise in self-knowledge – the talk was all about encountering the “national soul” through literature. Abroad it was a rather more worldly instrument of self-imposition – the export version of the curriculum serving to assert the sovereignty of the colonising culture and the primacy of its language, values and ways of knowing.

To design a decolonising curriculum, then, we need to start by abandoning the dubiously assured, dubiously otherworldly assumptions underpinning this legacy.

More secular

This means conceptualising language in more secular or earthy terms. Language as a river, say, the source of which is ultimately obscure, the mouth always somewhere further on. It’s a strange kind of river too. Many other major rivers, not just minor tributaries, constantly flow in and out of it. And no state or community (national or otherwise) can claim exclusive rights over it.

Push this rather benign, naturalising analogy too far, however, and you gloss over colonisation’s destructive effects. Backed most often by the state and its allies, some languages, after all, became vast, transcontinental canals – think of English or Spanish. And constructing these often caused others to dry up altogether – think of Aushiri or |Xam.

So what would a curriculum founded on this alternative idea of language look like?

For one thing, given its central premise – no language is the product of any one history or the property of any one community – this more secular conceptualisation would put pressure on the inherited disciplinary structures of the university itself. Think of all those separate departments of English, French, Spanish, etc. Yet it need not follow that they should fall. What has to go are the canal-building assumptions on which they were often founded, and the silo mentalities they still tend to foster.

Taking the more benign river perspective first, a decolonising curriculum would begin by encouraging students to uncover the many “foreign” languages within those they have chosen to study. This would reveal how translation, far from being an anomalous or specialist activity, is integral to the ordinary life of all languages.

In a similar spirit, it would make it possible for them to follow the shifting contours of linguistic geography, which seldom coincide with state boundaries. This would leave them free to trace the complex movement of languages through multiple speech communities and across all media.

The canal perspective would require other lines of enquiry. Here the curriculum would ask students to reflect critically on the legacies of colonial linguistics, the interconnected histories of standardisation and marginalisation, and the impact they had on the way all languages were understood in the past.

Beyond colonial-era silos

The river and canal perspectives inevitably raise different questions of ownership, multilingualism and translation. Yet both open up ways of thinking beyond theologically inspired, colonial-era silos. And both make it possible for a properly decolonising linguistics to emerge in which the interdependence of self- and other-knowledge is central.

Literary writing, too, would have a transformed status. Since a decolonising curriculum would treat linguistic inventiveness as an ordinary feature of language, like translation, it would have no need of the colonial-era’s sacralised canon of great writers.

Equally, it would not assume that writers all sign up to canal-building national traditions simply by default. Many may have in the past, and some may well continue to see themselves in similar terms today, but the presumption has lost all currency. How innovative writers relate to communities, whether national, sub-national or supranational, can now seldom be known in advance of actually reading their work.

A decolonising curriculum would therefore consider the multiple ways in which writers negotiate the linguistic, literary and cultural legacies of the colonial era. Some reject them, some indigenise them, some re-foreignise them, and others refuse all clear-cut options, choosing to work between languages and traditions instead.

Does this mean a decolonising literary curriculum is simply “world literature” by another name? Possibly, but only in the sense in which the Bangla poet-philosopher and Nobel Literature Prize-winner, Rabindranath Tagore, used the phrase over a century ago when he affirmed the promise of what he called বিশ্ব সাহিত্য (Vishva Sahitya). For Tagore, this was a call to decolonise knowledge and to reinvent the university. It was also a call to learn to think (and live) creatively amid the world’s turbulence without any craving for otherworldly certainty or finality.

It is a call worth heeding again.The Conversation

Peter D. McDonald, Professor of English and Related Literature, University of Oxford

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