- British Modernism and Censorship
Celia Marshik’s British Modernism and Censorship is an excellent, well-researched book that takes a common fact about modernist literature—that much of it endured the threat or reality of censorship—and “makes it new” by establishing the ways that authorial self-censorship was a productive force in modernist literary composition. The point seems so obvious that one wonders—why didn’t I think of that? But mere observation is no substitute for the archival work through which Marshik contextualizes and brings to life the authorial choices Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Jean Rhys made in the face of social purity movements, peer censure, government censorship, and commercial neglect. British Modernism and Censorship is a very rich reading of a central thread of modernist literature and thought.
Central to Marshik’s argument is showing the historical continuity between Victorian purity and vigilance societies and those operating with as much force and social capital in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Though the significant shift over the decades from the 1860s to the 1900s is from self-censorship to government-enforced censorship, the climate of authorial self-censorship remains the same. Focusing on Rossetti’s dramatic monologue about a prostitute, “Jenny,” and his sonnet, “Nuptial Sleep,”1 Marshik traces Rossetti’s multi-decade process of revision from sensuality to proto-modernist self-reflexivity. Marshik makes it clear that much of Rossetti’s impetus to revise came not from a perfectionist’s impulse, as other critics have claimed, but from a concern about fashioning his poetry for an audience that would resist his sexualized subjects. He needed to negotiate the tricky terrain between a desire to write about taboo subjects and making them palatable for his audience. He can be seen everywhere managing not just his poetry but equally its reception.
Marshik calls the process of negotiating between public censorship and private authorship the censorship dialectic and demonstrates throughout her book the ways this censorship dialectic shaped modernism by inducing authors to create some of modernism’s trademark aesthetic qualities such as self-reflexivity, fragmentation, and indirection as well as to thematize censorship in their works. In particular, Shaw’s career as a playwright can be seen as being shaped directly through the censorship dialectic. His choices were, perhaps, more directly affected than the other figures the book features since all plays [End Page 615] had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing in advance of production. Any play that could undermine “good Manners, Decorum or . . . the Public Peace” could be denied a license (51), as Mrs. Warren’s Profession was in 1898.2 Shaw, like Rossetti, repositioned himself in relation to purity enforcers and his audience through a public critique of censorship. As other modernist figures would do, Shaw claimed the moral high ground by denouncing official censorship as “misguided or prurient” (59) while crediting his own work for challenging social values and appealing to a progressive, modern audience. This is a paradigmatic modernist triangulation between author, audience, and the “regressive” forces of authority (86).
Woolf is a less obvious subject for a study of censorship, and this makes Marshik’s chapter on the writer even more convincing because of the thematic and formal effects the climate of censorship produced. Marshik points out that as author and publisher, legally and financially responsible for a published book’s success, Woolf had to anticipate how much transgression authorities and audiences would accept before setting a prosecution in motion. Though Woolf made much of the fact that, after her first two novels, she was no longer beholden to the self-censoring impulses imposed by writing for an editor, Marshik points out that “[i]n publishing her own works, Woolf escaped editors but made her own sense of discretion all the more crucial: she, Leonard, and the Hogarth Press would suffer from an obscenity prosecution” (92). The readings of Woolf’s work in this chapter, contextualized by periodical-press debates about prostitution, women’s writing, the “white slave trade...