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Reviewed by:
  • British Modernism and Censorship
  • Adam Parkes
Celia Marshik . British Modernism and Censorship. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. xii + 257 pp.

"[W]e have only told half the story of the relationship between modernism and censorship," Celia Marshik argues in this lucid and engaging new study:

in the context of British modernism, censorship was repressive and also had productive effects. Individual texts were enhanced as a result of the threat of censorship, and this threat enables writers to construct public personae—such as that of martyr (as in the case of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) or enfant terrible (as in the case of James Joyce)—that exercise a strong hold on the imaginations of readers even today.


Some readers will baulk at Marshik's contention that some modern texts were "aesthetically improved" by their encounters with censorship (205), or, to put it another way, that censorship may be good for a writer's imaginative health—a familiar and romantic idea that's less interesting than it first appears. But there's no doubt that Marshik's book provides important new evidence to confirm that literary modernism was ineluctably and decisively shaped by what she calls a "censorship dialectic," which is "the ongoing negotiations between a writer and resistant audiences" (30). The effects of these negotiations, Marshik argues, included self-censorship, which often assumed the form of textual revision but also manifested itself in authorial attempts to control reception. Further, Marshik's original archival research suggests that previous scholarship has underestimated the extent to which the modern literary world was pervaded by censorship and by the "climate of 'fear and suspicion'" to which it gave rise. Consulting the archives of social purity organizations and government agencies, including much recently released material, Marshik convincingly demonstrates that we need to examine "the entire censorship apparatus instead of obscenity trials alone" if we are to appreciate the full range and power of the modern culture of censorship (205).

Bringing together these different sources enables Marshik to tell a compelling new story about the interplay between modern literary texts and censorious contexts. Looking back to Rossetti's skirmish with the moral censorship exerted by critics such as Robert Buchanan, Marshik moves from the censored plays of George Bernard Shaw to the fiction of Virginia Woolf, Joyce, and Jean Rhys in order to show how the censorship dialectic of literary modernism was closely intertwined [End Page 387] with anxieties about prostitution. These anxieties were brought to light in dramatic fashion in 1885, Marshik explains, when W. T. Stead published his famous exposé of the London prostitution business. But Stead's chronicles formed just one highly visible marker in a much wider discursive landscape where the forces of literary production and censorship intersected with social purity movements that "framed so-called obscene literature and prostitution as overlapping issues." Modern writers responded, Marshik argues, by employing the figure of the prostitute to blur the "boundary between vice and virtue upon which social purity and obscenity law relied" (3). Thus modernism promoted social and moral reform while satirizing the social purity movement, in which a rhetoric of moral earnestness frequently conflicted with dependence on lurid subject-matter. In forging such links with the prostitute, modernists also discovered a new means of positioning themselves at the margins of social and moral orthodoxy: the "whorrified" artist seemed to acquire the unrivaled prestige of the cultural outsider (157). This strategy proved especially useful to Joyce, Marshik argues, as he sought to place himself outside the social and moral mainstream as it was defined, not only in Britain, but also in Ireland, where censorship laws were unusually strict.

Marshik observes that such appropriation hardly occurred without cost or compromise. Although Joyce's characters often voice sympathy for the prostitute, they are just as likely to express the same conservative views as his moralizing critics and censors. In other words, Joyce's texts may reflect censorious attitudes even while satirizing them. As Marshik argues, it may be that such conservative impulses form "a necessary component of satire" (156). Ulysses, as Marshik puts it in a witty play on a well-known Joycean phrase, "is supersaturated with ideologies in which it expresses disbelief." Thus Joyce...


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pp. 387-390
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