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Joss Marsh. Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, andLiterature in Nineteenth -Century England. Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1998. xii + 431. $32.50 CAN (paper). In 1883 ChiefJustice Coleridge performed a sleight ofhand, criminalizedvulgarity even as he affirmed liberal tolerance: "I now lay it down as law, that, ifthe decencies ofcontroversy are observed, even the fundamentals ofreligion may be attackedwithout a person being guilty ofblasphemous libel" (qtd. in Marsh 3). Thus were years of legal evolution consolidated: thus was blasphemy transformed from impiety to class crime oflanguage, from offense to the Word to offensive words. In Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, andLiterature in Nineteenth-Century England, Joss Marsh uncovers the uses and meanings ofblasphemy for nineteenth-century English culture by asking how and why the landmark Freethinker case came to trial in 1883. Drawing on awealth ofarchival and manuscript sources, Marsh charts blasphemy's progress from the close ofthe Napoleonic wars to the climactic decision of 1883 and its aftermath. Marsh recovers the forgotten stories ofsome two hundred blasphemy "martyrs" (1 1). The trials ofpublisher and booksellerWilliam Hone, indicted for the 1817 publication ofpolitical parodies modeled on the catechism, creed and litany, inculpatedviolations ofborders erected between subliterary and "proper" literature, between the literary and the political, between scripture and fiction (25). The trial of printer-publisher Richard Carlile, charged with the 1819 republication ofThomas Paine's plain-speakingAge ofReason, linked foryears to come common English and insurgency, word crime and class crime, and inspired an army ofworking-class volunteers to risk incarceration to secure free publication (63). The trial ofelite publisher Edward Moxon, found guilty ofbut never sentenced for the republication of Shelley's atheistical QtieenMab, exposed the class bias ofblasphemy law, assured the future safe publication ofserious" heretical works, and may in part have impelled passage ofthe 1842 CopyrightAct (98). In separate chapters, Marsh set out thepolitical-cultural, literary and linguistic meanings ofthe 1883 blasphemy trial ofG.W. Foote, founder and editor ofthe penny newspaper the Freethinker. The V i c t o r i a ? R e ? i e w 1 22 reviews Freethinkerdecision and the single standard ofpublic discourse it imposed eased middle-class anxieties ofculturalvulgarization on the eve ofthe Third ReformAct, legislation that granted political voice to two million ofthe unemployed, the rough, the vagrant, the unrespectable": "The delicate mechanisms oflawwere readyto hand to check and silence the common man's Own words, Marsh suggests (128, 162). Foote's self-conducted defence, in which he read out indicted passages ofthe Freethinker—satirical articles, "Comic Bible Cartoons," thewhole ofthe 1882 Christmas number—alongside the writings ofprivileged agnostics—Arnold, Huxley, Swinburne et al.— conceded a new, secular arbiter ofcultural value: "the oppressed had consecrated the cultural authority ofthe dominant class; subliterature had confirmed the status, and the difference, ofLiterature," Marsh submits (202). Procedural anomaly and important philological events—publication ofthe RevisedVersion ofthe KingJames Bible, publication ofthe Oxfordßnglish Dictionary, the very "noontide ofthe ubiquitous euphemism," for example—combined to make ofthe Freethinker trial the sole conduit ofan 1880s linguistic crisis (218). "The Freethinkercase," Marsh concludes, "was . . . the defining trial, and a defining event, ofits decade" (17). In her final chapter, Marsh brings the century's blasphemous inheritance to bear on a single literary text:Jude the Obscure (1895). Her account ofthe pressures producing and penalizing blasphemy in 1883 restores the offensive context and censoring mechanisms that pronounced Hardy's last novel "dirt, drivel, and damnation," that moved outraged readers to conflagration, historical punishment ofthe heretic (qtd. in Marsh 1 1). According to Marsh, Hardy's novel plays variations on the illegal themes ofFoote's penny paper and reminisces on the martyrdom ofone "obscure" blasphemer in particular. She discovers Jude's "most deeply repressed historical source": the 1857 conviction ofThomas Pooley, a Cornish well sinker sentenced to an outrageous twenty-one months' hard labour for holding blasphemous conversations and chalking blasphemous words on a clergyman's gate (279). Marsh proffers "circumstantial" yet cumulatively weighty proofs—Hardy's December 1892 dinner with Pooley's prosecuting counsel, for one—that this national scandal ofthe novelist's youth 123 volume 25nu?nber 2 "returned in memory to increasejude the Obscures burden ofclass feeling, refine its psychopathology ofbibliolatrous Christianity, and screw to screaming pitch its sense ofthe...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 122-124
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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