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  • Prudes on the Prowl: Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day ed. by David Bradshaw, and Rachel Potter
  • Susan Mooney
BRADSHAW, DAVID, and RACHEL POTTER, eds. Prudes on the Prowl: Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day. Oxford University Press, 2013. 240 pp. £37.50; $80.00.

This cohesive collection of essays provides a sustained narrative of the permutations of censorship of literature dealing with sexuality and religion. The linked studies will fascinate specialists, students, and lay people alike for their deft historical detail, insights, and range of views on how literature has been censored in Great Britain since 1857 with the Obscene Publications Act of that year. David Bradshaw and Rachel Potter have expertly arranged nine near-perfect chapters by seven contributors on the topic, covering the history in chronological order primarily, as well as by topics. The editors inject a huge amount of content into a concise, comprehensive package. In fact, at times one misses more historical discussion and more detailed references to archival and other sources. But this is a small quibble. There is no other book like this in censorship studies, on censorship in Great Britain, or elsewhere, that explains the history while touching on some of the most salient cases in courts and in the media in such a lucid, nuanced way. This is the history of the book at its best. By comparison, to cite just a few works in the compendium of censorship studies, on censorship in France, there is Censures: De la Bible aux larmes d’Éros; Le livre et la censure en France (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, Bibliothèque publique d’information, 1987), which has a broader historical sweep and beautiful illustrations; and La censure en France à l’ère démocratique (1848-...): Histoire culturelle (ed. Pascal Ory, Bruxelles: Complexe, 1997), which more closely parallels Bradshaw and Potter’s volume in form, scope, and quality. Prudes does not aim for the theoretical preoccupations of Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation (ed. Robert C. Post, Santa Monica: Getty Foundation and Oxford UP, 1998), but it does trace a similar territory about how the forces of censorship help to create the very literature they would seek to suppress.

One of the best chapters is chapter 3, “Circulating Morals (1900-1915)” by Nicola Wilson, which deals with the extensive censorial influence of the British lending libraries. Often, in other write-ups of authors’ travails with censorship (such as Thomas Hardy), these libraries are mentioned fleetingly, but without truly clarifying what they did to prevent the publication of literature that offended their directorship and some of their customers. Here Wilson illuminates the situation as it unfolds in the early century, explaining the libraries’ repeated and deleterious (but at times productive) impact on the emergence of literature that would challenge readers’ concepts of how the world should be and how art can function as a conduit and place of inquiry and fascination. Also of note, chapter 5, “James Douglas: The Sanitary Inspector of Literature” by Bradshaw, shows how one individual had a pervasive impact on readers’ reception of literature [End Page 511] and challenged presuppositions about taste. The quotations from Douglas’s columns and other correspondence are amazing samples of the public (and not so public) discourse of censorship. In this way and many others, the editors and authors show how censorship is not merely shaped by a unitary law duly and repeatedly enforced. Rather, literature and censoring forces (the “prudes”) are revealed as rising to meet each other in a strange kind of tango that produces a long-lasting tension, and has both readers and writers contemplate how writing about sexuality can be connected politically with freedom and liberalism. Also welcome are considerations of how US literature and its censorship influence the British scene, and the changes and pressures leading up to the new Obscene Publications Act of 1959, such as the continuing influence of the press in drawing attention to contentious works and the role of English-language publishers located outside of Great Britain (such as Olympia Press in Paris) of authors Lawrence, Miller, Nabokov, and others. The book is enriched by accounts of numerous individual...


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pp. 511-512
Launched on MUSE
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