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Joss Marsh, Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England.

Joss Marsh, Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England (U of Chicago P, 1998), 444 pp., $55.00 cloth, $22.50 paper.

The juiciest aspect of the history of censorship is not (of course) the banned literature, which is often strikingly dull. Far more intriguing are the censors themselves. Their powers of literary criticism can be (in a perverse way) remarkably penetrating, and their motives are never simple. Discerning their criteria for suppressing some authors and passing others is one of the most challenging questions of intellectual history. The answers can generate fascinating insights into the structure of a given culture, as in Robert Darnton's work on prerevolutionary France. Using methods and talents very similar to Darnton's, Joss Marsh herein explores the anthropology of Victorian blasphemy.

As I write, blasphemy is still a crime under British common law. It was successfully prosecuted as recently as 1977, when the editor of the Gay News was sentenced to nine months for publishing the fictitious homoerotic thoughts of a Roman soldier on the body of Christ. The issue erupted again with The Satanic Verses, though there was no question of legal action against Salman Rushdie: the law only bans offenses against the Church of England.

About 200 persons were prosecuted for blasphemy in the nineteenth century. Nearly all of them, not accidentally, were working-class. The respectable agnosticism of T.H. Huxley and Leslie Stephen was tolerated, but G.W. Foote, editor of the Freethinker, was sentenced to a year of hard labor in Holloway Gaol. Foote's crime consisted of publishing "Comic Bible" cartoons that reduced Scripture to a series of coarse lampoons. "I shall take away my hand, and thou shalt sec my back parts" (Exodus 23.23) was illustrated by a sketch of the divine backside, clad in patched trousers. "If the decencies of controversy are observed," ruled Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, "even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without a person being guilty of blasphemous libel" (p. 3). It was that qualifying phrase that damned Foote, as Marsh notes: "It criminalized vulgarity, especially Cockney vulgarity" (p. 8). The Higher Criticism was one thing: the "lower criticism" would be ruthlessly stamped out (p. 179).

This is Marsh's salient point: censorship is always biased by class, allowing far more latitude to genteel authors and readers. Foote tried to defend himself in court by comparing the Freethinker with equally heretical remarks by Swinburne, Arnold, and Huxley, but in so doing he only confirmed that high literature was entitled to freedoms not permitted to low literature. The 1842 cheap edition of Strauss' Life of Jesus brought threats of legal action: not so the more expensive 1846 translation by George Eliot. Foote pleaded that he, like the Salvation Army, was simply addressing theological questions in the language of the slums, but that defense cut no ice: many Anglican churchmen and MPs viewed the Salvationists as equally blasphemous.

Edward Moxon had been treated rather differently when, in 1841, he was prosecuted for publishing Shelley's Queen Mab. His counsel, Thomas Noon Talfourd, argued for "a just discrimination between the publication of the complete works of an author of established fame, for the use of the studious, and for deposit in libraries, and the dissemination of cheap irreligion, directed to no object but to unsettle the belief of the reader" (p. 95). Though the jury returned a guilty verdict, a sympathetic judge imposed no sentence, and Talfourd's distinction was effectively enshrined in law. No great author would ever again be prosecuted for blasphemy, and in 1960 Penguin Books used much the same argument to absolve Lady Chatterley's Lover of obscenity. The "redeeming social value" exception has saved D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller from the bonfires, but only by granting legal privileges to good taste. And that, as Foote realized, "turns a literary difference into a criminal offence" (p. 202).

Thus Moss establishes a fascinating connection between blasphemy and canonicity, in both senses of the latter term. One victim of blasphemy law, William Hone, further scandalized churchmen by producing an Apocryphal New Testament (1820), which implicitly called into question the authenticity of the Authorized Version. Shortly after his moral victory in the Moxon case, Talfourd would deploy similar arguments to win another privilege for great writers: the 1842 Copyright Act, which extended intellectual property rights to at least the lifetime of the author plus seven years.

Marsh is most brilliant when she reveals what the subliterature of blasphemy contributed to respectable Victorian fiction. Charles Dickens may have owed much to William Hone--his demotic style, his vivid characters, his broad urban canvas, even his strategy of serial publication--though of course Dickens distanced himself from the old heretic. Dr. Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury and grandfather of "Erewhon" Butler, clashed with Hone over the Apocrypha, and G.W. Foote clearly influenced George Meredith. In Hardy's Jude Marsh finds echoes of both Foote and Thomas Pooley, a genuinely obscure Cornish laborer jailed for blasphemy. In fact, the odor of blasphemy pervading Hardy's last novel may explain the vicious critical reaction against it.

In making her case, Marsh is wonderfully vigorous and only occasionally careless. She assumes that prepublication censorship in France persisted throughout the nineteenth century (it ended in 1881) and she consistently misspells the name of Iain McCalman, whose Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840 (1993) serves as an important prologue to Word Crimes. But otherwise she is a superb archival detective, with a Shedockian talent for locating the missing piece of the puzzle. The reader feels the thrill she must have felt when she discovered, in local Cornish newspapers, the apparent source of incidents in Hardy's novels.

Marsh tellingly notes that the Victorian definition of blasphemy--"an intent to do harm or to wound the feelings of others"--is the logic now used to justify measures against "hate speech" (p. 226). Word Crimes inevitably provokes the question: Is there any less class bias in censorship today? Hollywood actresses are free to appear naked in $60-a-seat Broadway theaters, while divey strip joints are raided by the police. When a museum curator displays Robert Mapplethorpe's nudes in his workplace, he is exercising artistic freedom; when an auto worker displays Hugh Hefner's nudes in his workplace, he is guilty of sexual harassment. I put it to you: Why should De Sade enjoy more First Amendment protection than Larry Flynt? Because he was a marquis?

Jonathan Rose

Drew University
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Author:Rose, Jonathan
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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