The "Expunger of Naughtiness" — Thomas Bowdler

I must admit, I purloined that delicious phrase from the title of a brief article in The Republican, written by Richard Carlile, about Thomas Bowlder. In fact, it is a very apt description of what he did to some well-known books. His expunged editions of various books remained popular through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Bowdler’s name eventually came to be the source of a verb indicating expurgation.

But was Thomas Bowdler the lone "expunger of naughtiness" in the family?

Thomas eventually became the front-man of the Bowdler clan, but he was not the first expunger in the Bowdler family. That position was held by his father, Thomas Bowdler, Sr., a gentleman of independent means with an estate near Bath. In the days before radio, television and the internet, a popular form of family entertainment was for one member of the family to read aloud to the others. In many families in the second half of the eighteenth century, the usual reader was the father. Most evenings, after dinner, Squire Bowdler would read aloud to his family; his wife and his children, Jane, John, Thomas and Henrietta. The family particularly enjoyed Shakespeare, especially Father Bowdler, who eventually read aloud nearly every play written by the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. But it was not until they were adults that the young Bowdlers realized they had never heard the plays as Shakespeare had actually written them. Squire Bowdler had judiciously left out all the naughty bits he thought unfit for his family’s ears.

Mrs. Bowdler also took her turn as an expurgator, though unlike her husband, her work found its way into print. Mrs. Bowdler, for so I must call her, as her first name has been lost to history, was the daughter of Sir John Cotton, the fifth baronet in a respected family of book collectors, and herself an educated and learned woman. Her particular interest was the study of the Bible, and in 1775, she published, anonymously, of course, an expurgated version of the book of the Bible often called the Song of Solomon. The small book, entitled A Commentary on the Song of Solomon Paraphrased, had been undertaken because Mrs. Bowdler did not like the translation (with some expurgation) which had previously been published by Bishop Thomas Percy eleven years previously. It was Mrs. Bowdler’s opinion that rather than cleansing this licentious text, the learned bishop had published a work which would incite young people to untold depravity. One of Mrs. Bowdler’s primary objections was the Bride’s repeated use of the word "bed," which she felt should have been replaced with what she perceived to be the more harmless phrase, "bridal chariot."

Such was the family in which the young Bowdlers were raised. Thomas, being the younger son, was sent to university in Scotland, where he studied medicine and took his degree in 1776. He then embarked on a four-year Grand Tour, returning to settle in London in about 1780. Thomas never actually practiced medicine, as he had a physical aversion to sick people. Instead, he chose to work with Sir Charles Bunbury in advancing the cause of prison reform. He also became a close friend of the celebrated London hostess, Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu, whom Dr. Samuel Johnson called the "Queen of the Blues." When Thomas was not attending her famous literary salons, he attended meetings of the Royal Society and soon became a first-rate chess player.

Meanwhile, Thomas’ siblings were all proceeding with their own literary careers. Jane, the eldest, did not do any expurgation, but she did write a book stressing the need for "delicacy," of feeling, which it is reported Queen Charlotte found very comforting, reading it through several times as her husband’s mental state deteriorated. Poems and Essays by a Lady Lately Deceased, was first published, anonymously, in 1786, but it was soon attributed to Jane Bowdler. This book ran to several editions, remaining in print until the 1830s. The Bowdler family was extremely private and not a great deal is known of the individual family members, but it is clear that Jane was a clever, if tormented woman, who never married. She died at the age of forty.

John, the eldest son, did marry, ultimately siring six children. John eventually took over the family estate, becoming a country squire like his father. It seems John was very concerned with purity and decorum. He developed a standard form letter which he sent to the daughters of friends and relatives when he knew they were soon to be married. The letter included ten numbered paragraphs in which John instructed these young women on how to be a good wife. His instructions in Paragraph Seven included advice on social discourse, explaining that most men are disgusted by any signs of "indelicacy or indecorum" in a woman’s conversation. John published a pamphlet in 1791 entitled Reform or Ruin: Take Your Choice! — in which The Conduct of the King: The Parliament, the Ministry, the Opposition, the Nobility and Gentry, the Bishops and Clergy & & & is Considered. And that Reform Pointed Out, which Alone can Save the Country! Remarkably, this pamphlet remained in print even longer that his sister Jane’s Poems and Essays. But John came late to actual expurgation, publishing his one and only expurgated volume in 1821. Poems Divine and Moral, Many of them Now First Published. Selected by John Bowdler, Esq. was a collection of poetry which he believed, as he stated in the Preface, would "do good." But despite the phrase preceding his name on the title page, John had not just selected these poems, he had also cut out any passages which he considered impure or objectionable and therefore not suited to his purpose of doing good.

Henrietta Maria, the youngest sister, was known to her family and friends as Harriet. Like her sister, Jane, she never married and like her brother, Thomas, she was a high-minded intellectual. Sir Gilbert Elliot, later the Earl of Minto, met her when she was a young woman, in 1787, and conversed with her at a dinner party. In a letter about the conversation he wrote, " … She is, I believe, a blue-stocking, but what the colour of that part of her dress is must be a mere conjecture, as you will easily believe when I tell you that … she said she never looked at [opera dancers] but always kept her eyes shut the whole time, and when I asked her why, she said it was so indelicate she could not bear to look." But Harriet did not keep her eyes shut all the time, and in 1803 she published, anonymously, her first best-seller, Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity. The book was well-received and was reprinted at least fifty times over the course of the next fifty-two years. Because the first edition was published anonymously, Beilby Porteus, then Bishop of London, assuming the author to be a man, wrote to her, in care of her publisher, strongly urging her to accept a parish in his diocese.

Harriet soon became a prominent woman in evangelical circles, corresponding with at least half of all the high-minded religious leaders across Britain. By this time they would have addressed her as "Mrs." Bowdler, which was the correct form of address for a woman of her age and status, regardless of her married state. Many of them also called upon her, attending the salon she kept in Bath for much of her life. It was probably not long after the publication of Sermons that she began her work editing the plays of Shakespeare. Having read the plays as an adult, she realized there was much her father had left out when he had read them aloud to the family. She also realized that not all the fathers across England might have the skill to extemporaneously expunge Shakespeare while they read, as her father had. Therefore, she set out to create a "family" version of Shakespeare which any father could safely read aloud to his children.

Though Shakespeare’s plays are littered with bawdy speeches and situations, they are also riddled with remarks regarding God which no evangelical protestant Christian of the early nineteenth century could tolerate. So, Harriet slashed her way through the plays, cutting out not only the sexually naughty bits, but also any references to God which she considered inappropriate or irreverent. With such broad criteria, there was a lot to cut. In fact, some plays were so completely objectionable they could not even be included, among which are both Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure. Harriet also decided to cut any passages in any play which she considered boring, for aesthetic reasons.

Finally, in 1807, The Family Shakespeare by an anonymous editor, quietly went to press in Bath. Published by Richard Crutwell for J. Hatchard, Bookseller of London, in four volumes, The Family Shakespeare contained twenty of the bard’s thirty-six known plays. According to the Preface they were "… intended to be read in private societies, and to be placed in the hands of young persons of both sexes, … ." When the book first came out, it was promptly attacked in print, by some who felt it had gone to far, and by others who thought it had not gone far enough. Sales were not brisk, and initially there was little interest in the identity of the anonymous editor.

In 1800, Harriet’s brother, Thomas, had left London, disgusted with the repeated failure of prison reform efforts and with the increasing air pollution in the city. He moved to the Isle of Wight, leasing a country estate where he could enjoy ample fresh air. In 1806, at the age of fifty-two, he married the widow of a naval officer, a Mrs. Trevennen. Sadly, there was much discord in the marriage and since there were no children, within a few years, Thomas and his wife were living apart. It appears that they never cohabited again. Thomas had become rather depressed over the failure of his marriage, and it appears he may also have missed the active literary life he had led in London.

By 1809, sales and appreciation for The Family Shakespeare were increasing, as were the efforts of many to identify the anonymous editor. It seems that Harriet, and a few of her very close evangelical and academic friends, who knew she was the true editor, did their best to hint to the world that Dr. Thomas Bowdler was the editor of the work. This was in part to protect Harriet. Unlike Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, who eventually admitted their authorship, Harriet never could. As an unmarried and supposedly inexperienced woman, she could never admit that she knew enough about matters sexual to have edited them out of The Family Shakespeare. It would have done irreparable damage to her reputation. But her brother, a man of letters and a diligent reformer, was an ideal candidate for the position. Perhaps Harriet also thought putting him into the literary limelight might help lift the depression he was suffering. It is also possible that Harriet had an eye to a second edition, which she wanted published in London to reach a wider market. A man could more easily manage such negotiations. Regardless of the reasons, by the beginning of the Regency, in 1811, Dr. Thomas Bowdler was considered by nearly everyone to be the editor of The Family Shakespeare.

Harriet Bowdler’s sanitized versions of Shakespeare’s plays increased in popularity, especially with the middle-classes, as the Regency progressed. One wonders if the behavior of the Carlton House set might have pushed them in that direction. It was soon time for a second edition of the work. This time, since his name would be on the title page, Dr. Bowdler took a hand in editing the plays. He was actually a more careful and conscientious editor than his sister had been, doing his best to retain as much of the bard’s original text as possible. Thomas restored all the bits Harriet had cut because she considered them boring, he was less severe in his cuts of both the sexually suggestive passages and those which she had perceived to be sacrilegious. Yet he also cut passages she had left alone. However, he also added back all of the plays she had left out. In 1818, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, of London, published the second edition of The Family Shakespeare, in ten volumes, openly acknowledging Dr. Thomas Bowdler as the sole editor. This expanded edition did not have any better initial sales than had Harriet’s first edition, printed in Bath.

By the end of the Regency, more people were reading, more people wanted substantive, wholesome material they could read in their family circle, and interest in The Family Shakespeare began to increase. It also helped that about that time there was a bitter feud in progress between the most important critical journals in Britain, Blackwood’s Magazine and the Edinburgh Review. There had been a number of negative reviews of The Family Shakespeare since the first edition, and more when the second edition came out. But in February 1821, Blackwood’s attacked the new edition, referring to it as " … that piece of prudery in pasteboard …" and using it as the starting point to condemn all forms of expurgation. In the midst of the feud, if Blackwood’s hated something, then the Edinburgh adored it. In October, they published their own review, praising "…this very meritorious publication …" and stating that all other editions of Shakespeare were now obsolete. This brought The Family Shakespeare to the attention of the general public and sales soared.

The one tiny criticism which had been made by the Edinburgh Review was rectified within the year. Lord Jeffrey, who had written the review himself, noted that the typeface was a bit too small. He wrote, "For we rather suspect, from some casual experiments of our own, that few papas will be able to read this, in a winter evening with their children, without the undramatic aid of spectacles." Longman & Company came out with a new octavo edition, with larger type, for papas, within just a few months. The Family Shakespeare remained continuously in print for over a hundred years.

Probably sometime before he began to edit Shakespeare’s plays for the next edition, Dr. Thomas Bowdler left his country estate on the Isle of Wight and settled in southern Wales. His new home was at Rhyddings, near Swansea, where he would reside for the rest of his life. Encouraged by the success of The Family Shakespeare, it was also here that he began expurgating Edward Gibbon’s master-work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His old friend, Elizabeth Montagu, had expurgated her own personal copy when the fourth and final volume of the first edition was published in June of 1784. She had circulated it privately among those who attended her salons in London, including the young Dr. Thomas Bowdler.

Dr. Bowdler stated in his Preface that he believed was helping to make this great author even greater by producing an edition which could be made available to families and was fit to be read by young people. He even wrote that he was certain that Mr. Gibbon would thank him. In Gibbon’s case, Bowdler was more concerned about what he perceived as sneers at Christianity than he was about sexual references. His nephew, Thomas, one of three sons of his brother John, who had all become expurgators, assisted him with the work. It was probably largely completed late in 1824, but was published posthumously, in 1826, as Dr. Bowdler died in February of 1825. Perhaps it is as well that it was published after his death, since it was heavily criticized upon publication, though it remained in print until the 1840s.

Many would consider what the various members of the Bowdler family did to literature to be censorship, when in actual fact, it was not. Censorship refers to the suppression of threatening ideas and forms of expression by governments for political reasons, usually by force. What the Bowdlers did was to remove those portions of texts which they found offensive, and they did so voluntarily, with the intent of improving the work, if only from their own perspective. They were soundly castigated for what they did by many serious scholars and academicians, who believed that an author’s work should always be read exactly as he or she had written it. There had been a few expurgators at work prior to the Bowdlers, from the late seventeenth century onward, as taste and manners were slowly becoming more refined. From that time, right though the Regency, the term the critics used most commonly for such efforts was "castration." During his life, Dr. Bowdler was accused of castrating Shakespeare, and after his death he was accused of castrating Gibbon. But perhaps in the end, he, and the rest of his family, got the last laugh. Though neither he nor his siblings lived to see it, the year before the young Queen Victoria took the throne, a new word was coined to replace the indelicate old one. By 1836, literature was no longer "castrated," it was "bowdlerized."

Author’s Note:   As an avid reader and an author myself, I am not at all enamored of the idea of bowdlerization of my work or that of others. But do not condemn the Bowdlers out of hand. Many of you reading this article may be bowdlerizers yourselves. How many of you have read a story to a young child, during the course of which you left out things which you thought might frighten, confuse or upset the child? Some years ago, one of my friends took her young daughter to see Walt Disney’s Bambi. Knowing the death of Bambi’s mother would upset her daughter, she leaned over and offered her some popcorn to distract her at the crucial moment. In a sense, my friend bowdlerized Bambi for her little girl.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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