Damns and blasts

November 20, 1998

Word Crimes: Blasphemy and Literature in 19th-Century England. By Joss Marsh University of Chicago Press 431pp. £43.95 and £17.95 ISBN 0226 50690 8 and 50691 6.

Joss Marsh's Word Crimes stakes out a vast territory in its subtitle: "Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in 19th-Century England". The flinching reader is, however, introduced gently with a humanising anecdote. It is 1988, the Bodleian Library. Marsh (a young researcher in Victorian literature) asked by an assistant what she is working on. . "Free-thought," Marsh replies, none too sure of what the term implies. Would she like to look at some G. W. Foote materials that are proving difficult to catalogue? Foote the editor of The Freethinker, a martyr for free speech, and the author of the memoir, Prisoner for Blasphemy (1884).

The monograph. which has emerged a decade later, is a complex achievement. The connecting strand is the story of the state's oppression of blasphemy, from Hone and Carlile, through Holyoake and Bradlaugh, with a fast-forward to the proscribed blasphemers of the 20th century, culminating in the Salman Rushdie scandal.

Underlying this survey is an attempt to pin down exactly what blasphemy is and why it should be criminal in a society where free speech is a democratic right. The term is the most mobile of targets and obstinately eludes pinning down: "On one side it slides into 'obscenity', on another into 'treason' and 'sedition'." Blasphemy is, Marsh concludes, "genuinely indefinable", only to be understood casuistically, through particular blasphemies, as English society has at various times (and with various motives) elected to define the offence.

In order to organise these cases into some larger category Marsh borrows not from legal history but from literary theory and from literary history. In the largest sense Word Crimes is a righteous test of two propositions: Foucault's assertion that the 19th century saw a transference of authority - from the Bible to the "author", and Mrs Humphry Ward's assertion, in a preface to Robert Elsmere, that "The Christian problem is first and foremost a literary problem".

Nineteenth-century literature handles the problem in two ways. First by what Marsh calls "Bible-smashing"; that is to say demolition by satire or insult. Meredith (unexpectedly) is central in this act of ideological "hygiene". The author of the Ordeal of Richard Feverel was, as Marsh establishes, sympathetic to militant secularism. The persecution of that notorious novel by Mudie is more usefully understood as an establishment reflex against Sir Austin's blasphemous "Pilgrim's Scrip" rather than any objection to the book's sexual explicitness.

While Meredith smashed, writers such as Hardy worked to extend the boundaries of the sayable and writable. This resulted in the "crime" of Jude the Obscure and the expulsion from practising fiction, which was society's punishment on Hardy. Marsh's final chapter on Jude is the most brilliant thing in a generally brilliant book. Typically she conducts her exposition on two levels: by a critically sensitive analysis of the novel's transgressive language and by identifying a historical "original for Jude Fawley, Thomas Pooley, a well sinker convicted of blasphemy in 1857.

There is so much that is new and genuinely eye-opening in Word Crimes that one hesitates even to offer minor cavils. But that is what reviewers are paid to do, and I must regret the absence in her survey of free-thinking (and in their day popular novelists) sue as Edna Lyall (a collaborator of Bradlaugh's) and Eliza Lynn Linton, whose rewrite of the gospels, Joshua Davidson: Christian and Communist (1872) was the most sensationally popular free-thought novel of the century.

This will not be an easy book for the librarians to catalogue. It could go with legal history, Victorian literature, history of journalism, book history or even linguistics (Marsh is very strong on the centrality of euphemism in 19th century discourse). Probably it will find a home in that new catch-all category, cultural studies. Wherever the Dewey Decimal System places it, Word Crimes is a book to take notice of.

John Sutherland is professor of modern English literature, University College London.

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