Censor sensibility

By restoring cuts made to Oscar Wilde's work, we gain insights into the political forces underpinning censorship, says Nicholas Frankel

May 19, 2011



Credit: Marcus Butt


It has become a commonplace among teachers of English to say that literature is an inherently social product. But what does this really mean?

In Times Higher Education's Culture piece "Unexpurgated version" (28 April), Josephine Guy argues that in restoring the redactions made to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray by its first editor, J.M. Stoddart of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, my new edition of the novel ignores or obscures the inevitably "collaborative" nature of the publication process and presents instead "a rather romanticised portrait of writerly integrity". The relations between Victorian journal editors and authors, however, presumed a sharp imbalance of power, especially where first-time novelists were involved. To view the relationship as one of simple "collaboration" is itself a romanticised portrait of the publication process.

Thomas Hardy complained in 1890 that "the patrons of literature - no longer Peers with a taste - acting under the censorship of prudery, rigorously exclude from the pages they regulate subjects that have been made ... the bases of the finest imaginative compositions since literature rose to the dignity of an art". In the case of Wilde's novel, the evidence that Stoddart censored it is plain from the sexual and political nature of his deletions, such as his removal of Basil Hallward's confession: "There was love (for Dorian) in every line (of the portrait), and in every touch there was passion."

Further evidence can be found in Stoddart's panicked reaction upon receipt of Wilde's typescript. "Rest assured that it will not go into the Magazine unless it is proper that it shall," he told his employer, Craige Lippincott. "In its present condition there are a number of things which an innocent woman would make an exception to. But I will go beyond this and make it acceptable to the most fastidious taste."

Before committing himself to publication, Stoddart assigned Wilde's typescript to no fewer than five publishing professionals for comment - one of whom he later charged with "picking out any objectionable passages". Wilde did not see these changes to his novel until after it appeared in print.

American literary critic Elaine Showalter has characterised the milieu in which Wilde lived and wrote as one of "sexual anarchy". Stoddart's edits must be seen within the wider context of the sexual paranoia and legal threat apparent in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The circumstances under which Dorian Gray was published are a far cry from those faced by the majority of English-language authors either before or since. The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawing "gross indecency" between men, the establishment of the National Vigilance Association in 1885 (it successfully brought about a jail sentence for Henry Vizetelly, translator of Emile Zola's works, in 1889), and the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889-90 all served to bring about a heightened atmosphere of paranoia and intolerance, particularly where upper-class and well-educated English homosexuals were concerned. Indeed, Wilde was the chief victim of this climate of repression - as was plain from the jubilation that greeted his imprisonment for gross indecency in 1895. Whether he acknowledged it or not, Stoddart's hand was directed by the courts.

Wilde alludes directly in Dorian Gray to this climate of repression when he speaks of Dorian's effort to "save life from that harsh uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival". Mindful that his friend Walter Pater had suppressed his "Conclusion" to The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, Wilde felt that writers of his day were too quick to capitulate to the forces of Puritanism. Indeed, he positioned much of his work at the limits of what was legally acceptable, and when his play Salome was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, in his role as licensor of plays (Wilde termed him "the Censor"), in 1892, he briefly considered leaving England, refusing to "call myself a citizen of a country that shows such narrowness in artistic judgment".

Literature is an inherently social product, but it isn't always commensurate with its public face or accepted manifestations, and the processes of publication aren't always as seamlessly "collaborative" as Guy would have us believe. Are the sanitised texts of Osip Mandelstam presented by Soviet editors to be accepted on the grounds that they are inherently social products? Reclaiming works of literature from the censorship they were subject to, often for the duration of their authors' lifetimes, is not a Romantic endeavour, but rather an effort to reveal the social antagonisms and broader political forces shaping their accepted social face.

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