Nicholas de Jongh, Politics, Prudery and Perversions: the censoring of the English stage 1901-1968 London: Methuen, 2000.
Alan Hunt, Governing Morals: A social history of moral regulation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Alan Travis, Bound and Gagged: A secret history of obscenity in Britain London: Profile Books, 2000.
There is a long, inglorious and still continuing history of censorship in Britain, in which long standing themes of national sexual prudery and ruling class secrecy have been intricately intertwined. There is also a fairly long tradition of writing books about it!
The books by Travis and de Jongh form part of a lengthy polemical tradition which details the absurdities and biased assumptions under which the censorship of books, plays, pictures, etc, deemed obscene has taken place in Britain, with an intention to improve the situation. Both works are designed for a popular and general audience, though nonetheless they are of considerable interest to historians of sexuality: they do however need to be used with some caution.
Travis in particular covers ground already trodden: by Alec Craig in The Banned Books of England (1937, 1962), C. H. Rolph in Books in the Dock (1969) and The trial of Lady Chatterley. Regina v. Penguin Books Ltd (1961), and John Sutherland in Offensive Literature (1982). However, he has had access to previously closed files in the Public Record Office, though he concentrates mainly on well-known cases of prosecutions, such as Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the works of D. H. Lawrence. In the latter case he does elucidate the long struggle that Lawrence had had with the authorities well before the posthumous courtroom triumph of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (and demonstrates that this case was to all intents lost even before the notorious ‘wives and servants’ speech by prosecuting counsel). He has a useful chapter on the routine operations of the policing of obscene literature and the issue of the secret Home Office Blue Book of titles of books which had been the subject of destruction orders by magistrates throughout the country.
His use of the relevant files illuminates the contradictions and tensions between different individuals and departments. Oxbridge-educated civil servants in Whitehall were regularly embarrassed by local police forces confiscating classics of European literature (Boccaccio’s The Decameron was a regular victim) and succeeding in getting them in getting them condemned by provincial magistrates. An issue Travis does not address here is that of context – while it was regularly claimed that the works which had been confiscated and destroyed as pernicious literature were freely available in the local public library, one can quite envisage that when these books were found in the company of soft-core pulp fiction and nudist magazines in the recesses of the shops of dubious booksellers, there was a certain element of guilt by association.
Following on from these relatively frequent claims that books which were the subject of police action were to be found in local libraries, a subject which has never to my knowledge yet been addressed by historians is that of the public library and ‘dangerous literature’ in Britain. Were librarians, as this implies, acting as the custodians of the public’s right to know, and to have access to at least classic or serious works dealing with sexual topics? Up to a point perhaps yes – though probably only in-depth study of local library committee records and details of purchasing policies would confirm this. Anecdotal evidence, however, tends to suggest that when libraries did hold, for example, Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex, it was seldom on the open shelves and more often in the Librarian’s office, as an issue of security (books of this kind being far more prone to vanishing silently from the shelves than being checked out) rather than clear-cut censorship.
The coverage of Travis’s book is spotty and not entirely consistent. Most chapters focus on the censorship of printed material (and sometime paintings) but the latter chapters provide a brief account of the end of theatrical censorship in Britain, and issues around videos and the internet. While it may be argued that anxieties have shifted to these readily available and consumable, and hard to control, means of purveying ‘obscene’ images, there is little or no discussion of the contextually relevant subjects of film, radio and television censorship except for the very recent period. The reason for this may well be the rather different conditions under which censorship of these media took place. Whereas the actions of governmental departments (Home Office, Director of Public Prosecutions, Metropolitan Police, etc) can be traced through files which have survived in the Public Record Office (even though only recently released for research), the British Board of Film Censors was set up by the nascent industry to provide standards of certification which would be acceptable to the local authorities, who actually licensed cinemas. The inward workings of the British Broadcasting Corporation and decisions about what could and could not be broadcast have not been thoroughly explored although Lord Reith’s puritanism and its effects during his influential period as Director-General are well-known.
A number of questions arise about who was, or might be, offended, by what, and how this was nuanced by social class. There were clearly differences of opinion between Whitehall civil servants and provincial police forces and magistrates over the salaciousness of Rabelais and The Arabian Nights. Presumably there were also those who regarded Donald McGill’s bawdy seaside postcards as harmless fun but might have been shocked at the Beardsley prints on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Jim Dine paintings in the Tate Gallery which were the objects of police action in the 1960s. The extent to which censorship generated a resistant culture of the kind of innuendo and double-entendre which feature in McGill’s work and other manifestations of popular culture (e.g. the Carry On films, in which apparently innocuous dialogue gains an entirely different slant when spoken by Sid James leering into Barbara Windsor’s cleavage, or in Kenneth Williams’s tones of camp outrage) is not explored. De Jongh does mention the attempts of theatrical censorship to prevent any introduction of stage ‘business’ which might be considered suggestive.
This question of audience and acceptability is suggested (though not really addressed) in de Jongh’s study of English stage censorship in the twentieth century is that of audience. The kind of ongoing low-level moral panic about stage representations manifested by the Lord Chamberlain’s office and the Examiners of Plays seems eccentric in its concerns. Surely, one thinks, it would only be the relatively comfortable classes who could afford to go to the theatre in the first place? A point which never becomes as explicit as it might in de Jongh’s study is that commercial theatre managers were on the side of the censor, since pre-licensing of plays was a more or less solid guarantee that they would not be prosecuted. The continuing influence of commercial criteria in influencing what gets produced and what constraints there are on the playwright (these days musicals seem to play the part in London’s West End that drawing room comedies did between the wars and well into the 1950s) is not discussed. This was surely a powerful factor in what he claims were the ‘limits of freedom’ following the 1968 Theatres Act. While Mrs Whitehouse’s private prosecution of the producer of The Romans in Britain for putting a simulated act of male rape on stage was doubtless discouraging to dramatists and producers, this play was presented in the subsidised National Theatre: one may well imagine that West End theatre owners were actuated less by fears of the legal consequences of putting ‘scenes of gay intimacy’ (p.246) on stage than by a feeling that these would not bring in the punters.
The story de Jongh is primarily interested in telling, however, is the unedifying story of the control over what appeared on the English stage, up until 1968, of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. The Lord Chamberlain was not an elected official, nor a government appointee; he was an officer of the Royal Household. The day to day task of censoring plays was undertaken by Examiners of Plays appointed, on what grounds it is far from clear since their qualifications for the task tended to be somewhat hazy, by the Lord Chamberlain. De Jongh characterises the twentieth century Examiners as a group as largely ‘upper middle-class, retired senior officers from the armed forces.... intelligent and diplomatic’ but ‘philistine, with little knowledge of serious drama and its traditions.... little awareness or appreciation of the modern movement.... They relied on gut feelings’ – gut feelings which were anti-radical and often tainted with the commonplace anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual feelings of their day (p. xi). Furthermore, the process was a secret one. Communications between the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and producers or managers were confidential, and there was no process of appeal against its decisions. However, it was possible to achieve ‘compromises and concessions’ by negotiations ‘conducted quietly behind the scenes’, especially for theatre managers, whose own concerns tended to mesh with the preconceptions and assumptions of the Examiners (p. x).
The situation was one which caused serious playwrights throughout the century major distress and anguish. While there was the expedient of resort to a ‘club’ performance for unlicensed plays, by their nature (attendance required becoming a member of a club as well as simple purchase of a ticket) these performances were unable to command anything like the audience for the commercial sector, and were also (in the case of dramatists making a polemical point) largely ‘preaching to the converted’ (pp. 28-9).
Trangressions of gender and class were the focus of the Examiner’s blue-pencilling activities, as were political themes. It is rather a pity that de Jongh does not seem to know Marie Stopes’s cogent feminist ‘Essay on the Censorship’, printed as a preface to her own (unperformed) play based on her first, unconsummated, marriage, Vectia, which makes quite explicit the gendered assumptions of the theatrical censors. Proponents of serious theatre were constantly irritated that light farces regularly got through the censorship net. A purity campaigner giving evidence to the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene Councils post-First World War investigation of the State and Sexual Morality contrasted the struggle social hygiene activists had had in trying to get Brieux’s famous play on venereal disease, Damaged Goods, produced, with the license afforded to productions such as A Little Bit of Fluff. A figure who sadly does not feature in de Jongh’s account is the playwright, pacifist and male suffragist Laurence Housman, who himself wrote plays trangressing at least two of the major taboos (representation of religious figures, and royalty – he was the author of the series of playlets on the life of Queen Victoria produced together as Victoria Regina), and published cogent attacks on the censorship.
This book (and Travis’s also) is somewhat marred by careless proofreading. There are a number of errors of fact, the most egregious of which is de Jongh’s statement that the Lord Chamberlain’s records for the twentieth century are held in the Public Record Office. The detailed records of theatrical censorship are in the Department of Manuscripts at the British Library.
Both Travis and de Jongh take a top-down approach in their accounts, representing censorship very much as a process imposed from above by the powers of the State (even when differing elements among these powers themselves had conflicting agendas) upon the populace. This was certainly an important element, and the secrecy with which censoring policies were implemented fits well with the arguments of David Vincent in The Culture of Secrecy (1998) concerning the pervasive lack of openness about British governmental activities. From this angle active censorship could appear as just one more facet of the state’s intention to keep the people in the dark.
However, this is not the whole story. Both accounts touch very fleetingly on the role of moral reform organisations, which are not discussed in any depth. de Jongh, indeed, implies that they were very much part of the establishment themselves, claiming that ‘The views of these moral purity organisations were treated with respect by the Lord Chamberlain, since their ruling boards were thick with bishops and aristocrats’ (p. 73). While the letter headings of these bodies might indeed glisten with well-known or socially élite names (as did those of a much broader range of voluntary bodies), the people who were doing the actual day to day work, and providing the bulk of supporting membership, came from rather humbler social echelons.
Hunt’s Reforming Morals explores a number of questions about organisations established for the purpose of regulating morals, although he does not directly address their involvement in the processes of censorship. His book is an austere and scholarly work of historical sociology examining the ‘theory and politics of moral regulation’ in Britain and the USA, predominantly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but with a look back to earlier movements for moral reformation and a final chapter on ‘Making sense of contemporary moral politics’, and he focuses on the groups within society demanding higher moral standards. It lacks the vivid anecdotal snippets of the other two volumes under review and eschews their chatty and accessible, indeed journalistic, style. It is also, because of the relatively lengthy period under discussion and the much wider geographical remit, a rather distanced and analytical account drawing predominantly on published materials of individual moral reformers or organisations, and secondary literature. It does not draw on the copious archives of the bodies set up during the fervour of the social purity movement of the late nineteenth century. A detailed analysis of the differences, and also the alliances, between the various social purity/social hygiene organisations would be a valuable contribution. Some bodies, indeed, such as the National Council for Combatting Venereal Diseases (later the British Social Hygiene Council) were meta-organisations representing a plethora of interests concerned with the problem.
Nonetheless Hunt provides an illuminating study addressing both a continuing tradition of moral reform and the changing ways in which this has been expressed, and the different issues which have been the subject of campaigns. He argues against simplistic models of ‘social control’ and ‘moral panic’ when discussing moral regulation, and also against any reductionist assignation of ‘projects of moral regulation’ to particular political tendencies. He makes the by now relatively accepted case that the impetus behind these campaigns tended (and still tends) to emanate from the middle classes, rather than with those in institutional power, though he concurs with Nicola Beisel’s conclusions in Imperilled Innocents concerning the appeal of Comstock’s anti-obscenity crusades to the beleagured social élites of certain (but not all) East Coast cities in the USA in the later nineteenth century. A recurrent theme, however, is the power of projects of moral reform to bring together apparently opposed groups and individuals in a common cause, and the distinctive ‘intermingling of disparate ideological elements’. In fact such projects, he argues, can only be successful ‘when [my emphasis] some specific social problem is articulated in such a way as serves to mobilise an array or umbrella of different social forces’, so that ‘effective moral politics tends to involve a mix of conservative and traditional ideologies along with radical and libertarian elements’ (p. 102). Thus he finds, as so many other historians have, that late nineteenth century purity movements form a fascinating tapestry of contradictory elements. Practices and discourses drawn from religious revivalism, a conservative commitment to a traditional view of the sexual division of labour... and, at the same time, a radical critique of at least some components of the traditional gender order (p. 103), which worked out in rather different ways in distinct national contexts. Also thought-provoking is his suggestion of the thrills that moral reform could offer to the campaigner: Projects of moral regulation involve participants who actively seek to chart and engage with social problems perceived and experienced as problematic or dangerous. Moral reformers are social explorers (p. 197)
One thinks of the impeccably upper middle-class Sybil Neville-Rolfe and her crusade against VD in the early twentieth century, which at one point led her to ‘go undercover’ among prostitutes herself. While this book is extremely stimulating, I have a number of quibbles concerning some elements in Hunt’s arguments, mainly questions of nuance and interpretation of specific instances he cites. Did the term ‘abolitionism’ used by the forces opposed to the regulation of prostitution, refer, as he contends (p. 102), to a goal of ridding the world of prostitution, or did it, in fact, refer to the goal of abolishing the regulations which both recognised prostitution and oppressed prostitute women? Certainly there was a hope that once this apparatus had been removed prostitution would be reduced but the abolitionist movement, on the whole, wanted to dissociate itself (as indeed he comments) from earlier movements which simply aimed at ‘suppressing’ it. I would not personally place the transition from social purity to social hygiene as early as he does, and would not consider that this had already taken place by the 1900s, but that it occurred at least a decade later.
His claim that ‘a full-blown regulationism was back in place’ by the end of the First World War is an extremely curious reading of the ‘British system’ – free, confidential and expert treatment for all, in principle (if not practice) eschewing old models of stigmatisation and ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ - implemented as a result of the Final Report of the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases. It is true however that actual policing practices applied to street prostitutes, as far as one can ascertain, remained standard over a much longer period, with a continuing belief in some areas by the prostitutes themselves that there was a ‘register’, many decades after the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act.
Hunt’s account of the Royal Commission (p. 183) is plain wrong: far from being set up in 1914 due to concern over military personnel, it was established a year earlier as a result of concerns over the general inroads venereal disease were making on the public health of the nation, as several decades of pressure reached critical mass at the same time as ‘Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet’ (Salvarsan) promised actual curability of syphilis. As far as one can ascertain, the Royal Commission had nothing to do with the introduction of ‘Regulation 40D’ under the Defence of the Realm Act, making it an offence for a woman with VD to have sex with a member of the armed forces. This traditionalist response to the urgent problem of STDs in the forces ran utterly counter to the agenda of destigmatisation and anti-regulationism promoted in the Final Report of the Royal Commission. Hunt’s aerial photographic method fails to register the nuances of the different positions of different government departments involved, and indeed the role of various voluntary bodies.
The works he cites on the debates about the influence of ‘neo-malthusianism’ and the causes of the population decline in Britain from 1870, are far from being the most recent analyses of the topic. Stefan Petrow’s Policing Morals (date), an extremely useful study of the by no means always harmonious relationship between purity campaigners and the Metropolitan Police in the later nineteenth century, is not mentioned. Hunt also seems to think that the Indecent Advertisements Acts of 1889 specifically targetted birth control literature, which was not specifically named: the 1892 prosecution of Henry Young for disseminating malthusian tracts was in fact undertaken under the Post Office Act. The drive for social purity was not as exclusively Protestant as he argues: certainly in the British context there were Catholic bodies with similar interests. On the influence of purity rhetoric and its capacity to have ‘compounded feelings of sexual trepidation’ (p.177), the correspondence received by Marie Stopes, author of the epoch-making marriage manual Married Love, from its first publication in 1918, is illuminating. Thousands of men from a wide social range and of all ages wrote to her expressing fears and concerns about sex which had clearly been exacerbated (in some cases quite explicitly) by social purity teachings (see L. Hall, Hidden Anxieties, 1991).
Nonetheless, Hunt makes important points even if it would be nice to have these deployed in a closer reading of the specific activities of particular moral reform bodies and the intersection between these organisations and the institutions of state power, both central and local. He strongly emphasises the extent to which Victorian purity campaigns were directed towards the middle and upper classes, and towards men themselves. This did not exclude the possibility of policing the lower orders and disorderly women – as he also comments, disciplines of self-formation which manifested as an ‘exhibition of self-control’ could provide ‘moral authorisation for attempts to impose external controls over others’ (p.98).
All these works make a contribution to our understanding of issues of censorship and movements for moral reform in Britain. However, none of them gives us the full complexity of censorship, silencing and speaking out. There are no mentions of the Home Office decision that the public interest would be best served by not prosecuting Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex and thus drawing it to the attention of a wider audience than what seemed to the civil servants in question its natural constituency. There is barely any recognition that moral reformers were themselves censored when they spoke out on matters deemed best left in silence – local authorities, for example, refused licensing to propaganda films on VD disseminated by the British Social Hygiene Council; the problems with producing Brieux’s Damaged Goods have already been mentioned. None of them manages to bring together all the elements necessary for a really satisfactory study of the subject: detailed archival research on both a national and a local level, in official records and those of voluntary bodies and campaigning individuals, with the kind of theoretical analysis Hunt gives us. We are left with rather more questions than answers.
Lesley Hall, Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine