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Victorian Morality and Publishing

Grumpy Old Bookman has an insightful summary of Victorian morality and the knock on effect it had on newspapers, magazines and books during the reign of Queen Victoria. Any scenes involving sex guarantee the banning of a book. Wikipedia observes: “Those going for a dip in the sea at the beach would use a bathing machine. Verbal or written communication of emotion or sexual feelings was also often proscribed so people instead used the language of flowers.”

If you ran out of flowers and talked about the real thing, that was a problem, as Michael Allen has noted:

“By 1872, the Society [for the Suppression of Vice] was able to report that within the last two years it had 'been the means of bringing to punishment, by imprisonment, hard labour, and fines, upwards of forty of the most notorious dealers, and within a few years has seized and destroyed the following enormous mass of corrupting matters: 140,213 obscene prints, pictures, and photographs; 21,772 books and pamphlets; five tons of letterpress in sheets, besides large quantities of infidel and blasphemous publications; 17,060 sheets of obscene songs, catalogues, circulars, and handbills ; 5,712 cards, snuff-boxes, and vile articles; 844 engraved copper and steel plates ; 480 lithographic stones ; 146 wood blocks ; 11 printing presses, with type and apparatus; 81 cwt. of type, including the stereotype of several works of the vilest description.'”

The results of the ban were wholly predictable: the creation of a large, profitable underground publishing industry. One of the founders of W.H. Smith was at the forefront of the movement to ban books with sexual content. It is amusing that Mr. Smith also advocated long books divided into three installments to maximize profits. There are parts of the modern world that continue the Victorian tradition of censorship, including a system of fines and imprisonment. With the Internet opening a new window on publishing, the censors now must rely upon co-operation of search engines and software developers to restrict access to what authorities decide is “obscene.”

Charles Dickens who was the major author of Victorian times.

Human nature being what it is, there will always be a tension between what the authorities view as appropriate and decent and what people wish to see and read in the privacy of their own home or office. Some wish there would be no discussion of sex, or if one must discuss it, then it is within the confines of procreation. Any hint of pleasure or that sex might have (horror of horrors) a recreational aspect would have in Victorian times guaranteed a knock on the door by the authorities. Not surprisingly this smacks of the prototype police state. Not much different from Sharia law (which governs public and private conduct) but is based on private intervention premised on Christian morality.

The Victorian desire to suppress and repress did not end with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The censorship legacy which not only continues to the present day but shows signs that parts of the world live inside the bubble of a new Victorian age.

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