Monday, 11 October 2010


Writer: Donald Thomas
Title: A Long Time Burning
Subtitle: The History of Literary Censorship in England
Language: English
Place of Publication: New York • Washington
Publisher: Frederick A. Preager, Publishers
Year of Publication: 1969
Format: 144x223mm
Pages: xii+546
Illustrations: 18 single colour plates and pictures printed on glossy paper
Dust Jacket Photo: Harris’s List or Convent-Garden Ladies (1793)
Binding: Boards in duotone dust jacket
Weight: 912gr.
Entry No.: 2010020
Entry Date: 11th October 2010


Censorship – the official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order – is almost as old as literature itself. Throughout history, advocates of censorship have argued for literary controls to shield the morality of the lower classes and children, and courts or judges have declared certain books to be obscene because they are not “fit and decent for people of the working class to read.” The cost and potential readership of a book often determine its fate: A pornographic or obscene book that anyone can afford is liable to be prosecuted, but one that is very expensive may escape the censor.

The “fear of literature” in England form the fifteenth century to the present is the subject of this brilliant book. Beginning his historical account with Caxton’s introduction of printing in 1476, Donald Thomas studies the development and application of prepublication censorship during the ensuing two centuries – censorship caused by fear of seditious, heretical or blasphemous literature or personal libel.

In the eighteenth century, political censorship was generated mainly by fear of the “enemy across the water” (James II and the progeny), the enemy at home who might usurp the authority of Parliament, and, later, the enemy below, the mob. Satire, allegory, burlesque, parody and irony evolved as defenses against such politically inspired censorship, and the many provokers of libel – Daniel Defoe, Richard Steele, and John Gay, among them – and their victims have since become literary immortals.

By 1800, the great age of expurgation had begun. The tone for the next century was set by Thomas Bowdler, among others, who wished to exclude from publication “whatever is unfit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies” or by a father to his family, and, although there was relatively little official prosecution thereafter, voluntary self-censorship played an infinitely greater part in determining the nature of Victorian literature than any law of obscene libel coud have done. Unofficial organizations –notably, the Society for the Suppression of Vice – were active in the battle against a free press. The most important form of moral censorship, however, was exercised ultimately by booksellers or librarians, penultimately by editors, publishers, or printers, and in the first place by authors (or translators) themselves. The Victorians mistranslated and expurgated so that “great books” might live and so that there might be a “flow of traffic from the library to the drawing room and the school-room.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, however, many books became famous because there were subjected to official censorship, for instance, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, The Well of Loneliness, and (in the 1960’s) Last Exit to Brooklyn. Quoting amusingly from letters, indictments, court proceedings, the censored literature itself, and some previously unpublished material, Mr. Thomas tells about these and many other censorship cases, the attitudes of the public, the attacks of writers and publishers against Royalty and Parliament,a nd the hazards of selling condemned books.

The concept and content of pornography vary from age to age, writes Donald Thomas. What was regarded as pornographic or morally subversive in the mid-eighteenth century –Fanny Hill or The School of Venus, for example –does not necessarily seem so now. Today’s reader is m ore likely to be disturbed by “writing whose effect is to ridicule faith in racial tolerance and the equality or emancipation of women.” As recently as July, 1968, a New York high school librarian demanded the withdrawal of Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle stories from libraries, on the grounds that Lofting was a “white racist” whose African characters were made to appear quaint and ridiculous.

A 200-page appendix contains extracts from little-known bawdy, obscene, pornographic, or blasphemous poems, stories, novels and other publications banned at various times for various reasons, By anonymous authors, as well as by such well-known figures as Thomas Paine, John Wilkes, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Cobbett, John Morley, and George Moore, they range in time from 1695 to 1967 and in character from Venus in the Cloister (1724) to Here Lies John Penis (1932). Some of the material is reprinted for the first time in more than two centuries.

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