The bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl

A literary and media furore erupted in the UK earlier in the week when the Daily Telegraph printed a story (paywalled) about censorship of Roald Dahl’s children’s books by Puffin Books, their British publisher. He is the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Witches and Matilda. This process of changing a piece of literature is bowdlerisation. It is most relevant to this story.

The latest editions of Dahl’s books have had some of the passages relating to weight, mental health, gender and race altered. The books were reviewed by the Roald Dahl Story Company, with Puffin and Inclusive Minds, a collective aiming to make children’s literature more inclusive and accessible.

Some examples of the changes include:

  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory‘s Augustus Gloop is called “enormous” rather than “enormously fat”
  • In Witches, a supernatural female posing as an ordinary woman may be working as a “top scientist or running a business” instead of as a “cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman”
  • The word black has removed from the description of the terrible tractors in The Fabulous Mr. Fox, with the machines now described as “murderous, brutal-looking monsters”

Literature people not happy

Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie was among those who reacted angrily to the rewriting of Dahl’s words. “Roald Dahl was no angel, but this is absurd censorship,” Rushdie said. Rushdie has suffered assassination attacks and attempts to censor and suppress his major book the Satanic Verses.

Laura Hackett, deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times, said she will be keeping hold of her original Dahl copies, so that her children “can enjoy them in their full, nasty, colourful glory … the editors at Puffin should be ashamed of the botched surgery they’ve carried out on some of the finest children’s literature in Britain.”

Hackett’s view is important. Part of Dahl’s appeal has always been the dark nature of some of his characters. Watering down the “nasty” and diluting this darkness takes away some of the uniqueness of Dahl’s stories.

What is expurgation?

The process of censorship to remove supposedly objectionable or offensive content from a text, document, or other media is known as expurgation. The purpose is to make the content more acceptable for a particular audience.

However, the modification of literature is an insult to the author, their work and the readers. If you don’t like what is in a book you have the choice not to read it.

A reason we read literature is to understand the viewpoint or inner mind of the author whether we agree with them or not. The editing of material by organisations with agendas risks the imposition of a value system that is not universally accepted, which can be contrary to the author’s intentions.

Bowdler the expurgator of Shakespeare

Expurgating literature has a long history. Its most notorious expurgator was Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825). He was an English physician who took it upon himself to publish a family-friendly version of Shakespeare’s plays. It was a puritanical age. The Family Shakespeare was edited by his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler and sold well with eleven editions printed by 1850.

He wrote of his process to improve the work of the English language’s greatest writer:

“My great objects are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value … many words and expressions are of so indecent Nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased”.

Some of the changes he made were:

  • in all plays God! as an exclamation was replaced with Heavens!
  • in Henry IV Part 2, Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute, was omitted from the story entirely
  • in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” was changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”

Thomas Bowdler’s last work was an expurgation of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published posthumously in 1826.

And thus bowdlerisation

And thus, bowdlerisation, became the term for the prudish expurgation of works of literature that weakened or damaged their value.

It is difficult to find an edition of The Family Shakespeare nowadays, unless of course it will be reinstated next to the Collected Works of Roald Dahl.