by Rohan Banerjee
In the early 19th century, Thomas Bowdler, an English doctor, and his sister Henrietta, began work on a book that was meant to bring the magic of William Shakespeare to the hearth and homes of the common English folk. Unfortunately, although he was an avowed fan of the Bard, Dr. Bowdler could not get behind some of the more colourful phrases Shakespeare was wont to use. Blasphemous utterances and sexual references were particularly galling to the good doctor.
As a result, when this labour of love – titled The Family Shakespeare – was finally completed, it ended up looking a lot different from what the Bard had composed. Indeed, an advertisement for the book in The Times (on August 10, 1819) punctiliously explained that “…those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a Family.” And thus was born, the term ‘bowdlerize’: meaning to remove parts of a book or film that are considered to be offensive.
Earlier this year, Puffin released a set of Roald Dahl’s books which had been bowdlerized to ensure they “can continue to be enjoyed by all today.” Illustratively, the body-shaming “fat” was replaced by the euphemistic “enormous”, the Oompa Loompas were made gender-neutral, and the casual misogyny in The Witches where women were described as being supermarket cashiers or letter-writers for businessmen was revised to envision women as scientists and business leaders. These changes were intended to ‘modernize’ Dahl’s oeuvre – to make his books conversant with the cultural lingua franca of this age and tick the all-important boxes of political correctness and inclusivity.
Media reports about the rewriting of Dahl’s famous works, triggered enormous levels of public outrage. From Salman Rushdie to Queen Consort Camilla, everyone had a bone to pick with the publishers for ‘censoring’ Dahl’s language. Free speech advocacy groups even termed the “selective editing” of literature as being a “dangerous new weapon”. Pushed to a corner and in the face of vociferous opposition, Puffin announced it will release ‘The Roald Dahl Classic Collection’ which will contain the unaltered, original text. “Readers”, the announcement said, “will be free to choose which version of Dahl’s stories they prefer.”
Puffin may have blinked in this particular instance but the ‘bowdlerizing’ debate is far from over. Authors like Enid Blyton and Georges Remi (the creator of Tintin), for instance, have been criticised in the past for the racist overtones and stereotypes in their work. In the case of children’s books in particular, there is an understandable tendency to protect the young reader from offensive content. In these circumstances, it is tempting to wield the scalpel and excise the odious sections out of the text à la Dr. Bowdler. Such an act may be justified in rare instances (such as the move to remove pejorative slurs from the James Bond novels) but for the most part, the rewriting of books to make them more inclusive is an inherently flawed approach, for two reasons.
Firstly, when we edit books to remove or alter words that we perceive to be outdated and inappropriate, we make only cosmetic changes to mask what we now find unsavoury. Such an exercise is convenient but it does not address the problematic worldview of the author which underpins their work. Roald Dahl was a complicated and controversial figure who had confessed to being anti-semitic and often used racist and misogynist tropes. His books cannot be divorced from the reality of his views; they cannot be “fixed” by tinkering with a few words and giving them the veneer of inclusivity. In fact, it is imperative that every new reader picking up his books is able to read what he wrote and the context in which he wrote them. That is the surest way they can understand him and all that was wrong with his parochial beliefs.
Secondly, focussing on the work of established, mainstream authors does not further the conversations around how literature needs more representation from varied voices. In fact, it does the opposite. As long as we keep arguing over how we ought to engage with the books of Dahl, Blyton and others, we continue to take up space that could have been occupied by other lesser-known, marginalized writers of different backgrounds and cultures and languages; writers who can broaden our horizons and show us a completely different way of perceiving the world.
One can only hope that we learn our lessons from this current controversy and those wishing to champion inclusive, diverse literature do more than simply rewriting the past. Instead, granting recognition and providing a platform to a wider spectrum of writers can help serve not just the cause of inclusivity and diversity alone, but the cause of literature itself.
About the Author:
Rohan Banerjee is a writer and lawyer based in Mumbai. His articles have appeared in the Times of India, Indian Express, Mint, Scroll.in, Wire, etc.