The Guardian reported that several Agatha Christie novels have now come under the ax of the cultural sensitivity “police” who have edited them to remove potentially offensive language, including insults and references to ethnicity.
The beloved Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries written between 1920 and 1976 have had passages reworked or removed in new editions published by HarperCollins to strip them of language and descriptions that modern audiences find offensive, especially those involving the characters Christie’s protagonists encounter outside the UK.
“Sensitivity readers” made the edits, which are evident in digital versions of the new editions, including the entire Miss Marple run and selected Poirot novels set to be released or that have been released since 2020.
This latest outrageous instance of tampering with works of literature (and other arts as well) in order to make them fit a current cultural trend is not the first. In fact, the established practice has a name: to “bowderlize”; and Shakespeare was its first victim.
The verb to bowdlerize, which means to modify written texts to remove offensive language, possibly distorting the material — is taken from the name of Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), who edited Shakespeare’s plays to ensure that “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Consistent with the taboos of his time, Bowdler focused his efforts on revising sexual references and blasphemy.
Today we go further and erase any mentions that might distinguish one person from another: their birthplace, their race, their religion, their appearance, their occupations. In short, we are in the process of homogenizing individuals to fit a generic category, that of undistinguishable human being. But what is offensive about being referred to as part of your ethnic group? Or religion? There was a time not too long ago when people still related to each other on these levels, finding points of commonality that served as the building blocks of a friendship.
Thanks to Bowdler, various 18th century editors published editions of Shakespeare’s work from which they eliminated what at the time were perceived as “indelicacies”. Some even rewrote masterpieces such as King Lear to produce that most inconsistent element of a tragedy, a happy ending. Presumably, the sadness produced by Lear’s ungrateful children saddened old people? Or maybe he had not merited their treachery, avarice and cruelty and they thought it better to redress the injustice of Shakespeare’s ending?
In 1807 Bowdler went further and The Family Shakespeare set a new standard of thoroughness in policing the morality of the Bard’s plays. The first edition, published anonymously in four volumes, included twenty plays and was largely, if not entirely, the work of Bowdler’s sister Henrietta Maria (“Harriet”) Bowdler (1750–1830) who in essence rewrote the Shakespeare classics.
The move was certainly pleasing to the notoriously prudish 19th century Victorians that followed. Their sense of propriety was so extreme that they would not range books by male authors near those of female authors or even on the same side of the room. They covered piano legs to avoid even the most remote erotic suggestion.
I fear we are reaching a similar stage of ridiculousness in the current climate of perpetual grievance and victimization, where it seems that everyone is offended by something and they attempt to impose their particular pet peeves onto others, with the result that censorship is proliferating at an astounding pace. Even worse is that we are now censoring ourselves and purging our conversations of anything that might not conform to political correctness and extreme sensibilities.
It should alarm us that the wave of attempted book banning and restrictions continues to intensify. The American Library Association reported that this year’s totals are already the highest in decades.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “It’s both the number of challenges and the kinds of challenges. It used to be a parent had learned about a given book and had an issue with it. Now we see campaigns where organizations are compiling lists of books, without necessarily reading or even looking at them.”
Conservative attacks against schools and libraries have multiplied nationwide over the past three years, and librarians themselves have been harassed and even driven out of their jobs. What justifies such venom against books and librarians?
Shakespeare in his day and Agatha Christie in ours; we seem to be heading toward the dystopia the visionary author Ray Bradbury anticipated so vividly—and accurately—in the 1952 classic, Fahrenheit 451, where to own a book has become a crime, technology is a double-edged sword of benefit and damage, dissatisfaction is the primary human emotion and people prefer ignorance to knowledge.
All told, Ray Bradbury envisioned 2023 to perfection. Welcome to the new Dystopia.
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