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Mad, bad and dangerous to read: banned books

Vittorio Matteo Corcos, Dreams, 1896. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

Vittorio Matteo Corcos, Dreams, 1896. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Lord Henry refutes Dorian’s claim that the infamous ‘yellow book’ he read in his youth was responsible for the onset of his moral dissolution, on the grounds that books can be inherently neither moral not immoral. ‘The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame’ says Henry.

This year’s Banned Books Week has brought the focus to the censorship of diverse reading materials, particularly of recent publications intended for children or young adults. The attempt to suppress books deemed to be inappropriate for one reason or another is, of course, by no means a recent phenomenon.

To mark Banned Books Week, we’ve delved into the shady (and sometimes not so shady) corners of our collection and dusted off some of history’s controversial printed works. While graphic content remains the favourite and most prevalent reasons for some books being classified as thoroughly objectionable, other, more obscure justifications have sometimes been cited for the suppression of a title.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter

Possibly some of the most innocent-seeming and beloved works of children’s fiction, The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny were banned in London schools in 1985 by the Inner London Education Authority for their portrayal of exclusively ‘middle-class rabbits’.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White and Animal Farm by George Orwell

George Orwell. Animal Farm. A Fairy Story. 1995. Illustration by Ralph Steadman, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition of Animal Farm

George Orwell. Animal Farm. A Fairy Story. 1995. Illustration by Ralph Steadman, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition of Animal Farm

Dwelling for a moment longer on the theme of anthropomorphised animals, these three novels were all, at some point, deemed exceptionable for their treatment of non-human characters. In 1932, the governor of Hunan Province in China stated that it was ‘disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level’ in justification for banning Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Similarly, a group of parents at a school in Kansas objected to Charlotte’s Web on the ground that ‘humans are the highest level of God’s creation and are the only creatures that can communicate vocally. Showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God’. Less surprising, perhaps, are the numerous objections to Orwell’s Animal Farm, a thinly veiled allegory for the formation of the Soviet Union, in which his animal characters can be read as analogues for prominent political figures of the day. Fears that the book would harm relations between the UK and the USSR led to Orwell’s initial inability to find a publisher for it. Upon publication in 1945 it was immediately banned in the USSR, China and Cuba for its criticism of Communism. It was also banned more recently in the United Arab Emirates; the depiction of a talking pig was deemed offensive.

The Canturbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

illustration of The Knight’s Tale by Edward Burne-Jones from the Kelmscott Chaucer, 1896.

Illustration of The Knight’s Tale by Edward Burne-Jones from the Kelmscott Chaucer, 1896.

Everyone’s favourite category, books banned for naughtiness outnumber all others, and include some cherished favourites and important literary works: the usual suspects include Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Madame Bovary and Ulysses.

Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, though certainly not lacking in naughtiness, is usually considered more important as a landmark of Middle English literature. However, its significance in the literary canon didn’t prevent it from being all but banned under the Comstock Law in the US in 1873, which prohibited the sending of offensive material by mail or over state lines.

Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness. 1928

Radclyffe Hall. The Well of Loneliness. 1928

Less well known currently, perhaps, is Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, one of the first British novels to deal openly with the subject of lesbianism. While it initially received cautiously positive reviews, The Sunday Express soon began a campaign calling for the novel’s suppression, the paper’s editor stating that he ‘ would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.’ The controversy prompted obscenity trials in both the UK and the US, and it was withdrawn from circulation in the UK until its republication in 1949.

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

John Gould’s illustration of Darwin’s Rhea, 1841 Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species. 1860 (Second edition)

John Gould’s illustration of Darwin’s Rhea, 1841
Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species. 1860 (Second edition)

The book which sets out Darwin’s theory of theory of evolution by natural selection was judged to have contravened Christian beliefs and created a storm of controversy in Victorian England. It was banned from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge – Darwin’s own college – immediately after its publication. The state of Tennessee banned the book from 1925 to 1967, and it was banned in Yugoslavia in 1935 and Greece in 1937.

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling

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The controversy surrounding the Harry Potter series persisted throughout the years of its publication and beyond. Despite their immense popularity, critical and commercial acclaim, and having been credited with inspiring a generation of readers, books in the Harry Potter series have appeared high on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books since The Philosopher’s Stone appeared in 1997, and are now the most challenged books of the 21st century. Objections largely centre on the novels’ portrayal of magic, citing a promotion of occultism, paganism, Satanism and witchcraft as legitimate reasons for their suppression. Others have cited concerns over violent and dangerous incidents in the plots as potentially distressing to children.

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