Thomas Bowdler

Three generations of the Bowdler family, of English country gentry stock, were concerned in the business of literary expurgation, the most famous of whom, Thomas Bowdler, MD, gave his surname to the language. Thomas Bowdler's parents, Thomas Bowdler Sr. (1720?-1800) and his wife, were both adepts at expurgation. The Squire restricted his efforts to ruthless excisions in his nightly reading to his children, especially in his cutting of Shakespeare's more dramatic scenes. Mrs. Bowdler, an intellectual woman and Bible scholar, published in 1775 'A Commentary on the Song of Solomon Paraphrased' in which she considered an earlier expurgated version of the `Song' edited by Bishop Percy in 1764. His version had already cut many passages, but she demanded that the cutter himself be further cut.

These elder Bowdlers had four children. Jane, the eldest, was a clever, but miserable spinster. She died in 1786, aged 40. Jane expurgated nothing, but believed firmly in the practice and urged that 'continued watchfulness must restrain the freedom of conversation'. A posthumous and anonymous book 'Poems and Essays by a Lady Lately Deceased' proved a popular seller. John, their second child, was a country squire like his father. Obsessed with purity, he composed a form letter despatched to friends' daughters on the eve of their wedding, advising them on the means of being a good wife - it concentrated on avoiding 'everything which has the least tendency to indelicacy or indecorum'. After his younger brother's Family Shakespeare proved so successful, he released in 1821 his own anthology of censored verse `Poems Divine and Moral'. John had several children, including three sons. The eldest, another Thomas Bowdler, helped his uncle with the expurgated 'Family Gibbon' of 1826. Charles, the youngest, resisted the family fascination, but the middle son, John, more earnest than any other Bowdler, devoted himself to expurgation. He demanded without sucess, that his law school should expurgate the classical texts it used. Had he not died young, in 1815, he was destined to take over revisions of the Family Shakespeare.

The two most important Bowdlers were Squire Thomas' youngest children: Thomas Bowdler MD and his sister Henrietta Maria (Harriet). They were both consciously high-minded intellectuals. She was a blue-stocking of deepest dye who could not bear the 'indelicacy' of dancers at the opera. Her anonymous book `Sermons on the Doctrines and Duties of Christianity' ran into fifty printings in fifty-two years.

Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) qualified as a doctor but abandoned his practice in 1785; he had, it transpired, a physical aversion to the sick. He spent the next 15 years working on prison reform in London, a task he combined with being a leading member of various strait-laced intellectual circles. He became a great friend of Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800) 'Queen of the Blues' and co-founder of the Blue Stocking Circle of learned contemporary ladies. Particularly impressed by her 1769 'Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare', he dedicated the `Family Shakeseare' to her.

In 1800 Bowdler left London, disgusted by the failure of his prison reforms. He took an estate on the Isle of Wight, then in 1806 married Mrs. Trevennen, the widow of a naval officer. The marriage lasted only a few years; there were no children. In 1807 there appeared the `Family Shakespeare'. No name appeared in the first edition but in the second of 1818, Bowdler announced himself, thus confirming rumours that had persisted since 1809. What he refused to admit was that he was neither the sole nor even truly a co-editor of the 1807 edition: that responsibility devolved upon his sister Harriet. While Bowdler refused ever to amend this piece of misinformation, the true authorship of the original work was attributed both in the family and among many recipients of the book to the correct, if anonymous, individual.

While Harriet's pioneering efforts had received only marginal interest, Thomas' new edition, after a slow start, became the best-selling edition of Shakespeare in England. Bowdler, as its editor, gained great celebrity. He turned next to Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) in which the author's dealings with early Christianity had always worried those of a more devout bent. Assisted by his nephew, the Rev. Thomas Bowdler, he prepared asuitably expurgated edition but did not live to see it in print. The Family Gibbon appeared in 1826; its creator died, leaving only his surname as an eponym and his adulterated Shakespeare as a multi-editioned memorial, in 1825.

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