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Charlie and the Chocolate Workplace

By Odhran Gallagher

The clunky and thoughtless edits to the novels of Road Dahl show exactly why we shouldn’t change literature to conform to modern cultural standards.

‘Bowdlerization’ refers to the expunging of offensive or unsavoury material from an artistic work, particularly for the alleged benefit of children. The term originates from Thomas Bowdler who, in 1807, published a sanitised version of the works of Shakespeare edited by his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler. The edition, now known as The Family Shakespeare, mainly sought to erase blasphemy, sexual innuendos, and references to violence.

The works of Shakespeare themselves of course explore myriad offensive and distressing themes including, but not limited to: homophobia, misogyny, racism, murder, infanticide, sexual violence, and incest. They also contain material which modern audiences would now refer to as ableism or fatphobia. It is this latter category of modern sensitivities which Puffin sought to pander to when they announced earlier this month that their new run of childrens’ author Roald Dahl’s novels would be edited by sensitivity readers so that the books could “continue to be enjoyed by all today”.

At first glance the edits seem bizarre and even comical. An innocuous conversation between Bruno, the protagonist in The Witches and his grandmother, where they discuss the ways the witches disguise themselves, he is told that he “can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing a wig. Just you try it and see what happens.” is rewritten to: “Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

You can really feel the tone of stridency seeping through in those last few words, perhaps a testament to the arrogance of the writers who believe they can do better than one of the most impactful children’s writers of the twentieth century. 

But, in my view, the changes only get more harmful. In the same book, the discussion of a woman “working as a cashier in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman” is changed to “working as a top scientist or running a business”. In my opinion, if young female readers are talented enough to become scientists or businesswomen then they’re surely able to understand the context of women’s roles in society in the early 1980s when the book was published. 

One of the more bizarre decisions was in the adulterated version of Matilda where the mention of Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling are erased, yet a reference to Ernest Hemmingway makes it through the filter. Really? Hemingway? The famous adulterer, alcoholic and wife-beater? If the author of the Jungle Book is deemed too dangerous to mention, then why is the epitome of everything that we now refer to as ‘toxic masculinity’ acceptable?

However, putting aside the patronising and nonsensical nature of the changes, what is most dangerous about Puffin’s decision is the precedent it sets that literature should conform to the cultural sensitivities of the present age. If we allow old texts to be rewritten in response to current attitudes then the voice of the author will be entirely extinguished and we will be left with literature rendered meaningless and sterile.

Thankfully, many writers and public figures spoke publicly to condemn the edits that Puffin were planning. Camilla Parker Bowles spoke against the planned edits during a speech at Clarence House. More notable, however, was the statement made by Salman Rushdie on Twitter. He didn’t hold back, branding the decision “absurd censorship”, adding that “Puffin Books and the Dahl estate should be ashamed.”

Rushdie himself knows what it means to defend literary freedom. After the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran called for a fatwa against him for the crime or writing a novel, he was forced to spend decades living under police protection. Since then, Rushdie has faced countless attempts on his life – the most recent of which left him blind in one eye.

We have the resolve of Salman Rushdie partly to thank for Puffin’s recent decision to scrap the changes and print future editions of Dahl’s novels unadulterated. We should be pleased about how quickly Puffin acknowledged wrongdoing. On the contrary, the prudish culture of Victorian Britain took to The Family Shakespeare and as a result it enjoyed nearly a century of support, readership, and additional copy-cat versions. But, criticism began to build during the early twentieth century and now young adolescents are regularly assigned authentic versions of Hamlet and Othello around the country today. 

But we shouldn’t be complacent that liberal modern society is immune to attempts at censorship. The puritans of yesterday that acted under supposedly Christian morals now act under the guise of inclusivity (noteworthy is that the censors always purport to be working for our own good). However, the real importance of this episode is how it has shown us that we both can and must stand up for the preservation of literature, whether the texts at risk are Matilda or Macbeth.


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