Forbidden Access: Censoring Books and Archives


Whilst anyone signing up for this conference (organised by the Institute of English Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) with what might be classed as a prurient interest would have been disappointed, the two day event nevertheless provided much of interest to the scholar concerned with censoring books and archives.

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McArthur Sinclair, A., (2016) “Forbidden Access: Censoring Books and Archives”, Entertainment and Sports Law Journal 13, 3. doi:


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Whilst anyone signing up for this conference (organised by the Institute of English Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) with what might be classed as a prurient interest would have been disappointed, the two day event nevertheless provided much of interest to the scholar concerned with censoring books and archives.


Having missed the opening session due to the vagaries of London transport I arrived in time for a talk by Martin Goodman on the Obscenity Trials of 1954 which essentially defined censorship today. This included Donald Magill prosecuted for his saucy seaside postcards, the crime books of Hank Janson, of which I have to admit to owning a small collection including the infamous ‘Amok’. This in fact is the book which appears to have resulted in the publisher and distributor being imprisoned and ruined. The talk continued looking at the Old Bailey trial of novelist Walter Baxter and his publisher for The Image and the Search, something that usefully highlighted the Government’s continued attempts to censor writers. Interestingly the trial used the same prosecution counsel as The Lady Chatterley Trial of 1960 - Counsel quoted many ‘purple passages’, and asked the jury ‘would they hand the book around to the girls in the office?’. This ploy did not work as Baxter was ultimately found not guilty. However, it did not stop them using the same argument in the Lady Chatterley case some years later (R v Penguin Books Limited, [1961] Crim LR 176) bringing them more derision when they asked the jury if they would like their servants to read it.


This talk was followed by Ms Rona Cran of UCL delivering a paper on William Burroughs and the controversial spat in the Times Literary Supplement in1963/64. Here John Willet critically reviewed Burroughs’ work, by implying that he had brought disapprobation of a writer’s freedom of speech and to literature in general. Many literary giants picked a side in the fight concerning the worth of Burroughs’ work, but my favourite would have to be Edith Sitwell, who felt she did not need her ‘nose to be nailed to other peoples lavatories’. A wondrous sight indeed to imagine. Ms Cran further examined the line between criticism and the desire to censor during a particularly energetic period for literature.


The afternoon sessions brought a choice between ‘ Censorship, Church and State’ or ‘Censorship: Principles and Concepts’. The latter having the catchier title won out for me.


Jesse Elvin and Clare de Than of City University London gave a paper on the so called Barbara Streisand Effect. This turned out to be a similar argument as used in defamation cases. Basically, in the effort to suppress something you invariably make it more attractive and draw more unwanted attention to it, which defeats the object. They ran through the usual suspects, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Howl, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The OZ trial and McLibel, scattering interesting facts such as the judge in the prosecution of Madame Bovary felt that ‘ art must be chaste’ and that the aversion defence was used for the first time in Last Exit to Brooklyn. Their conclusion was that the courts should shy away from any cases where censorship may be involved because it is a vain gesture, serves no useful purpose and is likely to backfire.


They were followed by Katherine Inglis from the University of Edinburgh on ‘Teaching Censorship’. She began with the obvious question of ‘What is censorship’ and explained how the course that she teaches looks at various issues such as legislation and different forms of censorship. This covered examples from Milton to the imprisonment of publishers in The French Revolution and from Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and to the present day insidious use of filters by Internet Service Providers. She argued as to the usefulness of self-censoring and the perennial problem of protecting the young and the vulnerable. The course appeared a worthy and enlightening one which students would get much benefit from.


However one could not help but think the classes were conducted with undue restraint as it was made clear that issues raised by Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was not broached although the problems thrown up by the play Behzti was mooted as a topic for the future, notwithstanding that this took place some ten years ago.


Henry Irving of The Institute of English Studies (IES) gave an interesting paper on censorship in the Second World War. Much of his findings drew upon a research project on the Ministry of Information undertaken by IES, looking at the MOI’s joint responsibility for censorship and the release of positive news information that would not benefit the enemy.


The government’s rights, in the interest of national security, to examine all communications were looked at, as was the issue of self censorship. Much criticism was laid at the door of the MOI as a pedlar of myth and misinformation, although it was argued that this worked in its favour as it undermined the idea that its main duty was censorship.


The first day was brought to a close by the keynote speaker, Rachel Potter of University of East Anglia. Ms Potter’s defence of literary freedom was wide ranging - from the fictional legal argument of the protection of the young girl, through John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Schiller and Nabokov got a mention, as did EM Forster and George Orwell. The point was raised as to whether Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses would be published in today’s climate. I was a little disconcerted to learn that D H Lawrence thought Ulysses was disgusting. Who would have guessed?


The Friday began with a panel session on ‘Forbidden Books’, which included a paper on the absence of censorship in a collection of early printed books from the Middle Temple Library given by Renae Satterley. Richard Espley from Senate House Library spoke on the works of Alec Craig, a campaigner for freedom from censorship who died in 1973, and whose collection of censored and outlawed work was broken up and dispersed. Senate House themselves accepted much of this material but failed to catalogue it until 2013. Alas I missed this session again due to transport issues. I made it in time however for a very entertaining talk by Rachel Macgregor from The Library of Birmingham entitled ‘Unadulterated Filth: Jean Genet in the library’.


In 1957 the library ordered Genet’s Oeuvres Completes, two of the three volume set were seized under the Customs Consolidation Act 1876. Initially outraged by this seizure and the media stories that followed, the library committee chairman did a volte face when he visited the British Library and read selected texts in translation. He denounced it as unadulterated filth. This case was cited in evidence to support the introduction of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and the view that works should be taken as a whole and not condemned for their so called ‘purple passages’.


Louise Cooke and Clare Ravenwood from Loughborough University took a more expansive look at how libraries have dealt with censorship over the last century. They examined issues from the Public Libraries Act 1919 and the pressure from various groups in the censoring of anything that was felt might corrupt the young and vulnerable. They looked at the notion of moral panic, and the effort to encourage high culture rather that what was seen as low culture due to libraries increasing their stock to include more fiction as people had more leisure time.


The mythical young lady in need of protection raised her head once more as a reason not to stock certain books. There was covert censorship, with libraries hiding material out of sight or withdrawing books following a complaint. They also delayed buying particular books and would insist that young people got written permission to borrow items that may have some risqué content. The current issue which appears to have slipped under most people’s radar is the tacit acceptance of the imposition of filtering software on internet access for everyone using library facilities. Again the argument is based around the protection of children, a valid aim, but as 100% of libraries use filters is it an entirely acceptable policy? It was argued that the decision to censor was taken at local government level and that staff and users took a pragmatic response to this measure.


Liam Sims from the Cambridge University Library continued the theme in discussing CUL’s position as a copyright deposit library, and how librarians act as arbiters of taste and the necessarily subjective stance they take as to who can access their extensive collection of books, classified under the heading ‘ Arc[ana]’, consisting of seditious and obscene material. Much of this work has been donated over three centuries, from early printed latin poetry to The Worship of Priapus in 1883. Much of the work was, and is, only available to the serious reader, and at least MA standing seemed to be the threshold that is applied. The question was posed as to the how the conflict for librarians between priorities in making material accessible or withholding books which will offend is navigated.


In the first of the afternoon sessions Helen Lindsay looked at how MI5 monitored writers, and other people of interest from the 1940s and 1950s, with the added significance that her father, Jack Lindsay, as a prominent Marxist historian was under extensive surveillance for long periods of time. Newly released files entitled ‘KV2’ showed how state security not only documented people’s lives, but how this could also determine their life path. Although heavily redacted it could be gleaned from the style of writing whether it was the work of an informant or their handler or particular special branch officers. Ms Lindsay, whilst acknowledging that there may be times when surveillance might be necessary, forwarded the notion that the manner and the use of derogatory language went a long way in how the subjects were judged. In her father’s case he was referred to as hostile, stooped, sallow, blotchy and worst of all, ‘he did not wear a hat’! When poetry readings were held at their home it was referred to as a ‘cell’ of communists. The position was taken that as the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to MI5’s ability to redact and withhold information, the file’s value as an archive in terms of the quality of completeness provided a distorted myopic viewpoint on what could be seen as a war of ideas.


Lise Jaillant from University of East Anglia spoke on the issue of the difficulty of accessing publishers archives and their role as gate-keepers. Rebecca Knuth (University of Hawaii) further explored the gatekeeper role by highlighting how various writers and artists have, after their death, had their letters altered or rewritten (Queen Victoria for example) or burnt (ie Bronte sisters). In addition, Lewis Carroll had his diaries excised by his sister and Ruskin destroyed Turner’s erotic drawings. All of this was done for various reasons; love; jealousy; hate; privacy - but ultimately all were done in the name of preserving reputation. It inevitably begged the question of how true are the biographies to their subjects?


The final session of the conference was entitled ‘Unlicensed Literary Licentiousness’. Elizabeth English from Cardiff Metropolitan University gave a spirited exposition of sexual censorship in the early 20thcentury, with particular attention to the rise of ‘lesbian literature’ and the treatment of writers such as Radclyffe Hall and Nora James. She argued that highbrow literature was more likely to be censored and attacked by the state, while lowbrow fiction was perceived to be less threatening and therefore more acceptable for public consumption .This would appear to be at odds with the accepted view of high /low culture where pornography is concerned.


The attacks on the writers signalled to them that there was no place for sincere works on lesbianism and the climate of the day drove them to genre fiction as a safe place to explore their sexuality. Stacy Gillis of the University of Newcastle looked at Elinor Glyn ‘s novel Three Weeks and the trial for breach of copyright relating to a comedic film version. The defendants claim that the film was a burlesque or parody. The judge was of the opinion that copyright ‘cannot exist in a work of a tendency so grossly immoral as this’, and felt that the book should be suppressed. Again the protection of public morals and gender raised its head.


The final speaker of the conference, Owen Heathcote of University of Bradford, gave his paper on Eric Jourdan’s Les Mauvais Anges(Wicked Angels). This was published in 1955, banned in 1956 and finally republished in 1984. The book followed the lives of two participants indulging in sadistic and masochistic violence until one kills the other, who then himself dies in a motorcycle accident. Post-War France was not ready for such an uninhibited account of two male teenager’s sex life.


The result of the very long ban was that Jourdan has been marginalised as an ‘erotic gay novelist’, the speaker queried what extent the role of censorship has in creating or reinforcing the notion of the ‘homosexual writer’


In looking over the last two days I was impressed by the commitment of the speakers and their immersion in their chosen areas. I was surprised by the fact that there were so many layers of censorship from our libraries. This included the acceptance of filtering software and the difficulty of accessing archives, in addition to the fact that letters, notes and diaries may have been tampered with by avowedly well-meaning relatives or publishers intent on preserving reputation.


The librarian’s dilemma of what to buy and what to withhold was also very interesting, with the librarian here acting as a form of gatekeeper. There were many contentious areas covered and little in the way of certainty – in fact the only certainty is that censorship is by nature subjective and will always be controversial.


Alex McArthur Sinclair LLB LLM
Barrister, Senior Lecturer
Associate Fellow, Centre for law Society and Popular Culture



Alex McArthur Sinclair (LLB LLM Barrister, Senior Lecturer Associate Fellow, Centre for law Society and Popular Culture)



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