Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Shane Leslie and Self-Censoring "The Cantab"

In 1922 the Irish catholic novelist Shane Leslie published a semi-autobiographical novel The Oppidan, a tale of life at Eton, where Leslie had been schooled and which he hated. The novel was reasonably well received and publication passed without much comment. In 1926 he published a second semi-autobiographical novel, again full of real people partially disguised, this time dealing with life at Cambridge University: The Cantab. It wasn't a matter of libel though which caused problems for him, it was a matter of morality. Shortly after the book was released the Catholic Bishop of Northampton, Dr Clary Elwes, wrote to the Cambridge Review condemning the book. Leslie withdrew it. All the unsold copies were taken back. Shortly after this Leslie learned that legal proceedings against the book were also being put in motion. This clipping from The Express makes it clear just how abject he was in his sense of humiliation and despair.

Or does it!? Leslie was not above a bit of dissembling here and there to aid his cause. For example, Corvines know Leslie as one of the early, passionate collectors and would-be biographers of Frederick Rolfe, yet to read his autobiography you would think it was just a moment's passing interest. In the grovelling apology that he wrote for the Cambridge Review and which is quoted in the clipping above, he makes a case that perhaps, had the planned sequel been ready at the same time, the moral deficiencies of The Cantab might have been mitigated. Thus he places the idea of a sequel in the minds of the readers who are intrigued already no doubt by the scandal, and all the while we now know, he was busily scoring through and rewriting passages of the original text so that, within a few months, a new, self-censored version of The Cantab was available. One can't help hearing the phrase in the mind, "no publicity is bad publicity".

So what were the changes that Leslie made between the first and second version? The changes are not extensive. A few involved the changing of a couple of sentences. There are three or four places where he rewrites a couple of pages but nothing more than that. In each case they tone down the language and make the immorality of his characters slightly less 'in your face'. Take this extract from page 17 describing the circumstances of one of his character's birth.

"Veronica's life ensampled Cherryumpton existences. Her birth was incestuous, owing to the close intimacy in which Mrs Judbud's family had been brought up. So promiscuous had their cottage life been, that it was difficult to know whether Veronica was the issue of brother and sister or of uncle and niece. Both brother and uncle denied responsibility for the seventeen-year-old mother, but as it was in the family it didn't seem to matter."

Which Leslie changes in the second version to:

"Veronica's life ensampled Cherryumpton existences. Her birth was illegitimate , owing to the close intimacy in which Mrs Judbud's family had been brought up. With neighbours sharing the same set of cottages. Nobody ever claimed Veronica's paternity, and she went through life as Mrs Judbud's niece. It did not seem to matter at the family honour was left to aunt and niece to explain."

At the other end of the book when one of the characters feels himself in danger of loosing his virtue Leslie originally wrote:

"He began by making an ejaculation to St Joseph, who was said in the Prayer Manuals to be efficient against whoredom. It had no effect on the Jewish landlord"

and changed it to:

""He began by making an ejaculation to St Joseph. Then he prayed sweetly unto One, who was conceived without sin, and he felt better. His prayers had no effect on the absurd creatures who were troubling his peace."

These changes and a number of others like them are what Leslie describes in the preface to the revised edition as "the incriminated passages and more have been innocuously overwritten." What's more this was done, "in deference to the Roman obedience before the author was aware of proceedings on the part of the state." In the first version of the book, the sequel that he wrote about is advertised as Babylon "in preparation". In the preface to the revised version he addresses this: "these passages were intended as preludes to a searching study of the Social Evil in the promised Sequel. This Sequel contained scenes which the author could hardly bear to write and which the public has shown that it cannot bear to read. To save some trouble, and without inflicting any loss on literature, the author has destroyed the Sequel."

As it happens, there was a sequel eventually, in 1929, the fairly innocuous The Anglo-Catholic, thus completing the Edward Stornington trilogy. Self-censorship? Self-promotion? Probably a bit of both, we will probably never know whether there was a driving cynicism or just an attitude of 'making the best of a bad situation'.

1 comment:

Vikash Kumar said...
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