A GoodReads group that I’m part of has been reading and discussing all of Agatha Christie’s full-length novels at one per month in order of publication, since October 2020. So far, we’ve covered the thirty novels that Agatha Christie published between October 1920 and November 1941.
For me, a few of them, The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd (1923) , The Murder At The Vicarage (1930), and Murder On The Orient Express (1934) have been five-star reads that I would recommend to anyone. A couple of them Death In The Clouds (1935), Appointment With Death (1938), ended up on my DNF pile. The rest were mostly entertaining reads.
One of the things that I valued about reading Agatha Christie’s books was that they gave me a contemporary window on how the English upper classes who were born before the First World War and lived through the Second, saw England and the Empire.
The casual use of racist language to describe anyone not English, the pejorative characterisation of foreigners from the dago Italians, through the violent and uncouth Americans to the not-really-one-of-us returning colonials reflects the smug insular arrogance of the people who led our Empire. When Christie’s books were published, nothing about the way that they described people was seen as shocking or even unusual. The views and language of her characters reflected the mindset that her readers took for granted and the the English upper middle classes expected to be defended.
What I saw through Christie’s window into the 1920s and 1930s wasn’t shocking but it was a reminder of how much I would have disliked those people and how much they would have disdained me.
Reading The Murder At The Vicarage, made me angry at the way in which Christie’s characters saw the poor as less than human. I wrote a blog post called The camouflage of the poor in middle class murder mysteries explaining my anger. I ended by saying:
“So why did the poor of 1930 wear camouflage? Because not being seen is better than being seen as not human.
I don’t want to go back to those days.”
My anger wasn’t at Christie for writing about these abhorrent views and these vile people but at the attitudes, values and behaviours of the people who led and controlled my country before World War II.
I think that my anger is a healthy anger and that Christie’s books provided me with a valuable, uncensored view of a time in our history that our current leaders would like to forget about or overwrite.
So, when I saw that HarperCollins has let sensitivity readers loose on Christie’s books and is reworking them to remove potentially offensive language, my first thought was to question why this was being done.
I understand that modern publishing has normalised trigger warnings and the use of sensitivity readers to help authors to identify where their choice of language or stereotypical presentation of groups to which the author does not belong may cause offence. I’m OK with that because each author has the opportunity to decide what to do with the feedback that they’ve been given.
I’m not OK with sensitivity readers proposing that the text of dead authors be rewritten to avoid causing offence. That moves into straightforward Bowdlerism.
Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1807) set out to make Shakespeare safe for ‘modern’ readers and became the standard school version for most of the nineteenth century. It effectively castrated Shakespeare’s text but it did support the values that the soon-to-be Victorian mindset wanted to promote.
Christie’s readership is global. Her books define how people who have never been to England see the English in much the same way as Dickens’ books and Shakespeare’s plays do. Tidying away her everyday racism like an embarrassing elderly relative who you don’t let into polite company anymore. To me, that seems to serve an agenda that wants to project an image of England as it was 100 years ago that doesn’t cause any offence, promotes tourism and avoids embarrassing questions about the kind of people who led our country then and whose descendants still run it now.
I think that what the Bowldlerisation of Chrisie promotes is a version of the culture or the last days of the British Empire that is seen as safe by the people who don’t want us to reassess Britain’s heritage.
I think bowdlerising Christie does more to whitewash British history than it does to protect the sensitivities of modern readers.
I am offended by HarperCollins’ legitimisation of the removal of things that may cause offence.
Offence is like pain. It acts as a warning. It reminds us of our racist, xenophobic, class-ridden past and serves as a warning that we might end up right back where we were a hundred years ago. The offensive shouldn’t be airbrushed out of the picture. It should be left where we can see it and reflect on what it means that this offensive stuff was once accepted as normal and unworthy of comment.
In 2021, in response to growing pressure to remove various statues and monuments honouring men who made their money in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the government announced that new legislation would be introduced to “protect England’s cultural and historic heritage.“, including
- New legal safeguards introduced for historic monuments at risk of removal
- All historic statues, plaques and other monuments will now require full planning permission to remove, ensuring due process and local consultation in every case
- The law will make clear that historic monuments should be retained and explained.
Oliver Dowden, who was then the Culture Secretary, said:
“I strongly believe that we should learn from our past – in order to retain and explain our rich history.The decisions we make now will shape the environment inherited by our children and grandchildren. It is our duty to preserve our culture and heritage for future generations and these new laws will help to do so.”
I think retain and explain is a better option than edit out of existence. I would have no problem with adding a section to a book identifying the offence that might be caused so that readers can decide for themselves if they still want to read the text but I think the text should remain available.
If HarperCollins go ahead with its policy then I think the word CENSORED or at least ADAPTED needs to feature prominently on the cover.
6 thoughts on “Why I disagree with the Bowdlerisation of Agatha Christie by HarperCollins”
Good point, Mike. That’s why I’m against the bowdlerization of any book by Penguin, HarperCollins, and anyone else’s army of sensitivity editors. In this matter, my hunch is that the masses are on our side, but the elites in the publishing industry are against us and flexing all their power to institutionalize their practices before the masses catch on.
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I agree Mike and my review of ‘A Caribbean Mystery’ also noted the challenge for contemporary readers faced with multiple prejudices that are clearly of a very different time. Yet, to sanitise and ‘sensitise’ for a modern readership seems to me to be mildly patronising and misses a valid opportunity to reflect on the ongoing enlightenment that may surely be the hallmark of a maturing society. I think no less of Christie, or Kipling, Eliot, Hardy or Dickens for being duly influenced by their times and respective generations. What insights they gave us! However, adopting dubious attitudes is optional.
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Although we now recognise these phrases as unacceptable, their use in literature and film in the past provides us with a valuable glimpse into the attitudes and lifestyles of that time. It is important that we do not erase or replace these works in their current formats. Instead, we could consider including a warning for sensitive content, allowing individuals to make informed decisions about whether to continue reading or watching. However, we must not hide these works from the world. Experiences and knowledge are essential for learning from past mistakes and avoiding them in the future. As such, we should embrace these works as a means of understanding our history and promoting progress.