Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Canon Rawnsley's Beastly Books

As a part of my research into the treatment of erotic material in libraries in the late 19th and early 20th century, which is kind-of related to my research into Private Case collections (though the connection isn't that clear even to me), I decided to trawl through a representative selection of the articles that appear under the heading "Doubtful Books" in H. G. T. Cannons's Bibliography of Library Economy … from 1876 to 1920 (1927).

These articles have absolutely hilarious titles, like F. B. Perkins on “Unclean Books” (1885), T. H. West and others on “Improper Books” (1895), E. C. Doren on “Bad Books” (1903), L. Inkster on “Poisonous Books” (1910), Canon Rawnsley on “Pernicious Literature” (1912), C. W. F. Goss on “Nasty Literature” (1912), L. S. Jast on “Doubtful Books” (1913), and an anonymous contribution on “The Rejected Book” (1913).

There have been a few really useful finds among these articles, but the main use of them has been in gathering together lots of amusing tags used to describe the books these authors don't like. It is a sad reflection on my scholarship that I have started awarding a point for each negative tag.

Last night I read three articles from the Library Association Record: Alfred Lancaster, “Improper Books,” LAR 12 (1910): 6–7; C. W. F. Goss, “Nasty Literature,” LAR 14 (1912): 517–8; and Canon Rawnsley, “Recent Pernicious Literature,” LAR 14 (1912): 479–82.

The last of these is the one that provided me with a Harry Potter moment, a title that sounds like it would not be out of place in Hogwarts, but which would probably be quite inappropriate for the kiddies. But I get ahead of myself.

C. W. F. Goss, author of "Nasty Literature" (1912), "almost" apologises for introducing the subject "of the demoralizing book" at all but, having done so, agrees with a suggestion "made by the Committee of the National Council of Public Morals" in pleading for the inclusion of the word "indecent" and "obscene" to legislation aimed at banning "'immoral' literature." C.W.F.G., therefore, only gets two, or perhaps three, points (depending on whether he gets one for his title): demoralizing, immoral (and nasty).

Alfred Lancaster does better with his "Improper Books" (1910). Al. is particularly gratified that London publishers "seem willing to comply with the wishes of the circulating libraries" to exclude "impure literature," "books of an obnoxious character," "books of an improper character," "improper books," "books of a pernicious kind," and "books of an unwholesome character." He suggests that if a boycott of such books were widely adopted, writers and publishers would realise that it was pointless writing and publishing them, and "they will have the good sense to direct their talents to producing books of a more wholesome tone." Despite being a pin-head, or perhaps because of it, Al. gets five points: impure, obnoxious, improper, pernicious, and unwholesome.

Canon Rawnsley's paper on "Recent Pernicious Literature" is not reprinted (a shame), but is reported, along with the conversation that followed between the Canon and others. The good Canon wanted the laws "simplified" to make is easier to bring publishers to justice for "the torrent … of fiction, [that is] demoralizing the land," he lambasted "notorious publishing houses … shameless in their publications," for producing "vapid rubbish," "the corrosive novel," "the filthy novel," "demoralizing literature," "pernicious books," "shoddy rubbish," and the one you have been waiting for, "beastly books."

[Canon Rawnsley, I think]

He also, inter alia, laid the boots into the "idle and omnivorous girl reader" who is drawn to "flabby, backboneless stuff … in attractive covers and rather pretty titles." His correspondence with librarians had convinced him that "there was a large amount" of such "cheap, shoddy rubbish read by idling girls." Bad girls.

Mr A. H. Furnish noted that librarian's were striving to correct the mischievous tendency in fiction, by encouraging children to read better books, but the children "began to suspect their [the librarians] motives." To the children, it seemed that the librarians "wanted to give them something dry and unacceptable, and, from the perversity of their nature, to prevent them enjoying themselves."

Mr Hand (not to be confused with Mr Hand, the character in Dark City) pointed out that the librarians were "representatives of the rate-payers, and to some extent controlled by the requirements of the public." Indeed. He, therefore, suggested that all they needed to do was "to ensure there should be no demand for them." Unfortunately he does not explain how this revolution in human nature was to be achieved, it might have been useful to Senator Conroy (another pin-head) in dealing with porn on the internet.

The Chairman suggested that librarians ought, every year, to produce a list of five or six hundred volumes of "unexceptional fiction." The Canon doubted that so many "unexceptional novels" were produced in any year, but agreed with the principle. He proposed that a Board of volunteers could wade through the thousand or so novels per annum to identify "what is good and true, strong, healthy, and British." The Board would then "furnish them with a list of the beastly books issued," so that they could be avoided by the librarians. (Note to self, non-British books = beastly.)

It is a shame that this moral grandstanding, this festival of hot air, produced nothing more lasting than a three-page account in the Library Association Record. Oh, the inexpressible pleasure of reading the titles of Canon Rawnsley's Beastly Books of 1912! Still, the Canon and Co. are the winners, with thirteen (or fourteen) points: pernicious, demoralizing, notorious, shameless, vapid rubbish (should this be counted as two?), corrosive, filthy, pernicious, flabby, backboneless, shoddy, mischievous and beastly. Of course, beastly is probably worth more than one point … but Canon & Co. win either way.

1 comment:

Doc-in-Boots said...

Thoroughly enjoyable account of beastly books! It makes me, being in a very perverse mood, want to trawl through my flabby literature. I long to resurrect such categories as it would make the desire to write a 'banned book' ever so much more fun.