In 1807, The family Shakespeare, a shortened version of 20 of Shakespeare’s plays, was published anonymously in Bath, edited, as it said in the preface, to ‘remove every thing that could give just offence to the religious or virtuous mind’. A more comprehensive edition appeared in 1818 and went on to be a best seller, bringing Shakespeare (or a polite, refined version of Shakespeare) to the new mass reading public.
The Bowdlers – Henrietta Maria ‘Harriet’ (1750-1830) and her brother Thomas (1754-1825), a retired physician – were responsible for the volumes, giving their name to the verb ‘to Bowdlerise’, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as to ‘Expurgate (a book etc.) by removing or altering material considered improper or offensive; emasculate.’
There were precedents in the Bowdler family for the siblings’ enthusiastic literary culling. Their mother, Elizabeth Stuart Bowdler née Cotton (d.1797), a daughter of Sir John Cotton, published a small book in 1775 – A commentary on the Song of Solomon paraphrased – in which she offered her own suggestions for improving the Bible’s celebration of sexual love.
The Bowdlers’ father, Thomas Bowdler (1720?-1785), a gentleman of independent means, read aloud to his family, cutting the more ‘difficult’ passages as he went – effectively Bowlderising as he spoke. His son Thomas remembered: ‘…such were his good taste, his delicacy, and his prompt discretion, that his family listened with delight to Lear, Hamlet, and Othello, without knowing that those matchless tragedies contained words and expressions improper to be pronounced; and without having any reason to suspect that any parts of the plays had been omitted by the circumspect and judicious reader.’
It isn’t clear why Harriet decided to produce her four-volume version of Shakespeare in 1807, but by that time she was already a respected author and editor. In 1786, she published an edition of her deceased sister Jane’s poems and essays, and in 1801 she produced Sermons on the doctrines and duties of Christianity, a book said to have so impressed the Bishop of London, Beilby Porteus, that he offered the author a permanent church appointment, not realising the writer was a woman.
When the first edition of The family Shakespeare appeared in 1807 in Bath no author’s name was attached to the title page. Noel Perrin, in his book on the Bowlers, speculates that Harriet, as an unmarried woman with a virtuous reputation, may not have wanted to acknowledge that she knew enough about sexual impropriety to edit Shakespeare’s bawdy plays. By 1809 there was speculation that the unnamed writer was her younger brother, Thomas. He did not deny the rumours, eventually took over the project and is named as the author in later editions. For decades, it was assumed he had originated the idea; Harriet effectively disappeared from history.
Thomas Bowdler turned to literary pursuits after giving up medicine. He studied at St Andrews and Edinburgh, where in 1776 he graduated MD and published his thesis Tentamen medicum inaugurale de febrium intermittentium natura et indole. He spent the next four years on the Continent on a Grand Tour, but travelling doesn’t seem to have broadened his mind. He wrote: ‘…in my opinion, the great advantage to be derived by Englishmen from a view of foreign countries in general, and of France in particular, is to increase their attachment to their native land.’
Thomas then practised medicine in London with success. His nephew, writing in a biographical memoir of his uncle, relates that: ‘…he followed that in which his lot had been cast for some years very diligently, and with every prospect of attaining the highest eminence in it…His success was great, and he never entered a house as a physician, in which he did not continue to visit as a friend.’ In 1781, he became a fellow of the Royal Society and a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians.
But Thomas Bowdler never seems to have liked his profession. His nephew explained: ‘…it was exceeding irksome and distasteful to him; and the distressing scenes which he was obliged to witness affected his feelings so painfully, that his peace of mind and bodily health suffered materially.’
On the death of his father in 1785, Thomas was able to give up medicine and concentrate on charitable work, or satisfying what his nephew described as his ‘hereditary desire to be doing good’. He became part of a literary circle around Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, ‘The Queen of the Blues’, who in 1769 had published An essay on the writings and genius of Shakespeare, in which she proclaimed Shakespeare the greatest English poet.
After the failure of a prison reform proposal in which he was involved, Thomas left London and, perhaps encouraged by Montagu’s example, turned his attention to his sister’s Shakespearian project. A second edition of her work, the (slightly) renamed The family Shakspeare, now wholly edited by Thomas Bowdler, appeared in 1818.
The 1818 edition initially sold few copies, but in 1821 it became caught up in a dispute between two rival journals – Blackwood’s Magazine and The Edinburgh Review. Blackwood’s ran a review of the book, savaging the idea of expurgation. What Blackwood’s hated, The Edinburgh Review promoted, so it ran a positive review by Lord Jeffrey. As a result, sales soared and The family Shakspeare was in print throughout the 19th century and into the 20th.
Perrin speculates the book also epitomised the particular mood of the age – a cultural move from the bawdiness of the eighteenth century, to the nineteenth century’s idealisation of ‘delicacy’ and the protection of sensitive, innocent natures, particularly women, who had to be shielded at all costs. This was also an era which saw the rise of evangelical Christianity.
The Bowdlers’ project opened the way for more attempts at expurgation. According to Perrin, by 1850 there were seven ‘edited’ versions of Shakespeare in publication; by 1900 there were 50. While the siblings’ expurgation was criticised at the time as intellectual vandalism, at least their project kept Shakespeare alive, with the plays (or a version of the plays) able to be read and appreciated through a century of prudery.
As the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne concluded: ‘More nauseous and more foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or deprecate the merits of Bowdler. No man [sic] ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children...’
Sarah Gillam, editor Inspiring Physicians
- Bowdler T. Memoir of the late John Bowdler, Esq: to which is added some account of the late Thomas Bowdler, Esq., editor of The family Shakspeare. London, Printed for Longman, Hurts, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1825 [accessed 12 April 2021].
- Loughlin-Chow M C. Bowdler, Henrietta Maria [Harriet] (1750-1830). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 12 April 2021]
- Loughlin-Chow M C. Bowdler, Thomas (1754-1825). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Perrin N. Dr Bowdler’s legacy: a history of expurgated books in England and America. Boston MA, Nonpareil Books, 1992.