The trouble with censoring Jeeves and Wooster


Melanie McDonagh

Jeeves and Wooster appear in a production of PG Wodehouse’s ‘Perfect Nonsense’ at London’s Duke Of York Theatre (Credit: Getty images)

Melanie McDonagh

17 April 2023

5:37 PM

It would take longer than I’ve got to comb through copies of Thank you, Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves, to find out the ways in which they’ve been edited, ‘minimally’, to remove offensive language, but I think we can work out which bits may have fallen foul of the thought police. Penguin Random House have informed readers of the latest edition:

‘Please be aware that this book was published in the 1930s and contains language, themes and characterisations which you may find outdated. In the present edition we have sought to edit, minimally, words that we regard as unacceptable to present-day readers.’ 

I can only say that, reading Young Men in Spats and a few other PGW stories lately, I found myself hoping that it wouldn’t occur to anyone to submit it to sensitivity readers.

We wouldn’t have known that Wodehouse was being expurgated if it weren’t for the Sunday Telegraph. Good for them, and to the Daily Telegraph for spotting that Roald Dahl had been bowdlerised. Because it simply didn’t cross my mind, as a normal book buyer, that publishers might in fact regard their authors’ texts as so much raw material, to amend at will. In my desperate sunny optimism, I had assumed that what I was reading was what the authors had written. I suppose we’ll have to abandon that premise now.

Printed books had seemed a safer bet. Not now.

But it turns out that the expurgation is more pervasive than we thought: Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie have been amended to take account of current sensitivities too. As for John Buchan, the only chance he has of being left well alone is that Penguin simply hasn’t got round to reading his stuff. There’s a reference to, I think, ‘a dirty Jew’ in one of the Richard Hannay novels; as for Prester John, let’s just hope that Penguin doesn’t realise it’s one of theirs and still in print. In fact, by the time you’d removed all the offensive stuff in it, there wouldn’t be much left.

It’s come to something that, whenever you read older authors, you worry in case they fall into the wrong hands. GK Chesterton’s novels are littered with throwaway references to minstrels and blackface, which were – written as they were 100 years ago or so – intended without malice, but which would get short shrift in a modern edition. Yet that’s the thing about novels; they are of their time. And it’s precisely because they’re of their time that they’re interesting.

It was always one of the problems with Kindle that its texts were potentially amendable. But printed books had seemed a safer bet. Not now. Tucked away in minuscule print on an inside page there may be a notification as above, to the effect that the author’s words have been tampered with, that readers are not getting the actual text they wrote. And if you’re buying the thing online, you’re not going to get the chance to spot the problem at all.

The solution that Penguin arrived at with Roald Dahl was to issue the original stories – with all their fat, gendered, ugly people – in a new classic format, leaving the standard edition bowdlerised for the kiddies. I don’t think we can hope for the equivalent of a Wodehouse edition complete and unabridged and unexpurgated. But what we can ask for – indeed insist on – is that the reader should be given notice prominently that the books have been changed. There simply must be a formula ‘Expurgated Edition’ or ‘Amended Text’ or something on the front cover to let us know that we’re getting a twenty first century version of the original. I would have no objection at all to the priggish trigger warning above letting us know we may be shocked by the contents. Fine. We can handle that, though it’s undeniably irritating.

Indeed, when I bought Tintin in the Congo a few years ago – and yes, it is very much not of our time – it came in a sealed wrapper with a big red wraparound warning that the contents were offensive. I’d have had far less trouble purchasing pornography. But at least back then it was actually available.

It’s a safe bet though that children will have zero chance of ever seeing the originals of any story that has fallen foul of the thought police. School libraries are not going to stock the ‘unabridged’ versions of classic texts; they are more likely to be stuffed with propagandistic books about families with two mummies and grandads going on Pride marches. I could go on about this, but the least problematic route is to get books that are ready-pasteurised.

But to return to the Wodehouse problem, now that we know that authors may be amended at will by publishers, especially those whose estates do not put up enough of a fight, there’s only one way to go: second hand. If you want to know that you’re actually reading what an author wrote, eschew modern editions, and seek out used copies of the work – I’d go back a decade or so. The books themselves will probably look nicer and be much cheaper. But the great thing is that you’ll be reading what the author intended, not what the publisher thinks you should be reading. There’s a difference. And if it means that the publishers concerned are that tiny bit less profitable, well, we can live with that too.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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