Word Crimes:
Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England

Joss Marsh

The University of Chicago Press 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999 https://dannyreviews.com/
The central theme of Word Crimes is the nineteenth century evolution of blasphemy from an offence against religion to a literary crime. Marsh sets this in the broader history of English freethought, literature, law, and culture. Her analysis is dense and academic in style (and there are the obligatory references to Foucault and Lacan and other such theorists), but it is never unreadable. She offers heroic figures, dramatic confrontations, and tragic ironies as well as literary excursions and cultural connections.

The event at the centre of Word Crimes is the final trial of G. W. Foote in 1883, but Marsh precedes this with a brief survey of the other notable blasphemy cases of the nineteenth century. William Hone was tried three times for blasphemy in 1817 and acquitted on all accounts. He went on to produce the Apocryphal New Testament and was a major influence on Dickens. In 1819 Richard Carlile republished Paine's The Age of Reason and was imprisoned for blasphemy. Hundreds of working class volunteers followed him to prison in one of the archetypal civil disobedience campaigns.

The 1840s saw a number of significant cases. Attempts to suppress Henry Hetherington's Poor Man's Guardian and other cheap publications aimed at the working class showed how intimately blasphemy and freethought were connected to freedom of the press. Hetherington's private action for blasphemy against respectable publisher Edward Moxon, for publishing Shelley's Queen Mab, highlighted the class partiality of the law: though the case was successful, Moxon was never sentenced, and Thomas Talfourd's defence speech helped to "lift high-literary works beyond reach of criminal action". (Talfourd was to play a key role in the creation of modern copyright legislation, which had not previously protected works considered obscene or blasphemous.) And Jacob Holyoake and Charles Southwell went to prison for publishing the Oracle of Reason.

The 1880s were the heroic decade of Secularism in England, with the highlight Charles Bradlaugh's long struggle to take his seat in parliament. Foote's launch of the Freethinker in 1881 brought swift response: two indictments produced three trials. The jury in the first failed to reach a verdict and the second sent Foote to prison for a year, but it was the third, presided over by Lord Chief Justice Coleridge, that was most significant. Allowed to quote freely from other texts, as he and other defendants had not been since Hone's trials, Foote delivered an outstanding speech, appealing to literature and effectively summoning Huxley, Mill, Spencer, Arnold, and other highbrow writers to stand in the dock beside him. In acquitting Foote, Coleridge said

"I now lay it down as law, that, if the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without a person being guilty of blasphemous libel."
But the effects of this were not as positive as might appear.
[T]hough it seemed that justice was served in April 1883, and though Lord Chief Justice Coleridge appeared so enlightened and class blind in court, he had written an official recipe for discrimination on the grounds of language, "manner", and style. The lower-class role of blasphemous scapegoat had been confirmed at the highest level.
The Foote case also sheds light on responses to the vulgar, lower class Salvation Army and helps us understand novelists of the 1880s such as George Gissing and Mrs Humphrey Ward (Robert Elsmere).

Foote's contributions to freethought were part of a broad tradition of "bibliolatry" and "bible-smashing". More covert unorthodoxy was apparent in writers as diverse as Wilkie Collins, Samuel Butler, George Meredith (a friend of Foote), and Matthew Arnold. Along with the spread of "higher criticism" and the making of the Revised Version, these contributed to the reformulation of blasphemy and the move to Literature as a standard of value: henceforth the Bible was to be a literary masterpiece and blasphemy an offence against good taste.

In these struggles over language the borders between obscenity and blasphemy also became blurred.

The logic of these slippages — liberty to license, blasphemy to obscenity — is compelling, documented, almost overdetermined. It tempts us to view obscenity as the Victorian crime of crimes, and to consider the Freethinker case a locus classicus of the phenomenon whereby all offenses were measured against the great Victorian standard of taboo on sexuality.
The Victorian obsession with euphemism extended to legal changes to avoid allowing blasphemy and obscenity a hearing even in court, by silencing the accused. Secularists faced a linguistic dilemma, forced to choose between using the language of power, resonant with tradition, or facing the "overblown strain or disruptive newness — and maybe prosecution" which came with linguistic innovation. Holyoake, who went on to found the cooperative and Secularism movements and to become a "near-eminent" Victorian, illustrated the conservative approach.

Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure and "the horrors of [its] reception in 1895" provide a close to the history of nineteenth century blasphemy. Hardy's Jude connects back to Thomas Pooley, a rural worker convicted for blasphemy in 1857, in the only blasphemy case between the 1840s and 1883 to go to trial. The prosecutor in this case was the same John Duke Coleridge who was to preside over the Foote trial.

Word Crimes is not just of historical interest. There are still clear connections between censorship, class prejudice, and literary judgement. Marsh draws parallels with cases such as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Gay News, but it is easy to find recent examples from Australia. Attempts to ban the distribution of music with "suicidal lyrics" are openly directed against "low" forms such as rap and heavy metal, rather than against "elite" classical music. And laws against "instruction in crime" were arbitrarily deployed against students for publishing a satirical article "The Art of Shoplifting", with some of the judges involved openly appealing to literary judgement in their decisions.

February 1999

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%T Word Crimes
%S Blasphemy, Culture, and Literature in Nineteenth-Century England
%A Marsh, Joss
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1998
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0226506916
%P xii,431pp