To boldly bowdlerize – Thomas Bowdler and the Swansea connection

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Most of us know the verb "to bowdlerize" - in other words to expurgate or cut out. It comes from the writer Thomas Bowdler whose book The Family Shakespeare - he originally spelled it Shakspeare - provided families with what Bowdler felt was an acceptable version of the bard's works.

Bowdler's four volume edition of Shakespeare was a huge success in the early 19th century and within a few years of its publication he was a household name.

Most people do not realise that Bowdler was living in Swansea when he first began work on his edition of Shakespeare. He was there when the book was published and continued to live there until his death in 1825.

Thomas Bowdler was born near Bath on 11 July 1754. His father was a wealthy banker and when, in due course, Thomas had to decide on a career he turned to medicine. He studied at St Andrews and at Edinburgh, gaining his degree in 1776 before embarking on a protracted grand tour of Europe that took him to places including Germany, Spain and Portugal.

During this tour he contracted a serious fever that almost ruined his health. He survived but the episode had destroyed his interest in medicine and, although later elected to the College of Physicians, he did not practice. Instead he devoted himself to issues like prison reform. And, of course, he wrote.

Bowdler's first book, Letters From Holland, came out in 1788 and in 1896, when he was over 40 years old, he married Elizabeth Frevenen. It was an ill-judged decision which resulted in an unhappy marriage. After a while the couple lived apart, nobody in the family ever mentioning Elizabeth's name again.

Bowdler, after a period on the Isle of Wight, finally settled in Swansea, at Rhyddings House in the Brynmill area of the fast-growing community.

Quite why Bowdler chose Swansea is not clear, but in the western parts of the town, away from the smoking chimneys of the industrial areas along the river, there may have been a passing similarity with the Isle of Wight. And the views out over Swansea Bay were nothing short of magnificent.

The idea for a watered down version of Shakespeare had been in Bowdler's mind for years, ever since his own father had first read him the plays during his childhood, carefully cutting out all the profanities and indecencies, in fact anything that he considered unsuitable.

Happily settled in Swansea - although he was to continue to travel widely to the end of his life – Bowdler conceived the idea of putting together an edition of Shakespearean plays that would be suitable for all members of society, young or old, male or female. It required editing to an immense degree, but Bowdler thought it a worthwhile exercise.

These days it is easy to scoff at Thomas Bowdler's mangling of Shakespeare's work. He did, after all, manage to call the death of Ophelia an "accidental drowning" while Lady Macbeth's famous line was rendered "Out crimson spot." Nowadays teachers and publishers would have no truck with such fiddling but in the early 19th century things were very different.

And whatever you feel about the process, what Bowdler did do was to make Shakespeare's works accessible, particularly to children. And that is something to be applauded.

The first edition of The Family Shakespeare came out in 1807 and was an instant success. A larger, extended version of the plays was published in 1818 and sold extensively; by 1827 it had run to five editions.

Thomas Bowdler died at Rhyddings House on 24 February 1825. He was buried in Oystermouth Churchyard.

In his will Bowdler bequeathed a sum of money to the poor of Swansea. A similar sum was given to his birthplace outside Bath. His extensive library was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter.

In an interesting footnote, Rhyddings House, where Bowdler lived for the final years of his life, had already played host to another well-known literary figure. Walter Savage Landor, a friend of Charles Dickens, lived there in 1796, just a few years before Bowdler moved in. In those earlier years the place was, apparently, rather run down and delapidated.

Thomas Bowdler may not have been a great writer but his name lives on, not least as one of the great mangling editors of his age. And Swansea should be proud of the connection.

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Phil

    on 16 Jun 2013 08:55

    I find it interesting that places like Dylan Thomas' Boat House are remembered and celebrated but houses such as Rhyddings are virtually ignored. I wonder why?
    Ustinov's Romanoff and Juliet - I wonder what Thomas Bowdler would have made of that. Nowadays we don't even blink an eye at it but back in the 60s it must have been a very dangerous thing for a school to put on.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by rmacmhor

    on 14 Jun 2013 18:20

    Thomas Bowdler and ‘Bowdlerisation’ brings back memories of our schooldays, Phil. Even with a vague Shakespearean connection. In 1960, GS Shaw our drama teacher and maestro of producing school plays, chose not a Shakespeare play, but a cold war spoof written by Peter Ustinov called “Romanoff and Juliet.” It was based on the idea of the daughter of the American Ambassador to some fictional central European Republic falling in love with the son of the Russian Ambassador, with ensuing mayhem. In the play there were some expletives, and I well remember GS Shaw going through these with us telling us which ones to cut. Hence, where one line suggested that someone had been born out of wedlock (who is bowdlerising now!) he said “we’d better cut that.” Others were left in – “We’ll get away with that” he said, and notably, one was where one of the soldiers in the play asked “Where’s my bloody rifle?” There was on-stage kissing too, that was left in. The play went well and the audiences seemed to enjoy it. One section of the local press heaped praise upon us but the other called into question its suitability.
    Then, the Free Church Council got hold of the story and complained to the Head. Letters in the press followed, and we even got into the Sunday papers! We were delighted! I have to say that the Head, TC Roberts as well as GS Shaw, responded wonderfully and defused the situation.
    So that is where ‘bowdlerisation’ can get you - or not, as the case may be. I have no doubt that if that play was staged in a school today, complete with all expletives, no one would blink.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by raymondo

    on 14 Jun 2013 15:55

    Rhyddings House is still there but don't expect anything too stately. Nowadays, it's part of the urban fabric of Brynmill and stands on the corner of Bernard Street and St Albans Road, neither of which existed in Thomas's day. I believe it was used by one of the services during WW2 and after that was divided into 5 or 6 flats which have provided rented accommodation for mainly young Swansea based workers and students. My wife and I lived there in the late sixties just after we were married. At that time, the older inhabitants of Brynmill referred to it as the Boundary House.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Phil

    on 14 Jun 2013 09:37

    Another bowdlerization I recently came across is from Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio's "the prick on noon" becomes "the point of noon." Why?
    I also recently learned that Bowdler prepared a watered down version of the Old Testament, one fit for family consumption. Now that really does make the mind boggle!

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