A Case Of Bookstall Censorship by Arthur Quiller-Couch

Story type: Essay

March 16, 1895. The “Woman Who Did,” and Mr. Eason who wouldn’t.

“In the romantic little town of ‘Ighbury,
My father kept a Succulating Libary….”

–and, I regret to say, gave himself airs on the strength of it.

The persons in my instructive little story are–

H.H. Prince Francis of Teck.

Mr. Grant Allen, author of The Woman Who Did.

Mr. W.T. Stead, Editor of The Review of Reviews.

Messrs. Eason & Son, booksellers and newsvendors, possessing on the railways of Ireland a monopoly similar to that enjoyed by Messrs. W.H. Smith & Son on the railways of Great Britain.

Mr. James O’Hara, of 18, Cope Street, Dublin.

A Clerk.

Now, on the appearance of Mr. Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did, Mr. Stead conceived the desire of criticising it as the “Book of the Month” in The Review of Reviews for February, 1895. He strongly dissents from the doctrine of The Woman Who Did, and he also believes that the book indicts, and goes far to destroy, its own doctrine. This opinion, I may say, is shared by many critics. He says “Wedlock is to Mr. Grant Allen Nehushtan. And the odd thing about it is that the net effect of the book which he has written with his heart’s blood to destroy this said Nehushtan can hardly fail to strengthen the foundation of reasoned conviction upon which marriage rests.” And again–“Those who do not know the author, but who take what I must regard as the saner view of the relations of the sexes, will rejoice at what might have been a potent force for evil has been so strangely overruled as to become a reinforcement of the garrison defending the citadel its author desires so ardently to overthrow. From the point of view of the fervent apostle of Free Love, this is a Boomerang of a Book.”

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Believing this–that the book would be its own best antidote–Mr. Stead epitomized it in his Review, printed copious extracts, and wound up by indicating his own views and what he deemed the true moral of the discussion. The Review was published and, so far as Messrs. W.H. Smith & Son were concerned, passed without comment. But to the Editor’s surprise (he tells the story in the Westminster Gazette of the 2nd inst.), no sooner was it placed on the market in Ireland than he received word that every copy had been recalled from the bookstalls, and that Messrs. Eason had refused to sell a single copy. On telegraphing for more information, Mr. Stead was sent the following letter:–

“DEAR SIR,–Allen’s book is an avowed defence of Free Love, and a direct attack upon the Christian view of marriage. Mr. Stead criticises Allen’s views adversely, but we do not think the antidote can destroy the ill-effects of the poison, and we decline to be made the vehicle for the distribution of attacks upon the most fundamental institution of the Christian state.

–Yours faithfully,

Mr. Stead thereupon wrote to the managing Director of Messrs. Eason & Son, and received this reply:–

“DEAR SIR,–We have considered afresh the character of the February number of your Review so far as it relates to the notice of Grant Allen’s book, and we are more and more confirmed in the belief that its influence has been, and is, most pernicious.

“Grant Allen is not much heard of in Ireland, and the laudations you pronounce on him as a writer, so far as we know him, appear wholly unmerited.

“At any rate, he appears in your Review as the advocate for Free Love, and it seems to us strange that you should place his work in the exaggerated importance of ‘The Book of the Month,’ accompanied by eighteen pages of comment and quotation, in which there is a publicity given to the work out of all proportion to its merits.

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“I do not doubt that the topic of Free Love engages the attention of the corrupt Londoner. There are plenty of such persons who are only too glad to get the sanction of writers for the maintenance and practice of their evil thoughts, but the purest and best lives in all parts of the field of Christian philanthropy will mourn the publicity you have given to this evil book. It is not even improbable that the perusal of Grant Allen’s book, which you have lifted into importance as ‘The Book of the Month,’ may determine the action of souls to their spiritual ruin.

“The problem of indirect influence is full of mystery, but, as the hour of our departure comes near, the possible consequences to other minds of the example and teaching of our lives may quicken our perceptions, and we may see and deeply regret our actions when not directed by the highest authority, the will of God.–We are, dear Sir, yours very truly (for Eason & Son, Limited),

“CHARLES EASON, Managing Director.”

Exception may be taken to this letter on many points, some trivial and some important. Of the trivial points we may note with interest Mr. Eason’s assumption that his opinion is wanted on the literary merits of the ware he vends; and, with concern, the rather slipshod manner in which he allows himself and his assistants to speak of a gentleman as “Allen,” or “Grant Allen,” without the usual prefix. But no one can fail to see that this is an honest letter–the production of a man conscious of responsibility and struggling to do his best in circumstances he imperfectly understands. Nor do I think this view of Mr. Eason need be seriously modified upon perusal of a letter received by Mr. Stead from a Mr. James O’Hara, of 18, Cope Street, Dublin, and printed in the Westminster Gazette of March 11th. Mr. O’Hara writes:–

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“DEAR SIR,–The following may interest you and your readers. I was a subscriber to the library owned by C. Eason & Co., Limited, and in December asked them for Napoleon and the Fair Sex, by Masson. The librarian informed me Mr. Eason had decided not to circulate it, as it contained improper details, which Mr. Eason considered immoral. A copy was also refused to one of the best-known pressmen in Dublin, a man of mature years and experience.

“Three days afterwards I saw a young man ask the librarian for the same book, and Eason’s manager presented it to him with a low bow. I remarked on this circumstance to Mr. Charles Eason, who told me that he had issued it to this one subscriber only, because he was Prince Francis of Teck.

“I told him it was likely, from the description he had given me of it, to be more injurious to a young man such as Prince Francis of Teck than to me; but he replied: ‘Oh, these high-up people are different. Besides, they are so influential we cannot refuse them. However, if you wish, you can now have the book.’

“I told Mr. Eason that I did not wish to read it ever since he had told me when I first applied for it that it was quite improper.”

The two excuses produced by Mr. Eason do not agree very well together. The first gives us to understand that, in Mr. Eason’s opinion, ordinary moral principles cannot be applied to persons of royal blood. The second gives us to understand that though, in Mr. Eason’s opinion, ordinary moral principles can be applied to princes, the application would involve more risk than Mr. Eason cares to undertake. Each of his excuses, taken apart, is intelligible enough. Taken together they can hardly be called consistent. But the effects of royal and semi-royal splendor upon the moral eyesight are well known, and need not be dwelt on here. After all, what concerns us is not Mr. Eason’s attitude towards Prince Francis of Teck, but Mr. Eason’s attitude towards the reading public. And in this respect, from one point of view–which happens to be his own–Mr. Eason’s attitude seems to me irreproachable. He is clearly alive to his responsibility, and is honestly concerned that the goods he purveys to the public shall be goods of which his conscience approves. Here is no grocer who sands his sugar before hurrying to family prayer. Here is a man who carries his religion into his business, and stakes his honor on the purity of his wares. I think it would be wrong in the extreme to deride Mr. Eason’s action in the matter of The Woman Who Did and Mr. Stead’s review. He is doing his best, as Mr. Stead cheerfully allows.

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The reasonable Objection to Bookstall Censorship.

But, as I said above, he is doing his best under circumstances he imperfectly understands–and, let me add here, in a position which is unfair to him. That Mr. Eason imperfectly understands his position will be plain (I think) to anyone who studies his reply to Mr. Stead. But let me make the point clear; for it is the crucial point in the discussion of the modern Bookstall Censorship. A great deal may be said against setting up a censorship of literature. A great deal may be said in favor of a censorship. But if a censorship there must be, the censor should be deliberately chosen for his office, and, in exercising his power, should be directly responsible to the public conscience. If a censorship there must be, let the community choose a man whose qualifications have been weighed, a man in whose judgment it decides that it can rely. But that Tom or Dick or Harry, or Tom Dick Harry & Co. (Limited), by the process of collaring a commercial monopoly from the railway companies, should be exalted into the supreme arbiters of what men or women may or may not be allowed to read–this surely is unjustifiable by any argument? Mr. Eason may on the whole be doing more good than harm. He is plainly a very well-meaning man of business. If he knows a good book from a bad–and the public has no reason to suppose that he does–I can very well believe that when his moral and literary judgment came into conflict with his business interests, he would sacrifice his business interests. But the interests of good literature and profitable business cannot always be identical; and whenever they conflict they put Mr. Eason into a false position. As managing director of Messrs. Eason & Son, he must consider his shareholders; as supreme arbiter of letters, he stands directly answerable to the public conscience. I protest, therefore, that these functions should never be combined in one man. As readers of THE SPEAKER know, I range myself on the side of those who would have literature free. But even our opponents, who desire control, must desire a form of control such as reason approves.

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