Saturday, January 8, 2011



Does anyone else dislike it when older books are altered to be more with-the-times, more politically correct?

The updating of Huckleberry Finn to remove the N-word is the best example of this, but I also noticed it with reprints of Enid Blyton books. Anyone who’s grown up in the United Kingdom or in one of its former colonies has probably been exposed to Enid Blyton books, and one of my favorites was the Malory Towers series. This is a set of books set in a boarding school and told from the point of view of a girl called Darrell as she goes from the first to the final form.

In the first book, Darrell is impulsive and still hasn’t learned to control her temper. Therefore, when she sees another girl being a bully, she slaps the girl hard – four times. Later on she realizes she was wrong to do so and apologizes.

In 2005 I started working at a school library in Dubai, and they had new copies of the Malory Towers series. I flipped through those, feeling happily nostalgic – until I came across the slapping scene. It had been rewritten so that Darrell shook the bully instead.

I couldn’t see the point of this. Is a shaking supposed to be less violent than slaps? Were there concerns that children would read the original scene and think it was all right to slap each other? It was especially puzzling since the original scene never painted the violence in a positive light, and instead showed that it was the wrong thing to do.

I kept on reading and realized that further changes had been made. Blyton’s books came out in 1940s and ‘50s, so of course things were different back then. In another boarding-school book, a girl receives a pound from her family and is overwhelmed by how much money this is.

Well, inflation has taken its toll, because Blyton’s schoolgirls now seem to get pounds as pocket money much more routinely. I think that’s sad. Sure, it may make the books more accessible for children these days. But to me, part of the books’ charm was that glimpse into another place and time, when people had different values. I don’t want to read an updated Little House on the Prairie where Laura gets a dollar in her Christmas stocking rather than a penny.

That being said, are there cases where older books could benefit from corrections? For instance, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was originally called Ten Little Niggers. And one of the girls in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons is called Titty, though a film adaptation renamed her Kitty for obvious reasons.

On the whole, though, I think this should be done for better reasons than to keep older books in step with modern values. What do you think?


gypsyscarlett said...

Yes, it bothers me terribly. Twain was accurately describing how (unfortunately) many people spoke and thought at that time.

Censoring history is not being sensitive. It is dangerous. It allows people to forget.

Maria Zannini said...

I am greatly opposed to editing the work of authors to meet the standards of the day. Twain was speaking in the vernacular of the day. Must we homogenize everything to its base components?

How would you feel if someone edited your work a hundred years from now just so it wouldn't offend 22nd century society? I would be outraged.

Courtney Rene said...

Very good post. Although I dont know of the books you speak, I am very against censorship in any form for any reason.


Anonymous said...

Destroy the original meaning and worse it hides the true picture of the times, which is why Twain wrote the way he did, to show the truth of the South he grew in. Makes it too easy to ignore the truth if we can just make it go away with a reprinting.

Marian Perera said...

Tasha - I think that's one of the reasons proposed for the change, that it will be more sensitive, especially towards children who might be disturbed on hearing the N-word.

But if that really is the case - and I'm not convinced of that, since kids tend to be exposed to a whole lot more these days - why not just delay introducing the book until they're old enough to handle it? That would be the lesser of two evils, IMO.

Marian Perera said...

Maria, that's an excellent question : "How would you feel if someone edited your work a hundred years from now just so it wouldn't offend 22nd century society?"

And I think any overly-PC substitutions would stand out glaringly from the casual, realistic vernacular that Twain's characters use.

Marian Perera said...

Courtney - I hear you. I grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and every mention of Israel was censored. In history books, the relevant pages were torn out or blacked-over with Magic Markers.

I didn't expect a more sophisticated version of that in the United States.

Marian Perera said...

ralfast - Exactly, there was a good reason Twain used the words he did.

Don't like it? Write a book of your own, set in the same time and place, where no one uses the N-word but says "African-American" instead. But don't change what someone else wrote.

Mary Witzl said...

I say leave those books alone, especially Huckleberry Finn.

I'm not a big fan of Enid Blyton, but I can't see the need for the type of editing you've described. I wonder how censors would deal with the sections in the Little House books where LIW describes her mother's loathing for Native Americans? Or the WTF? description of her family traveling through forests 'where no people live', but then there is mention of the native tribes resident in the area. (I love the Little House series, but not so much those parts.)

I don't think it's right to change books so that they fit the sensibilities of our age. I think we need to keep them just the way they were.

Marian Perera said...

"I wonder how censors would deal with the sections in the Little House books where LIW describes her mother's loathing for Native Americans?"

Mary - I'd forgotten about that until you mentioned it. Yes, her mother was prejudiced against Native Americans even after one of them saved the family, wasn't she?

I'm willing to bet that didn't make it to the TV series.

Barbara Martin said...

I think the books ought to remain as they were when written, however, there are those organizations which like to censor books and request they be rewritten in certain parts. One of my favourite books: The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, originally published in 1886 has been revamped to a more modern version where the writer's style has been so changed to fit modern language as to be almost unrecognizable. Also, there were parts rewritten to obscure the class distinction between the Princess and a boy from the town. I found it to be a tragedy that this had been done.

Marian Perera said...

Barbara - I think I read The Princess and the Goblin when I was a kid, and it's sad that that too has been changed.

The past was the past, and things were very different then. Why change or sanitize that?