BETTER LEFT UNSAID: VICTORIAN NOVELS, HAYS CODE FILMS, AND THE BENEFITS OF CENSORSHIP by Nora Gilbert, Reviewed by Christopher Pittard
 

BETTER LEFT UNSAID: VICTORIAN NOVELS, HAYS CODE FILMS, AND THE BENEFITS OF CENSORSHIP
By Nora Gilbert
(Stanford Law Books, 2013) x + 181 pp.
Reviewed by Christopher Pittard on 2014-02-22.

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Nora Gilbert's first book opens with a deeply unfashionable argument: that censorship, far from being an attack on liberal values of free speech and personal expression, has potential and productive benefits for narrative and intellectual discourse. Despite being good post-Foucauldians, aware that the seemingly repressive forces of authority are equally productive of the behaviors they supposedly seek to suppress, we still tend to recoil from the very idea of censorship at whichever level it manifests itself, from state controlled culture down to moderation on internet comment forums. The value of Gilbert's book lies in its immediate challenge to our instinctively repressive formulation of censorship; as Gilbert points out, this model simultaneously "gives the censor both too much and too little credit -- too much because it assumes that the censor is shrewdly omnipotent, controlling and restricting the artist's every move, too little because it assumes that the goals of the censor are necessarily at odds with the goals of the artist" (1). We tend to equate the censor with enforced silence, yet Gilbert notes that this lacks subtlety; in comparing the moral codes that shaped Victorian fiction to the rather more schematic Motion Picture Production Code applied in the US from 1934 to 1968 (the so-called Hays Code), she argues that "Victorian moralists and [Production] Code censors were not... enjoining the artists working under their purview to be silent; they were enjoining them to be coy" (17). To be coy, Gilbert argues, and thus to make censorship a productive cultural force, nineteenth century authors and twentieth century film-makers adopted four strategies: scandal, sophistication, excess, and restraint (147).

The strategy of scandal, first of all, is exemplified by the fiction of Thackeray and the films of Preston Sturges. Thackeray, Gilbert notes, popularized the mythic "Mrs Grundy" (in fact, a late eighteenth-century creation) as the representative of the censor, repeatedly deploying this figure in his work. "By constructing a disembodied, hypothetical figure to symbolize his culture's priggishness and conservatism," Gilbert argues, "Thackeray was able to mock and critique such impulses [to censor] without attacking any of his moral censors personally. His writing managed . . . to be ostentatiously vocal about its inability to vocalize this forbidden truth" (16). To illustrate this notion of "'noisy silence,'" Gilbert cites passages from Vanity Fair in which the text highlights what it is not allowed to say as a way of exposing the hypocrisies of modesty. Gilbert thus contests what critics such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Peter Shillingsburg have argued, which is that Thackeray simply and implacably attacks moral censorship. On the contrary, Gilbert argues, Thackeray's position was complex: in his letters, she finds, he appears as "both a staunch opponent of censorship's judgemental self-righteousness . . . and a pious moralizer in his own right" (21), and in novels such as Catherine: A Story (1840), he deliberately aimed to "make readers so horribly horrified" (21) as to give up reading sensationalist crime narratives altogether.

In Gilbert's reading of the films of Preston Sturges, particularly in The Lady Eve (1941), Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) becomes a modern Becky Sharp, drawn to a censorious figure for the sheer "pleasure of contention" (27). In Gilbert's analysis, both Harrington and Sharp thrive on what she terms (after Laura Mulvey) their "to-be-talked-about-ness." In other words, "[t]he more provoking their behaviour, the more talked about they become" (28). Thus, Gilbert suggests, the fiction of Thackeray and the films of Sturges both employ the "logic of scandal," a strategy "wherein speech is authorized and amplified by feelings like shock and moral indignation rather than stymied by them" (22). This is not a strikingly new move. In Gilbert's own words, it is a "'commonsense cousin'" of what Foucault considers incitement to discourse (22). Postmodern popular culture, of course, already knows a variant of this strategy as the Streisand effect, whereby the attempt to suppress information makes it all the better known.

From scandal Gilbert turns to sophistication. If Thackeray and Sturges flirt with scandal by conspicuously not saying the unsayable, the fiction of Jane Austen and the films of George Cukor, she argues, exploit the censor's dependency on a concept of sophistication. Making Austen an honorary Victorian (following Joseph Litvak's reading in Strange Gourmets [1997]), Gilbert reads her novels -- along with Sturges' films -- in light of the Production Code, which clearly distinguished between sophisticated and unsophisticated audiences by means of three categories: age, and the supposedly greater perspicacity of the mature mind; geography, in which sophistication shrinks with the size of one's town and its distance from the metropolis; and, more faintly, class (the Code presupposed that cinemas were "built for the masses") (47). Gilbert might have compared this Production Code concept of sophistication to Pierre Bourdieu's senses of "taste" and "feeling" in cultural consumption, or to mid-Victorian worries about "vulnerable" readers (inevitably, women and the impressionable young). Without exploring these points, however, Gilbert persuasively shows how both Austen and Cukor exploited the censor's dependence on sophistication. They did so by creating what might be termed lenticular narratives, stories "simultaneously working on two different levels -- one that is legible and appropriate for all audiences, one that is for certain eyes only" (56). This is a feature of content as well as form. Though Emma Woodhouse sees herself as the epitome of culture in a novel that Gilbert considers "a bildungsroman of sophistication" (66), she is repeatedly shown to misunderstand and misinterpret. Unlike the "real" scandals of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, the scandals of Emma --such as the would-be relationship between Dixon and Jane Fairfax--are figments of the heroine's imagination. As such, Gilbert affirms, they are beyond the reach of the censor (74). Likewise, Gilbert argues, the plot of Cukor's The Philadelphia Story "can be read as an epistemological defense of sophistication" (58). Just as Austen's Emma imagines a link between Jane and Dixon, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) and her thirteen year old sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) tend to invent prurient narratives. Tracy, for instance, speculates about her father's relationship with Tina Mara, and when Dinah is excluded from "adult" discussion, she says: "I can tell there's something in the air, because I'm being taken away" (75).

Having thus lunked Austen and Cukor, Gilbert pairs Dickens's A Christmas Carol with Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. Though neither the story nor the film are commonly linked to censorship, both--for Gilbert-- exemplify the strategy of excess. According to Gilbert, they also prompt us to consider the connection between censorship and Christmas, since "plays produced specifically for medieval Christmas festivities," she notes, "were . . . the first English narratives on record to be influenced by the simultaneously productive and repressive powers of moral censorship" (81). This point is accompanied by the questionable claim that the "lofty status" of A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life springs from "their inescapable association with the holiday of Christmas" (82), which raises the question of why other works linked to Christmas--including those by Dickens himself-- do not occupy the same exalted position. But Gilbert stands on firmer ground when she considers Dickens's ambivalent response to the ideals of respectability embodied in censorship. On the one hand, Dickens's social satire exemplified his sceptical view of respectability and his opinion that its discourses could ossify into social and cultural conservatism and Podsnappery. But on the other hand, as Gilbert points out, " [i]f art was ever going to be seen as truly 'dignified,' in Dickens's mind, it simply could not afford to be regarded as immoral or obscene" (83). Though far from immoral, A Christmas Carol is excessive in all but length, a narrative of ostentatious consumption, social criticism bordering on sentimentality, and exuberant personal transformation. Since--as Gilbert argues-- both the story and the film range from one extreme to another, from miserliness to pantomimic generosity and from depression to euphoria, each work bears "the ideological imprint of the moral censor: in order to become better men, both protagonists must learn to become better capitalists" (100).

Following a familiar strand of Carol criticism, Gilbert observes that Dickens's story never really challenges the capitalist system. While both the writer and the film director risk controversy by graphically portraying the consequences of market capitalism, they get away with doing so because their depictions are excessively and explicitly counterfactual. Though both works stress the reality of their final moments-- the film's closing scenes feature the material and corporeal, and Scrooge repeatedly insists that his new self is genuine-- this final reality goes hand in hand with excess, for in buying a turkey so massive it could not have stood on its own legs, Scrooge becomes the most charitable man in the world (105). But this useful reading needs a correction. In claiming that Scrooge's redemption comes near the end of A Christmas Carol, Gilbert conflates the novella with film adaptations; a careful reading of Dickens's tale shows that Scrooge's conversion is far from climactic and achieved with surprising ease less than halfway into the text. Only in the cinematic versions (most clearly in Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge ([1951]) is the conversion delayed until the end. In Paul Davis's terms (The Life and Times of Ebeneezer Scrooge [1990], 14), this is the Freudian Scrooge narrative, with its emphasis on internal struggle and the difficulty of personal change.

If Dickens and Capra furnish Gilbert's models of excess, her models of restraint come from Charlotte Brontë and the director Elia Kazan. Both Brontë and Kazan saw themselves as artists of passion swerving away from dispassionate precursors (Brontë famously complained of Jane Austen that "the Passions are perfectly unknownto her," while Kazan saw Hitchcock as a stager of "stunts and tricks" [qtd. 115]). Yet for all their passion, both Brontë and Kazan represented characters who made sexual and emotional compromises. Considering the uses of repression (as a form of self-censorship) in Villette and A Streetcar Named Desire, Gilbert shows how Lucy Snowe and Blanche DuBois "can be seen to create further romantic obstacles for themselves in order to heighten and enhance their own sensations of desire" (132). Here censorship, whether internal or external, acts as a productive force that generates desires, subtexts, and narrative itself. Lucy, Gilbert points out, uses repression as "a narrative tool that allows her to gain a certain sense of subversive control" over both herself and the reader (126), and while there is a slippage in the analysis here between conscious modes of censorship and the unconscious workings of repression, the argument is a persuasive one. Lucy's emotional repressions manifest themselves in the novel's textual repressions, most obviously in the delayed revelation that Graham Bretton and Dr John are the same person. In withholding her knowledge of this fact from Bretton/John, Gilbert argues, Lucy takes pleasure in her control of the reader as well as of Bretton (126). Thus, Gilbert writes, "Brontë is telling her readers here that she will not be telling us everything" (126).

This movement from the feelings of the character to the strategies of the text itself is reversed when Lucy writes a passionate letter to Graham before destroying it and replacing it with a "terse, curt missive of a page": "In this moment," Gilbert argues, "sexual repression is intrinsically equated with literary censorship" (129). This claim prompts a question: is censorship really the same thing as redrafting, editing, rewriting, and thus composing a new text bearing little resemblance to the original? In the larger context of Villette, however, the point is convincing, even if the examples of censorship occasionally slip between repression and masochism. According to Gilbert, furthermore, what she describes as Lucy's perversity is re-invented in Blanche DuBois, who is "continually attracted to men she cannot or should not have" (136). Yet while Lucy censors herself, it is Kazan--as Gilbert notes--who excludes from his version of Tennessee Williams's play such key lines as "We've had this date with each other from the beginning!" and who transfers potentially censor-bothering subtexts -- such as Blanche's attraction to Stanley, her "most pitiless moral censor" (139) -- from the realm of dialogue to that of filmic composition. But this is not to say that Kazan's adaptation plays down these subtexts. Gilbert adeptly shows how -- when Blanche tries to seduce the Evening Star collection boy -- Kazan's focus on Vivien Leigh shifts attention from her sexual "misconduct" to what Gilbert calls the "dreamlike" nature of the scene, focusing more on Blanche's subjectivity than the dialogue between the two (136). According to Gilbert, this scene also shows how censorship can lead to improvement, for when Blanche's humiliation drew nervous laughter from a test audience, Kazan decided to re-edit it (136).

Finally, a somewhat brief conclusion invites us to see the parallels between the wit of Oscar Wilde and the aphorisms of Mae West, who once quipped, "I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it" (150). Better Left Unsaid, therefore, offers intriguing historical juxtapositions. Although the book declines to argue that modern culture grew out of Victorianism, or that the Hays Code sprang from Victorian moralities, its comparisons may nonetheless feed future discussions of how Victorian culture has been appropriated and reformed in the twentieth century and beyond. Gilbert does well to base much of her analysis on literature, and her readings of the novels she treats are informed and persuasive.

In her discussions of film, she could have grappled more closely with film theory and cinematic technique. (Though alert to questions of cinematic composition, she might have examined more carefully some of the film stills she includes, for it is not always clear why she chose one still over another.) Elsewhere, I wonder if Gilbert might have done more with Freud. The Interpretation of Dreams appears rather late and comparatively briefly, which is surprising given its foregrounding of censorship (albeit of an unconscious kind); a further discussion of the role of censorship in the Freudian dreamwork might have offered a further way of linking Victorian texts and twentieth century film. In the wake of Eisenstein, the fiction of Dickens in particular has been treated as "'dreaming'" cinema (see, for instance, Grahame Smith's Dickens and the Dream of Cinema [2003]).

These points aside, however, Gilbert makes her case persuasively and elegantly. To use a term central to her discussion, her sophisticated analysis not only draws on a range of theoretical contexts and discourses, but offers much of value to readers from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, from film and cultural studies to law. Most valuably, Gilbert challenges us to rethink censorship as an artistic method that (as Woolf says of Austen) "stimulates us to supply what is not there" (qtd. 72). Arguments against censorship tend to treat provocation or offensiveness as the price we pay for freedom of expression; yet as Gilbert shows, complete freedom of artistic expression may also lead to banality or a peculiarly literal-minded discourse. To leave things unsaid is to stimulate further discussion and questioning, something Gilbert adeptly achieves here.

Christopher Pittard is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth, UK.


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