Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Profanity - Just The Topic For Christmas Week

Last night, I was sitting up in bed with the electric blanket set to 'Inferno' mode, pillows plumped, and my current bedside book propped up on my knees, when an idea for a blog post peeped out from the midst of a footnote.

My current bedside book is King Charles II by Antonia Fraser. I've been reading it for ages (I fall asleep quickly so four pages is a good night, and this thing is 672 pages long) and I'm thoroughly enjoying it. It helps that King Charles II was rather a nice bloke for all his faults, but mostly it's Fraser's writing style. Her biographies aren't at all dumbed-down but they are very readable.

Anyway, King Charles II is especially famous for his popularity with the ladies. And to illustrate that this was common knowledge at the time, and to draw attention to some rumours that circulated about the King, Fraser quotes a couplet composed by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, which I already know from reading other material about Charles II. Which contains the word 'prick'.

Which she omits.

It's very clear from the context what body part Rochester was writing about. Crystal clear, in fact. But the word he chose was omitted, in a quote, which appeared in a secondary historical source.

Although I am an enthusiastic and passionate swear-er, I acknowledge that it has its place. I don't swear much here on my blog, for instance, although I have no problem at all with bloggers who do if that's the way they want to express themselves (Hannah Moskowitz springs to mind, and I love her blog and her voice). It's just another form of language, but it doesn't happen to match what I'm trying to do with my own blog posts. So I don't swear much here, and when I do, I keep it to the gentler ones. I do, however, swear without self-censure on Facebook, in my novels, when I hit my hand with a hammer and when my foot slips on icy pavements.

Basically, as with all forms of written language, I feel the decision to swear or not should be just that - a decision. In the segments of my last novel set in rural Ireland in the 1940s, swearing did not feel right. In the contemporary sections, about students living in Dublin, it did. On my blog, for me, it doesn't feel right.

But in a quote? In a historical quote? John Wilmot, the guy who wrote the couplet, decided to swear. Fraser decided to quote it. Except she didn't.

I have to admit, this somewhat baffles me. Quote the damned thing or don't - there's plenty of comments about Charles liking the ladies. In fact, Rochester wrote another one which I love (he seemed to be the Dorothy Parker of his day, famous for saying deliciously nasty things that rhymed), quoted by John Miller in his biography (and on Wikipedia, where yours truly found it):

Restless he rolls from whore to whore

A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

OK, it doesn't have the bawdiness of the one Fraser quoted (for the record, it's "Nor are his high desires above his strength;/ His sceptre and his prick are of a length."). Vulgar as anything, yes, but it effectively makes the point that (a) Charlie liked women, (b) women seemed to like him back and there were rumours about why they did, apart from the whole King thing, and (c) Rochester was a smart-arse. I'm not going to argue that it's high art and deserved to be reproduced on those grounds, but Fraser had solid reasons for including the quote. But why on earth include a historical item and then censor it?

Am I alone in thinking this is weird? What do you guys think about swearing in books, on blogs, in anything written? Should it be avoided at all costs, as Antonia Fraser does, even when it prompts people like me to write lengthy and ponderous blog posts about you? Is it OK in non-fiction but not anywhere else? Or should it go in everwhere because people really do talk like that and ergo book characters should too?

Now I'm off to decide what of Charles's mistresses I like best. I feel disloyal to Amber St. Clare when I say this but Barbara Villiers is currently out in front. . .


  1. Interesting. I don't remember that but I read the book a couple of years ago.
    Maybe since she's quoting from a secondary source (probably Victorian) she just kept it that way?

  2. I find it odd that such a passage would be censored.
    Swearing in any literature is fine as long as it is context.
    But I wouldn't see quoting a passage in a biography or history as swearing regardless of the context.

  3. I think it's rather silly to "quote" things but censor it at the same time.

    Words tend to be written down for a reason. Even if that reason is simply because the author liked them. To say you quoted something and then take away the sting in the words can actually be seen as just plain disrespectful.

  4. Laura, I never thought of that! I must check the notes section when I get home, there may be a bit more information about the source she used.

    Al, I feel the same - it's always justified in context, no different to any other form of language (you use a verb when you want a verb and an expletive when you want an expletive). And I definitely wouldn't consider a quote in a historical text 'swearing' as such, which is why it surprised me.

    Misha, I think there's a Daria episode about the head teacher censoring a mural to change the whole message. . . even in a small case like this where the essential meaning has been left intact, choice of words is very personal. At least Rochester isn't around to get upset, but all the same!

  5. Who's her publisher, if it isn't the secondary source that censored it then it may have been the editor.

    I find it odd to think a historian would willfully censor a quote.

  6. Phoenix, who are an imprint of Orion.

    I would hope the decision didn't come from Fraser herself but even if it was taken at editorial level, I still find it odd. . .

  7. Sometimes swearing replaces a poor lexicon but in other cases it can fit better than any other word.

  8. I can't imagine censoring language from a historic quote. And "prick", to me, is not even a very bad word.

    But, I think a little swearing goes a long way when we're talking fiction. I'm not against it, though. I swear in real life and I swear (minimally) in fiction when it fits with my character's voice.


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