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. . .