A Matter of Morals: Victorian Britain versus Europe

This guest post is written by Dr Jaap Harskamp (formerly Curator of Dutch & Flemish collections at the British Library, who is now working on the University Library’s early Dutch books)

Vizetelly editions in the UL (1887.7.469, 1888.7.490, 1888.7.491)

Vizetelly editions in the UL (1887.7.469, 1888.7.490, 1888.7.491)

Victorian Britain was obsessively engaged in battling obscenity in print. In 1888/9 publisher Henry Vizetelly of Catherine Street in London was twice convicted of indecency for issuing two-shilling English translations of Émile Zola’s fiction. His prosecution was the result of pressure from the National Vigilance Association, a social-reform group established in 1885 which argued that readers needed protection from explicit sexual descriptions contained in novels such as La terre. The translations were suppressed, but not the French originals. In other words, literary value was contingent on a work’s presumed audience, rather than on its content. In response to the Vizetelly trial, The Methodist Times published the following editorial comment: ‘Zolaism is a disease. It is a study of the putrid … No one can read Zola without moral contamination’. Victorian society rejected the author as an ‘apostle of the gutter’.

Letter from Henry Vizetelly (Ub.3.539)

Letter from Henry Vizetelly (Ub.3.539)

Zola’s novels instigated a heated debate in the House of Commons on the topic of ‘Corrupt Literature’ which took place on 8 May 1888. A motion was tabled by Samuel Smith, MP for Flintshire (Hansard, vol. 325): ‘That this House deplores the rapid spread of demoralising literature in this country, and is of opinion that the law against obscene publications and indecent pictures and prints should be vigorously enforced, and, if necessary, strengthened’. Smith argued that the spread of Zola’s licentious literature corroded man’s character and sapped the nation of its vitality. The shocking state of the streets of London was proof of this ‘plague’ (this was also the time that Jack the Ripper created panic in the capital). Concerning Zola’s fiction, Smith expressed the opinion that nothing more diabolical had ever been written by the pen of man. His novels were only ‘fit for swine, and their constant perusal must turn the mind into something akin to a sty’.

Conservative Home Secretary at the time was Henry Matthews, the first Roman Catholic Member of Parliament (for East Birmingham) since Elizabethan times. In the debate, he replied that there had been a considerable growth of pernicious literature, and that its sale took place with more openness than was formerly the case. French modern literature, of which cheap editions were openly available, had reached an unparalleled depth of immorality. It was written with the object of directing attention to evil passions and to depict them in the most attractive forms. Such literature was bound to harm the nation’s moral health. Freedom of expression is and always will be the most vulnerable of our liberties.

 The effect of the Zola debate was that a number of novels by foreign authors were banned from publication in Britain. This in turn resulted in a number of clandestine literary societies being set up, with the intent of publishing unexpurgated translations of such books and distribute them to a limited membership. In this manner, banned fiction could be acquired privately (but not advertised). In 1893 Zola was invited by the Institute of Journalists to give a speech at their annual conference. He received a warm welcome from press and literati. He was put up at the Savoy; there was a reception at the Guildhall given on his behalf by the Mayor of London; and he was taken on a trip down river to Greenwich by the novelist George Moore. The literary and moral climate seemed to be changing. Shortly after that occasion, Alexander Teixeira de Mattos started to arrange for a private issue of unexpurgated re-translations of six of Zola’s more controversial novels on behalf of the Lutetian Society. It was a stated mission of this group of plotters for freedom of expression ‘to issue to its members, translations of such representative masterpieces of fiction by Continental authors as are unprocurable in English in an unmutilated rendering’. During 1894/5 the following novels were offered to members of the Society: L’Assommoir (translated by Arthur Symons), Nana (Victor Parr), La curée (Teixeira de Mattos), La terre (Ernest Dowson), Germinal (Havelock Ellis), and Pot-Bouille (Percy Pinkerton). Financially, the project was a flop and no further translations were added to the list.

Louis Teixeira de Mattos San Payo y Mendes, known as Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, was born on 9 April 1865 in Amsterdam. The family was of Portuguese Jewish origin and had been driven out of Portugal to the Netherlands. Alexander was born a Protestant to an English mother and a Dutch father. In 1874 his family moved from Amsterdam to London. There he converted to Catholicism and studied at the Kensington Catholic Public School and the Jesuit Beaumont College in Old Windsor, Berkshire. He worked as the London correspondent of a Dutch newspaper, but is remembered as an outstanding translator. Being fluent in French, German, Dutch and Danish, he translated a wide range of literary texts into English. He was the official translator of the works of Maurice Maeterlinck and introduced an English audience to the novels of Louis Couperus. Politically a liberal and a devout Catholic, Teixeira was a compulsive and prolific worker, keeping strictly to set hours (the library holds more than a hundred of his translations). With the reputation of a dandy, he kept close links with the Symbolist movement and with Arthur Symons in particular. In October 1900 he married Lily Wilde, the widow of Oscar Wilde’s older brother. Teixeira was a superb translator. The quality of his translations is such that many of these are still in print today.

Just after finishing his studies, young Teixiera became associated with an intriguing figure in the world of London’s theatre. Impresario and drama critic Jack Grein made him secretary of his Independent Theatre Society. Jacob Thomas [Jack] Grein was born on 11 October 1862 in Amsterdam. Educated in Dutch and German schools, and at a commercial college in Bremen, he started his career in business but with a strong interest in the theatre. By 1882 he was drama critic for Amsterdam’s leading newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad. Having moved to London in 1885, he continued writing for both English and continental journals, including the Illustrated London News. His critical assessments of some of the 12,000 plays were published five volumes between 1898 and 1903 as Dramatic Criticism. His major achievement was establishing the Independent Theatre in London in 1891 which was modelled after André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre (founded in Paris in 1887). He set out to stage plays of literary value rejected by the commercial theatre or suppressed by the censor (whom he avoided by creating a subscription society). Its first production was Ibsen’s Ghosts (1891) at the Royalty Theatre, at no. 73 Dean Street, Soho, on 13 March 1891. Regarded as cutting-edge drama and already censored, the play dealt with syphilis and adultery. More than 3,000 people applied for tickets, and the production became a cause célèbre. In the press it was considered to be repulsive, vulgar and absurd, but amongst the audience were literary figures such as George Moore, Oscar Wilde, John Gray, and artists such as Charles Shannon and Reginald Savage – all of them standing in the vanguard in the battle against oppressive Victorian values and censorship.

His next production was a dramatic version of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (in translation by Teixeira de Mattos) which also received a hostile reception from the critics. The repertoire included the 1892 production of Widower’s Houses, the first of Shaw’s plays to be performed. Since there were only 175 regular subscribers, Grein subsidised the organisation himself until it became a limited company in 1895. The Independent Theatre ceased operations in 1897. Later Grein was involved with similar ventures, such as the Stage Society, the London German Theatre, the French Players, and the People’s Theatre. He stood at the beginning of an alternative theatre movement that would flourish in later decades.

This is the irony of a ‘Mary Whitehouse’ atmosphere of repression and censorship: the attempts to block (foreign) literature and drama that might pollute British minds, created an atmosphere which allowed for the emergence of a number of subscription and theatrical societies, the members of which were prepared to stick up two fingers at the censor. Émile Zola’s influence on European literature has been enormous – that is beyond doubt. The liberating effect of his writing widened the scope of fiction and opened up entirely new areas of experience for exploration to any aspiring novelist. The intervention of talented translators was vital in his eventual acceptance in Britain. To them we thank the recognition of his talent and that of other major authors from the Continent. They were (with a sip of Dutch courage) the censor busters.

Bibliographical notes

 Teixeira de Mattos

The Library holds 102 translations by this highly versatile translator. Surprisingly, there is only one –rather out of date – study that concerns the person himself.

McKenna, Stephen: Tex: a chapter in the life of Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. London: T. Butterworth, 1922 (456.c.92.303)

Jack Grein

The Library holds a number of works by and on Jack Grein. This is a selection.

Grein, Jack Thomas: Dramatic criticism. London: John Long, 1899-1905. 5 vol. (Lit.7.89.242-)

Grein, Jack Thomas: A dream of charity and some impressions of London life, 1885-1910. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1910 (1910.7.3164)

 Orme, Michael: J.T. Grein: the story of a pioneer 1862-1935; foreword written by Conal O’Riordan … and revised by George Bernard Shaw. London: Murray, 1936 (457.c.93.544)

 Schoonderwoerd, Nicolaas: J.T. Grein, ambassador of the theatre 1862-1935: a study in Anglo-Continental theatrical relations. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1963 (415.c.96.583)

Guest author: Jaap Harskamp

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