‘Write no more’: 10 books that were banned

A classic by Zola, a housewife’s handbook on promiscuity, Toni Morrison’s Beloved – in Banned Books Week, a look back at works that have been subject to silencing or censorship

The Witlings by Fanny Burney (1779)

The novelist suppressed this satirical play in deference to the two father figures in her life. Worried that it would offend powerful society figures, her father recommended withholding it, and the now forgotten author and family friend Samuel Crisp suggested that she “write no more”. Filial duty and notions of proper feminine conduct spurred Burney to this and other acts of self-censorship. She wrote: “I would a thousand Times rather forfeit my character as a Writer, than risk ridicule or censure as a Female.”

The History of Mary Prince by Mary Prince (1831)

The only surviving slave narrative in English by a woman enslaved in the West Indies. Though free in England, Prince was not entirely free from censorship. Her autobiography, transcribed by Susanna Strickland, was “pruned” by editor and abolitionist Thomas Pringle to render it “clearly intelligible” to British readers. Strict libel laws made incriminating slaveholders difficult: one of them, John Wood, sued Pringle and was awarded damages.

La Terre (The Earth) by Émile Zola (1887)

The publisher Henry Vizetelly made continental literature available to ordinary British readers in affordable English translations. Worried that frank sexual content would corrupt the nation, the National Vigilance Association prosecuted Vizetelly in 1888. The legal test of obscenity, whether written matter would “deprave and corrupt” impressionable people who might read it, favoured the NVA. When the prosecutor read from The Earth in court, including a passage involving the insemination of a cow, the jury begged him to stop. Vizetelly pleaded guilty. He was convicted again and imprisoned after trying to publish expurgated translations.

Emile Zola … when the prosecutor read from The Earth in court the jury begged him to stop.
Emile Zola … when the prosecutor read from The Earth in court the jury begged him to stop. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928)

This novel about love between women met fierce opposition. James Douglas of the Sunday Express fulminated against it, and British home secretary William Joynson-Hicks mobilised the law. Because there was “not a single word” condemning the “vice” of lesbianism, magistrates had the book destroyed under the same test of obscenity that condemned Henry Vizetelly. In the US, however, this Victorian test was beginning to lose traction. Though the publisher Donald Friede was arrested and the book was seized by customs, the court concluded that there was not “one word” of obscenity in the book.

Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945)

To appease the judges of the Book of the Month club, Wright cut a third of his autobiography, giving a more optimistic ending to this account of growing up black in the United States. Thirty years later the book was one of nine that a local education board in Long Island, New York, removed from school libraries. Steven Pico and other students launched a first amendment challenge that reached the supreme court. The case helped establish that school boards cannot remove books in a “narrowly partisan or political manner”.

‘The Orphan’ in Shock SuspenStories No 14 by Bill Gaines (1954)

The owner of Entertaining Comics, Gaines was one of the most notorious comic book publishers of the 1950s. This story about a girl who kills her father and frames her mother was fodder for his opponents, who feared that comics made children violent. Campaigns in the US, including book burnings at schools, culminated in hearings before the Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency, which drove comic publishers to self‑censor and Gaines to give up comics altogether. In the UK a statute prohibiting horror and crime comics remains on the books.

The Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity by Lillian Maxine Serett (1960)

In 1966, while clearing Fanny Hill, the US Supreme Court upheld publisher and bookseller Ralph Ginzburg’s conviction for mailing material including Serett’s sexual autobiography, The Housewife’s Handbook, in which she hoped to show “that various forms of sexual expression are normal and healthy things to do, and also that women do have sexual rights”.

Black Voices from Prison by Etheridge Knight (1970)

Prison officials in both the US and the UK have wide discretion in controlling what literature is available to incarcerated people. Knight’s anthology of poetry and prose by himself and other men at Indiana state prison was first published in the US. It expresses the experiences of its authors and, informed by the Black Power movement, criticises the penal system as an instrument of racial oppression. The book was denied to an inmate in a Texas institution in 1999 because of content about race.

Modern family … Bösche’s 1981 book about a gay couple and their daughter
Modern family … Bösche’s 1981 book about a gay couple and their daughter. Photograph: PR

Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bösche (1981)

In 1983, rightwing British newspapers and MPs condemned the English translation of this Danish picture book about two gay men and their daughter. Five years later, in a climate of moral panic, parliament passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which prohibited local authorities from promoting homosexuality or teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. This homophobic law was not enforced, and Jenny was not banned, but it had a chilling effect on discussions of same-sex relationships in schools.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

After a parent in Virginia complained in 2012 that her son had been required to read the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Morrison, which Republican senator Richard H Black described as “smut”, state legislators passed the “Beloved Bill” to give parents the right to opt their children out of “sexually explicit” reading in schools. The bill, which governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed in 2016, threatened to undermine school boards’ power to make curricular decisions and protect students’ right to receive information.

• Censored: A Literary History of Subversion & Control by Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis is published by British Library.

Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis

The GuardianTramp

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