New work sheds light on Shelley censorship

Published: 22 February 2013 at 11:32

Anglia Ruskin academic turns detective to investigate changes to scandalous poem

A scholar from Anglia Ruskin University has shed new light on the censorship and rewriting of Percy Shelley’s most scandalous poem, Laon and Cythna.

Nora Crook, Emerita Professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin, was called upon by book collector Stephen Allen to examine an original copy of the uncensored poem which he had bought from a London book dealer.  Details of their detective work have been published in the 22 February edition of the Times Literary Supplement.

Shelley attempted to publish Laon and Cythna in December 1817, but was warned by his publisher, Charles Ollier, that the work would lead to prosecution on grounds of blasphemy and immorality, as the title characters were siblings and also lovers.  An expurgated version of the poem eventually appeared, renamed The Revolt of Islam.

After Allen bought the original, uncensored version of Laon and Cythna, he noticed that it contained writing in the margins of several pages in an early nineteenth-century hand and wondered whether it came from within the Shelley circle.

With the help of Professor Crook, Dr Bruce Barker-Benfield of the Bodleian Library in Oxford and a group of international specialist scholars, it was established that the majority of the changes were made by Shelley’s friend and neighbour, Thomas Love Peacock, with Shelley merely agreeing to the suggestions.

Professor Crook said:

“We were able to match this book against samples of known handwriting, and we agreed that Stephen Allen’s copy was genuine and an actual record of the censorship as it was taking place.
“There is a little of Shelley’s handwriting but most is in the hand of Thomas Love Peacock, a known eyewitness to the December 1817 meeting.
“We know that Shelley was under pressure, but there has always been some controversy as to whether he made the changes himself.  What this shows is that he almost certainly didn’t initiate any censoring, but just vetted changes that his friends put to him, with a few counterproposals.
“Stephen Allen and I are rather pleased about that.  We don’t much like the idea of Shelley taking the lead in watering down his own poem.  Many of the changes were pretty obvious, such as using “heaven” or “power” instead of “God”, but they had the desired effect and Charles Ollier was able to publish The Revolt of Islam without prosecution.
“Where Stephen Allen’s copy was before its previous owner, and how it escaped discovery, we can only speculate.  For a document like this, previously unknown and unsuspected, to turn up in the twenty-first century is quite extraordinary.”