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On The Reasons For Censoring Names And Places In Victorian Literature

A photograph of Jane Austen's writing table in Chawton

When I first started reading Victorian literature I was confused by the way places were written as, for example, —-shire. I mentioned it in a review as a drawback, and even after realising it was a common device I left my review as it was because it was, after all, a fair point).

As you likely all know, explaining an idea to Google is difficult but I finally found a related result. There were a variety of ideas included which I liked because it seems there may indeed be different reasons. It was nice to finally have answers and in the hopes of helping others I’ve decided to compile what I discovered. The answers I’ve paraphrased can be found in the links at the bottom of this post.

It’s been said that because Victorian readers were less able to recognise fact from fiction or appreciate the difference (I read this as similar to the hysteria – melodrama – than in regards to intellect), names and locations were censored to avoid any issues. I suppose we could liken this to the disclaimers in books – ‘resemblances are coincidental’. I do wonder, however, if this answer was more of a Chinese whisper of the rest.

In a similar vein it’s been said that censoring occurred so that the author could write freely, make things up, and the reader would be free to use their imagination or to pretend the story happened in their own country. This sounds fair enough, even if we might today consider it a strange way to go about it.

Censoring would aid the writer who wished to use a true story as the base for their own.

There was the suggestion that it was a throwback to times when people hid behind the idea of an ‘editor’ in order to tell a true story without getting into trouble.

I like the thought that by Austen’s time it disturbed the illusion. I know it pulls me out of the story simply because I end up trying to place the location she’s talking about, trying to work out if it is a real place and if it’s not real then which part of England is it supposed to be most like. I find it hinders my imagination and I just pick whichever place I’d prefer it to be, which might sound a good thing but, like imagining the wrong American accent when reading, ultimately means you might miss nuances and so forth due to the differing contexts and local cultures that accompany such a misunderstanding.

In regards to Austen, it’s said she could discuss politics and similar without it looking like she was openly criticising the government. If this is true then it worked – I don’t think anyone considers Wickham and his group (I can’t actually remember what he was exactly – maybe that’s the point?) as one and the same.

Lastly, there’s the suggestion that censoring could be used to give the impression that a writer was talking about real life. Are you as confused as me now? These ideas contradict each other…

I think the comparison made between translations is interesting – it seems this was mainly a British device and thus does point to censorship. Tolstoy cussing; translation clean.

Obviously there is a be all end all answer, even if it is different for each author. I think to say there is one answer, whilst satisfying, wouldn’t ring true. But I do think it’s fair, given that it can be disruptive to us today, to speculate and decide which reason(s) works best for us individually. For me, that is the avoidance of trouble and the desire to aid the imagination. I suppose I want the truth to prevail and to see the author in a good light!

Or did Austen just want to play Hangman?

What have you heard on this subject? What reason works best for you?

  1. Why censor town names?
  2. Full disclosure on all characters please
  3. Duchess of B—


January 16, 2015, 12:30 pm

I’ve always wondered about this! I think it’s hilarious to think that Victorians would have difficulty telling fact from fiction, so new was the novel.


January 16, 2015, 2:44 pm

I think this was a carry-over from the many popular satires of the 18th and early 19th century. Place names weren’t mentioned in them, but it was just silliness because the description would always give it away. When this happens in Victorian novels, I think it’s often at a point when the novelist wants to reader to stop being immersed in the fiction for a moment and think about what people are like in real life. Sometimes it’s an “improving” moment.


January 16, 2015, 7:24 pm

I’ve recently experienced this when reading Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, but not so much with places but with years. The year was always 18__ which doesn’t really help me place the story in an historical context or help me see the passage of time! Rather annoying really might as well not mentioned the year. Unless of course the year was censored after the book was written rather than by the author themselves.

Literary Feline

January 22, 2015, 3:59 pm

What a great post, Charlie! This is something I’ve long wondered about. I imagine it was either to allow the reader to put the story wherever they liked or to protect the innocent (or not so innocent, depending). Oh, to go back in time and know for sure . . .


February 16, 2015, 12:18 pm

Alice: Yes; when I first read that reason I thought it was odd, and it does sound a bit… stereotypical, but then I realised it’s kind of difficult to think of how it may have seemed in the days when novels were rare.

Jeanne: Yes, I thought that, too. You’d have to hide more than the names. I like your theory, because it does take you out of it, so if that’s the actual reason it happens, all’s well.

Jessica: I guess that’s the same in other Brontë books (thinking I must’ve come across it before!) You’re right. Place names are one thing – you can use your imagination to get around it – but things change so much decade to decade that unless you happen to know exactly what the author had in mind you’ll possibly get it wrong. Yes – the year might’ve been better left out, I agree. I think it would depend on the content. If it was obviously about a living person, then maybe. It might’ve been better in those cases to focus on names and places, though, as dates don’t imply so much.

Literary Feline: Yes, if only! By itself it’s a strange thing; you do wish you could know exactly what the reasoning was.



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