Henrietta, the Woman Behind Bowdlerism

Almost a year ago, University Librarian Sarah Michalak, read from the 1818 second edition of The Family Shakespeare at the event “Banned and in the Rare Book Collection.” The Family Shakespeare exemplifies the nineteenth-century editorial phenomenon of expurgating literature on moral grounds. This came to be known eponymously as “bowdlerism,” after the Bowdler family, who proudly claimed three generations of Shakespeare expurgators.

Title page of the 1807 edition
Title page of the 1807 edition / PR2752 .B7 1807 / Whitaker Fund

Sometime after the event, the RBC acquired the first edition of The Family Shakespeare, which was issued with no named editor by a small provincial printing house in Bath, England in 1807. The first edition has been attributed historically to Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825). But in his book, Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America, Noel Perrin convincingly argues that the 1807 edition was actually edited by Thomas’s sister, Henrietta Bowdler (1750-1830), whose name was omitted from the title page.  By the time the first edition of The Family Shakespeare appeared, Henrietta was already a published author and a well-known bluestocking. Perrin estimates that Henrietta excised about ten percent of Shakespeare’s words, taking special care to eliminate any hint of religious irreverence.

We can see Henrietta Bowdler’s editorial influence at work in her expurgation of Macbeth. In Act II, Scene 3, Henrietta cut the Porter’s entire opening speech and comedic exchange with Macduff, relegating the Porter to a non-speaking part in Shakespeare’s drama. The photograph below shows the beginning of Scene 2 in The Family Shakespeare, as morally conscientious readers might have encountered it.

Bowdlerized text of Macbeth
Bowdlerized text of Macbeth

Later editions of The Family Shakespeare were edited by Thomas Bowdler, who modified and in some cases reinstated many of Henrietta’s cuts. Perhaps feeling that his sister went too far in her moral zealotry, Thomas Bowdler reinstated the drunken Porter’s speech in his 1818 edition, but in a dramatically truncated form that rendered it almost unintelligible. His unintentionally comedic expurgation was brought to life by Sarah Michalak’s reading at the Banned Books Event.

UNC is one of the first libraries to acknowledge Henrietta Bowdler’s contributions in the library catalog record. How information is organized and presented to the public is far from value neutral.  When catalogers suggest changes to the authority records, they draw on documentary evidence and scholarly research to support their claims. The Rare Book Collection is grateful for the hard work and advanced research skills of our technical services staff, and we are excited that our library records reflect the contributions of previously overlooked and marginalized authors and editors, like Henrietta Bowdler.