Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.
11 July 1754 – 24 February 1825
Thomas Bowdler was born at Box, near Bath, Somerset, the youngest son of the six children of Thomas Bowdler (c. 1719–1785), a banker of substantial fortune, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Cotton (d. 1797), the daughter of Sir John Cotton of Conington, Huntingdonshire. Bowdler studied medicine at the universities of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, where he took his degree in 1776, graduating with a thesis on intermittent fevers. He spent the next four years in travelling in continental Europe, visiting Germany, Hungary, Italy, Sicily and Portugal. In 1781 he caught a fever in Lisbon from a young friend whom he was attending through a fatal illness. He returned to England in broken health, and with a strong aversion to his profession. In 1781 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP), but he did not continue to practise medicine. He devoted himself instead to the cause of prison reform. Bowdler was a strong chess player and once played eight recorded games against the best chess player of the time, François-André Danican Philidor, who was so confident of his superiority that he played with handicaps. Bowdler won twice, lost three times, and drew three times.
Bowdler’s first published work was Letters Written in Holland in the Months of September and October, 1787 (1788), which gave his eye-witness account of the Patriots’ uprising. In 1800 Bowdler took a lease on a country estate at St Boniface, on the Isle of Wight, where he lived for ten years. In September 1806, when he was 52, he married Elizabeth Frevenen or Trevennen, the widow of a naval officer. The marriage was unhappy, and after a few years Bowdler and his wife lived apart. They had no children. After the separation, the marriage was never referred to by the Bowdler family, and in the biography of Bowdler by his nephew, Thomas Bowdler, there is no mention of Bowdler’s ever marrying.
In 1807 the first edition of the Bowdlers’ The Family Shakspeare was published, in four small volumes. From 1811 until his death in 1825, Bowdler lived at Rhyddings House, overlooking Swansea Bay, from where he travelled extensively in Britain and continental Europe. In 1815 he published Observations on Emigration to France, With an Account of Health, Economy, and the Education of Children, a cautionary work propounding his view that English invalids should avoid French spas and go instead to Malta. In 1818 Bowdler published an enlarged edition of The Family Shakspeare, which had considerable success. By 1827 the work had gone into its fifth edition. In his last years, Bowdler prepared an expurgated version of the works of the historian Edward Gibbon, which was published posthumously in 1826. His sister Jane Bowdler (1743–1784) was a poet and essayist, and another sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler (Harriet) (1750–1830) collaborated with Bowdler on his expurgated Shakespeare.
Bowdler died in Swansea at the age of 70 and was buried there, at Oystermouth. He bequeathed donations to the poor of Swansea and Box. His large library, consisting of unexpurgated volumes collected by his ancestors Thomas Bowdler (1638–1700) and Thomas Bowdler (1661–1738), was donated to the University of Wales, Lampeter. In 1825 Bowdler’s nephew, also called Thomas Bowdler, published his Memoir of the Late John Bowdler, Esq., to Which Is Added, Some Account of the Late Thomas Bowdler, Esq. Editor of the Family Shakspeare.
In Bowdler’s childhood, his father had entertained his family with readings from Shakespeare. Later, Bowdler realised that his father had been omitting or altering passages he felt unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children. Bowdler felt it would be worthwhile to publish an edition which might be used in a family whose father was not a sufficiently “circumspect and judicious reader” to accomplish this expurgation himself.
In 1807 the first edition of the Bowdlers’ The Family Shakspeare was published, in four duodecimo volumes, containing 24 of the plays. In 1818 the second edition was published. Each play is preceded by an introduction where Bowdler summarises and justifies his changes to the text. According to his nephew’s Memoir, the first edition was prepared by Bowdler’s sister, Harriet, but both were published under Thomas Bowdler’s name, probably because a woman could not then publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare’s racy passages. By 1850 eleven editions had been printed. The spelling “Shakspeare”, used by Bowdler, and also by his nephew Thomas in his memoir of the older man, was changed in later editions in the mid-19th century to “Shakespeare”.
The Bowdlers were not the first to undertake such a project, but, despite being considered a negative example by some, their editions made it more acceptable to teach Shakespeare to wider and younger audiences. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne said, “More nauseous and foolish cant was never chattered than that which would deride the memory or depreciate the merits of Bowdler. No man ever did better service to Shakespeare than the man who made it possible to put him into the hands of intelligent and imaginative children.” Bowdler’s commitment not to augment Shakespeare’s text was in contrast with the practice of some earlier editors and performers. Nahum Tate as Poet Laureate had rewritten the tragedy of King Lear with a happy ending. In 1807 Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb published Tales from Shakespeare for children with synopses of 20 of the plays, seldom quoting the original text.
Some examples of alterations made by Bowdler’s edition:
- In Hamlet, the death of Ophelia was referred to as an accidental drowning, omitting the suggestions that she may have intended suicide.
- In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s famous cry “Out, damned spot!” was changed to “Out, crimson spot!”
- “God!” as an exclamation is replaced with “Heavens!”
- In Henry IV, Part 2, the prostitute Doll Tearsheet is omitted entirely; the slightly more reputable Mistress Quickly is retained.
- The Family Shakespeare, Volume One, The Comedies, ISBN 0-923891-95-1
- The Family Shakespeare, Volume Two, The Tragedies, ISBN 0-923891-98-6
- The Family Shakespeare, Volume Three, The Histories, ISBN 0-923891-99-4
- The Family Shakspeare, in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family by Thomas Bowdler in 10 volumes, Facsimile reprint of 2nd edition, revised, in 1820, Eureka Press, 2009. ISBN 978-4-902454-16-1