Why censor town names?
September 28, 2007 1:11 AM   Subscribe

Why do/did certain old novels censor names of towns/shires/boroughs?

Examples of this phenomenon can be found in Charlotte Bronte's "The Professor."

"they knew also they had influence in the borough of X-------"

"but he said I might come down to -------shire."

I have found numerous examples of this in literature of this period, but nary an explanation.
posted by haveanicesummer to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It's not censorship, it's a literary convention that allows the reader to substitute whatever -------shire comes to their own mind.

I can't be certain, but in those early days of modern fiction, creating your own borough out of thin air might have been too much for some readers, interrupting their suspension of disbelief. The same might happen if you wrote about fictional people in real places. "Cor, my sister never heard of no Bixbys down at Glouster."

You can think of it as a primitive device akin to today's metafiction, with "real" documents trying to fix a story in reality. "I'm telling a real story, but certain names are changed to protect the identity of those involved."
posted by dhartung at 1:21 AM on September 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'll note that it's a device that Umberto Eco uses in Foucault's Pendulum published in 1988. We never learn the name of the town that Belbo is from. It's always replaced by "***". I'm very curious about why this is used as well.
posted by quadog at 1:31 AM on September 28, 2007

Yes, Bronte does this a lot, while Mrs Gaskell invents placenames (Darkshire in North and South) and Dickens mainly sticks with the real names (Canterbury in David Copperfield). There may be some correlation with the relative ‘realism’ of the novels in each case, Bronte’s novels for example being a little more fairy tale and indistinct in terms of location and time period than Dickens’ are.

Omitting the place name also gives the novel a memoir feel (which is borne out by the style and substance of The Professor) as if the author doesn’t want to locate the true events for danger of being identified.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:59 AM on September 28, 2007

Could there have been relevant less case-law in libel? I imagine that while novels were still a new form, printers might have been more nervous. And I only think of the B***** form as an 18th century thing.

I don't know, I'm asking a supplementary question.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:24 AM on September 28, 2007

Best answer: A similar google answer and, from that page, another discussion about this. I don't see a definitive answer there, but this (from the second link) looks pretty good:
In English novels, this coyness device and others related to it starts early, with Defoe and Haywood et al. This is where it comes from: Novels in early genres, especially courtship novels but also racy novels and social novels like Defoe's, posed as actual found documents, manuscripts discovered by the 'editor' (author) - dairies or letter collections or memoirs - which the 'editor' believes should be published for the edification and entertainment of the public. That pose quickly becomes conventional. To protect the privacy of the real human beings whose writings/stories the novels pose as recounting - and to 'prove' the 'editor' is making the ms public for disinterested motives and not prurient intentions or to sow scandal (developing the editorial/authorial persona of novels) Mr B-----'s name, for example, (in Richardson) goes undisclosed, and actual places are also disguised, giving the impression of a text delivering something like gossip (the dash was common in scandal sheets too). The dashing out of place and proper names was also common to 18th c. pornography.

By Austen, the practise of concealing identities/places is vestigial, but still has a bit of an impact suggesting the 'truth' - an early gesture to realism - of the story being recounted (and delicacy with regard to the characters) although arguably at this point - Austen - it's having an opposite effect - the disturbance of the illusion. But its still pretty natural for novels posing, with varying levels of self-consciousness, as found documents...or satires of such...while for the realism of which Austen is an early practitioner, its begun to look weird.
posted by pracowity at 2:58 AM on September 28, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm going with the 'names changed to protect the innocent/not identify the author' gimmick. There are certain people in Anna Sewell's Black Beauty referred to in this way, too, and it's presented as a true story.
posted by corvine at 4:04 AM on September 28, 2007

It's what dhartung and pracowity said.
posted by Miko at 6:19 AM on September 28, 2007

Also, I know this has come up in AskMe before, but I can't find the thread.
posted by Miko at 6:25 AM on September 28, 2007

I remember this from Les Miserables, where it's only used for the "Bishop of D-----." I assumed it was the same this-is-real gimmick that other people have described, but when I just checked the Wikipedia page, I see they list the character as the Bishop of Digne. Apparently, the original French text (available from Project Gutenberg at the bottom of the wiki page) has Digne spelled out, while the English text (same) uses the dashes.
I guess that would imply that in this particular case, it's a device of the English publisher, rather than the author.
posted by Partial Law at 6:28 AM on September 28, 2007

This phenomenon even shows up in the title of Kleist's Die Marquise von O—.
posted by oaf at 6:37 AM on September 28, 2007

posted by mediareport at 6:57 AM on September 28, 2007

Les Miserables also censors the name of some streets as I recall, like Rue de S----

Why did Kill Bill censor The Bride's name?
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:23 AM on September 28, 2007

They did it to make the story seem more realistic.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:28 AM on September 28, 2007

I read a very definitive answer once with respect to Jane Austen, that she did not want readers to go and double check where the "----shire Reigment" was when and tie up reading her book with that nonsense. She was not trying to portray historical truth, and wanted to avoid the appearance of doing so.

In addition, libel laws were once much stricter and the peerage much broader. If you talked about Sir Wonkybutt bailing out of a betrothal to Lady Emily Fairfax for example, and there happened to BE a real Sir Wonkeybutt - mucho trouble. So, when these are not main characters you've put lots of time and effort into, it's much easier to say "Sir ----".

It's not censorship, rather a deliberate choice on the author's part.
posted by bunnycup at 1:25 PM on September 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also previously, with an excellent answer by Sidhedevil.

This was an international phenomenon, not an English one. Russian, French, and German literature are full of examples.
posted by languagehat at 5:44 PM on September 28, 2007

Aside to RustyBrooks:

The Bride's name is censored until the second half of Kill Bill because she's not a character yet - she's without complex emotions. She's a fucking killing machine. She's The Bride.
posted by SassHat at 5:58 PM on September 28, 2007

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