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Bowdler, Thomas (1754-1825) (DNB00)


BOWDLER, THOMAS (1754–1825), editor of the 'Family Shakespeare,' the younger son of Thomas and Elizabeth Stuart Bowdler, was born at Ashley, near Bath, on 11 July 1754. His father, a gentleman of independent means, belonged to an ancient family originally settled at Hope Bowdler, Shropshire. His mother, the second daughter of Sir John Cotton of Conington, Huntingdonshire, fifth baronet in direct descent from the well-known Sir Robert Cotton, was a highly accomplished woman and author of 'Practical Observations on the Book of Revelation,' Bath, 1800 (Life of J. Bowdler, pp. 109-23). Thomas suffered much through life from a serious accident sustained when he was nine years old. About 1765 he went to Mr. Graves's school at Claverton, near Bath, where his intimate friend in after life, William Anne Villettes, a military officer of repute, was a fellow-pupil. In 1770 he proceeded to St. Andrews University to study medicine. He subsequently removed to Edinburgh, where he graduated M.D. in 1776 and published a thesis, 'Tentamen … de Febrium Intermittentium Natura et Indole.' He spent the next four years in travel, and visited Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Sicily. In 1781 he caught a fever from a young friend whom he attended, on a journey to Lisbon, through a fatal illness. He returned to England in broken health, and with a strong aversion to his profession. In the same year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and a licentiate of the College of Physicians (9 April). Soon afterwards he permanently settled in London, and obtained an introduction to Mrs. Montagu's coterie, where he became intimate with Bishops Hinchcliffe and Porteus, Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Chapone, and Mrs. Hannah More. He was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1784. He devoted himself to charitable work, and acted for many years as chairman of St. George's vestry, Hanover Square, as a committee-man of the Magdalen Hospital, and as a commissioner (with Sir Gilbert Elliott and Sir Charles Bunbury) to inquire into the state of the penitentiaries (1781). After the death of John Howard, the prison reformer, in 1790, he inspected the prisons throughout the country, with a view to continuing Howard's work. In 1787 Bowdler visited the Low Countries when the struggle between the patriotic party and the stadtholder (the Prince of Orange), supported by a Prussian army, was at its height, and he wrote a detailed account of the revolution in 'Letters written in Holland in the months of September and October, 1787' (London, 1788); an appendix collects a large number of proclamations and other official documents. During 1788 Bowdler travelled in France. From 1800 to 1810 he resided at St. Boniface, Isle of Wight, and after 1810 until his death at Rhyddings, near Swansea. In 1814 he visited Geneva to settle the affairs of his old friend, Lieutenant-general Villettes, who had died in Jamaica in 1807, and in the following year he published a 'Life of Villettes' (Bath, 1815), with an appendix of 'Letters during a Journey from Calais to Geneva and St. Bernard in 1814,' and a short biography (including seven letters) of 'The late Madame Elizabeth.' With later copies of the book was bound up a postscript, entitled 'Observations on Emigration to France, with an account of Health, Economy, and the Education of Children,' also published separately in 1815. Bowdler here warned Englishmen against France, and English invalids especially against French watering-places, and recommended Malta, which he had visited with a nephew in 1810, as a sanitary resort.

In 1818 Bowdler published his edition of 'Shakespeare,' the work by which he is best known. Its title ran: 'The Family Shakespeare in ten volumes; 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.' In the preface he writes of Shakespeare's language: 'Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.' He also complains of the unnecessary and frivolous allusions to Scripture, which 'call imperiously for their erasement.' Bowdler's prudery makes sad havoc with Shakespeare's text, and, although his 'Shakespeare' had a very large sale, it was deservedly attacked in the 'British Critic' for April 1822. To this review Bowdler published a long reply, in which he stated his principle to be: 'If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed; and, if printed, it ought to be erased.' He illustrates his method from his revisions of 'Henry IV,' 'Hamlet,' and 'Macbeth.' Bowdler's 'Shakespeare' has been very frequently reissued. Four editions were published before 1824, and others have appeared in 1831, 1853, and 1861.

During the last years of his life Bowdler was engaged in purifying Gibbon's 'History.' The work was completed just before his death in 1825, and published in six volumes by his nephew Thomas [q. v.] in 1826. The full title runs: 'Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for the use of Families and Young Persons, reprinted from the original text with the careful omissions of all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency.' In the preface Bowdler is self-confident enough to assert a belief that Gibbon himself would have approved his plan, and that his version would be adopted by all future publishers of the book. Bowdler's nephew adds in a note that 'it was the peculiar happiness of the writer' to have so purified Shakespeare and Gibbon that they could no longer 'raise a blush on the cheek of modest innocence nor plant a pang in the heart of the devout christian.'

Bowdler died at Rhyddings on 24 Feb. 1825, and was buried at Oystermouth, near Swansea. Besides the works already mentioned, he published 'A short Introduction to a selection of Chapters from the Old Testament, intended for the use of the Church of England Sunday School Society in Swansea,' Swansea, 1822; it was reprinted in 1823 as 'Select Chapters from the Old Testament … with Short Introductions.' Bowdler was an active promoter of the Proclamation Society, formed in 1787 to enforce a royal proclamation against impiety and vice—a society which was afterwards replaced by the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

The verb to 'bowdlerise' is of course a derivative from Bowdler's name. It was apparently first used in print by General Perronet Thompson in 1836 in his 'Letters of a Representative to his Constituents during the session of 1836' (London), reprinted in Thompson's 'Exercises,' 1842, iv. 124. Thompson writes that there are certain classical names in the writings of the apostles which modern ultra-christians 'would probably have Bowdler-ized' information kindly supplied by Dr. J. A. H. Murray of Oxford).

[Some account of Thomas Bowdler, F.R.S. and F.S.A., is appended to the Life of John Bowdler by his son Thomas Bowdler, 1825, pp. 298-331. This notice was reprinted in the Annual Biography and Obituary (1826), x. 191-218. See also Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, ix. 37; preface to Bowdler's Shakespeare (4th ed.); Munk's College of Physicians, ii. 324; Nichols's Illustrations, v. 641.]

S. L.