The Spike or Victoria University College Review June 1926
The Butcher Shop
The Butcher Shop
The novel going by the name which heads this article has been banned; I accordingly read it. I do not think I read it from any unworthy motive; I read it because the author, Jean Devanny, is a Wellingtonian, and her book is a novel of New Zealand life, and to any intelligent New Zealander the beginnings of a native literature must be interesting. I read it, also, to find out what on earth could have caused the New Zealand Board of Censors to bann it. It was banned, I believe, under that section of the Act dealing with the importation into the country of indecent literature. "The Butcher Shop," ergo, is indecent. Beyond that the Censors give no reason; they are not accustomed to giving reasons. The trio of gentlemen responsible for this action were Mr. Charles Wilson, the ex-Parliamentary Librarian, Mr. Herbert Baillie, the Wellington Municipal Librarian, and Mr. H. C. South, of the New Zealand Bible and Tract Society, acting in his capacity as president of the New Zealand Retail Booksellers' Association. Mr. Wilson for many years wrote, under the pseudonym of "Liber," the columns of innocuous twaddle that figure in Saturday morning's "Dominion" as "Books and Authors"; Mr. Baillie conducts investigations into the original sites of the wharves and lighthouses of Wellington Harbour, and other historical problems of magnitude; Mr. South apparently sells books, including, no doubt, a good many works of unblemished piety. What any of these gentlemen knows about literature I have not been able to discover. They apparently enjoy a certain standing as critics of morals. This is a melancholy reflection.
Now, "The Butcher Shop" is not a great novel; it is not even a good novel; it is, in fact, in some respects an inconceivably bad novel. Mrs. Devanny is a member of that peculiar sect, the Communist Party, and her book is a sort of incompletely welded conglomerate of New Zealand sheep-farming, Marxian philosophy, and Engels on the origin of the family. (One does not like to impute unworthy motives to a censor; but one hazards a guess that if this book had been the work of a Cabinet Minister's wife, it would have got into the country all right. But then a Cabinet Minister's wife could never have written it.) In detail the book is chaotic; a good deal of the life described is very incorrectly observed; and its psychology is so extremely crude in many instances that it is ludicrous. The slabs of the economic interpretation of history (reminding one, oh! so closely of the neatly-packed information of those invaluable tabloid encyclopedias, the Plebs' League text-books) flung in and industriously stirred into the mixture, like plums for good little Communists, merely bore one to tears; Mrs. Devanny, so I see from an ineffably patronising article by Miss Nellie Scanlan in the "Free Lance," had two final chapters in her book interpreting the story from the Marxian standpoint, which the publishers cut out—we owe them a debt of gratitude. Mrs. Devanny feels the cruelty of the world very deeply, and she sets out to arraign it; but she has not the artist's hand, her indictment is not wrought into a harmonious scheme, it does not strike home; it leaves us as unmoved as a page 39 newspaper account of a murder. It is compact of tragedies—but compare it with a single episode of Hardy! The style is uneven: it ranges from a sentence like this:
"Spring, the laggard, came running to take its place with sweet apologies for malingering."
to the dreadful depths of barbarism of
"...especially Miette. who. being stupid, bungled the manner of her propaganda work. Her ' scabs,' ' slaves' and other epithets, flung around promiscuously, did not help her any. whether deserved or not. She had quite a knowledge of her science, hut," etc.
At the same time, though nothing can alter the essential badness of the book as a work of art, it has its indubitably good points. It is honest, there can be no doubt about that. Its wholehearted sincerity, indeed, is what redeems it from the ruck of the thousands of other bad novels. It is even ingenuous—there is none of the congenital eroticism of D, H. Lawrence or the discreet suggestiveness of Michael Arlen. It is individual. it is courageous, it tackles a problem which is a problem, and it makes an bones about it. The author has an eye for the failings of her own political party. It is as infinitely below the work of Katherine Mansfield as it is above that of, say, Berta Ruck. As an interpretation of New Zealand life it is odd, but the sheep-farming scenes are alive and convincing. It is a first novel, and the publishers have contracted for four or five more books from the same author; it may therefore be a stepping stone to something worth reading, or it may be merely the precursor of a line of equally bad or worse productions. But it is a first novel, and it shows promise. It is certainly not the sort of book that the New Zealand Bible and Tract Society would supply for the library of a Primitive Methodist Sunday-school; but therein, perhaps, lies its chief justification.
What is the plot of the book? A young girl, between seventeen and eighteen, goes out to service on a big farm near Taihape (the fact that she does so, with her parentage and upbringing, is the initial blunder of the book); in two days the young farmer of twenty-two. whose parents are dead, and she fall completely in love; they are married shortly after, consummating their marriage the day before the actual ceremony (it is hard to see why). They live happily together for ten years, and have four children, the man still passionately in love, the woman less so. Then, preliminary to a trip round the world, a manager is hired, and arrives while the husband is absent; the wife and he fall in love at sight, and she gives herself to him. realising that her love for her husband was but calf-love, and that this is a far greater and nobler thing. The husband comes back; the manager is ashamed of himself and wishes to leave: the wife, firm in a conviction of the purity of her own love, harangues him on his defective regard for her (he, the typical male, regards her as a mere female, so much personal property, a "slave"), and gradually converts him to her own elevated view of their relations. He and her husband become very friendly: conjointly two relatives from England, a Labour propagandist and his sensual wife, arrive, the one to keep accounts and preach an enlightened historical view of sexual morality, the other, by her continual in page 40 trigues, at once to stir up trouble on the farm and provide a foil to the passion of the lovers, finely restrained for the sake of the husband and the children. But things work to a crisis; the husband sees that his wife loves his friend, though he does not realise the full truth, and offers to leave the country; the friend has momentarily given way to his passion again, and then in an agony of remorse accused himself to the wife of having betrayed his friend; her nerves give way, she harangues both men once more on her own slavery, and tells her husband the truth. He drowns himself, and in a fit of madness she cuts her lover's throat. There is another murder in the book, and several cases of cruelty, apparently brought in both to illustrate the thesis that life is a butcher's shop and to add to the development of the woman's character; but the connexion is made very awkwardly. The central fact is that the woman remains unstained. ("Tess—a pure woman.")
I confess I fail to see why the book should be banned. If it were banned because its literary quality is low and might deprave the taste of New Zealanders for the highest and best—Henry James, for instance—I could understand, though I should not approve of the method of criticism. But why it should be branded as "indecent" passes comprehension. It might be said that its effect on young persons would be bad. Well, what about the dozens of other books that treat sexual love freely and honestly, or exploit it flippantly and nonchalantly, and yet (by an oversight on the censors' part, perhaps?—for if they had to read everything, how would their libraries and bookshops get on?) make their way into the country? Is it, perhaps, that the style in these books glosses over and redeems the bad morality? But surely a young person of vicious tendencies would ignore the style, good or bad, and go straight to what interests him (or her); and if he couldn't get what he wanted in one book, he would get it in another, whatever its "morals" might be. And is it going to do any harm to a "good" youth or maiden to learn, even through fiction, that there is such a thing as sexual passion, that it may be good or bad, that it sometimes leads to awkward predicaments, and that there are other solutions suggested to those predicaments than the conventional ones? You admit that life is cruel; are you going to ban a book because it distils a good deal of that cruelty in its pages? You say it would give a reader a distorted view of life—and so it might", if it were the only book he ever read. You may say (if you are very simple-minded) that it is a libel on New Zealand, usually known to its inhabitants as God's Own Country. The trouble is that we do not know exactly how God regards these many claims on his particular ownership, and Mrs. Devanny, quite obviously, and a good many other honest people besides, do not believe in a God. And even in a country that is quite peculiarly God's, the devil somehow gets a footing.
The main point about the censorship is that it has no right of existence in a modern country. The very natural objection may be made that New Zealand is not modern; but I understand that it is held by the majority of its M.P.'s and City Councillors—and what better authority?—to be in the forefront of the world's progress. Ever since the war the censorship has been a grotesque blot on our common-sense. We are sheltered from this, page 41 we are sheltered from that. Every now and again some naive Communist, with his pathetic little bundle of tracts, is deported, lest New Zealand burst into flame and smoke, or some gentle-featured proletariat, with a bee in its bonnet, wade through blood to a dictator's throne. Every now and again the wrong book is held up by our widely-read, profoundly-critical Customs Department, and a Mr. Charles Wilson or a Mr. Herbert Baillie, or a Mr. H. C. South (emerging from his Bibles and Tracts and somewhat odd theology) holds it at arm's length in a pair of tongs and deposits it in the moral destructor. Heaven knows what was on the black list during the war; Heaven knows what is on it now. And Heaven knows what harm the censorship does by insisting that a book is "indecent." There is such a thing as illicit publicity, and it is a thing to which the censorship contributes very materially. "Indecent!" The very existence of a censorship in the modern State is the most "indecent" thing about it. Mr. Charles Wilson, Mr. Herbert Baillie, Mr. H. C. South are no doubt all very estimable gentlemen, good citizens, of the most impeccable morality. But I think of their joint labours, and I feel nauseated.
Mr. Arnold Bennett was once an essayist of genius. In his "Books and Persons" he has some words on "Ugliness in Fiction." Here are a few of them:—
"I once resided near a young noodle of a Methodist pastor who had the pious habit of reading novels aloud to his father and mother. He began to read one of mine to them, but half-way through decided that something of Charlotte M. Yonge would be less unsuitable for the parental ear. He then called and lectured me. Among other aphorisms of his which I have treasured Up was this: ' Life, my dear friend, is like an April day—sunshine and shadow chasing each other over the plain.' That he is not dead is a great tribute to my singular self-control."
It is a great tribute to the singular self-control of that small body of New Zealanders interested in honest, sincere workmanship in fiction (or any other kind of literature) that the Board of Censors has not been deleted several times over.