We’re so pleased to welcome author JL Merrow today to help us celebrate the Freedom to Read, and be sure to check out the great giveaway details too.
Tales of the Unexpurgated
Hi, I’m JL Merrow, and I’d like to talk to you about one of my favourite banned books.
The book I’ve chosen is bawdy, salacious and full of men and women behaving badly. Under the Comstock Law of 1873, it was illegal to send this book through the US Mail, and it’s been banned in UK and US schools, the latter as recently as 1995. When I went to school (okay, not quite as recently as 1995) I was able to read this book—but only in a version which had been heavily bowdlerised and stripped of all obscenity.
I’m talking, of course, about Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Yes, really. Now seen as a key work of Middle English literature—indeed, as one of the most important works in all English literature—the Tales have, over the six centuries since they were written, provoked an awful lot of hand-wringing, tutting and outraged sensibilities. Quite impressive for a collection of simple tales of simple folk, full of country matters and Ye Olde Englyshe Spellynge. Quaint, even (not to be confused with queynte, which is a word that appears in the Tales and has quite a different meaning ).*
So why do I love the Canterbury Tales? Well, I have fond memories of my strait-laced English teacher reading out the rude bits of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale** to us—she being the only one in the class with an unexpurgated version. And, too, I’ve always loved language, and the Middle English of Chaucer’s time always appealed to me much as using my knowledge of German to puzzle out written Dutch still does—so close to the language I know, and yet at first sight, so different.
But mostly, I think, I love the Canterbury Tales because they show how people, even six hundred years ago, were pretty much the same as we are today: imperfect, often coarse, and fond of a good laugh. It’s tempting to think of people going on a pilgrimage as pious religious bores and exactly the sort who would ban an “obscene” book—but this motley collection of pilgrims was far from po-faced. The characters whose tales they told may have gone dutifully to church every Sabbath day, but they sinned merrily every other day of the week (and probably twice on Sundays).
Ban it all you like: obscenity (by the censors’ blinkered definition) will out.
I’ll leave you with a quote from The Summoner’s Tale (in modern English translation, because if you’ve read this far you deserve a break):
“Now then, put in thy hand down by my back,”
Said this man, “and grope well behind.
Beneath my buttock where shalt thou find
A thing that I have hidden in private.”
“Ah!” thought this friar, “That shall go with me!”
And down his hand he thrusts to the cleft
In hope to find there a gift.***
* The modern version has only four letters. And the first one isn’t “q”.
** That’s the one about the big cock.
***Spoiler: he gets farted on.
Giveaway: I’m offering an ebook of winner’s choice from my backlist (see my website, https://jlmerrow.com/, for a list of my books) to a randomly-chosen commenter on the post, and I’d love to hear about your own favourite banned book. Or your favourite Canterbury Tale! :)
**Comment Deadline: 11:59pm on Saturday, October 1, 2016**
About the Author
JL Merrow is that rare beast, an English person who refuses to drink tea. She read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where she learned many things, chief amongst which was that she never wanted to see the inside of a lab ever again. Her one regret is that she never mastered the ability of punting one-handed whilst holding a glass of champagne.
She writes across genres, with a preference for contemporary gay romance and mysteries, and is frequently accused of humour. Her novel Slam! won the 2013 Rainbow Award for Best LGBT Romantic Comedy, and her novella Muscling Through and novel Relief Valve were both EPIC Awards finalists.
JL Merrow is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, International Thriller Writers, Verulam Writers’ Circle and the UK GLBTQ Fiction Meet organising team.