'The Chastity of our Records': Reading and Judging Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Courts

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Crawley, Karen
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Moore, N

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Judging a work as obscene has always been a matter not of the content of that work, but rather of who is reading,or viewing it. It is axiomatic that modern obscenity law, in its statutory and judicial forms, emerged in the nineteenth century, when dramatically increased literacy rates, cheaper printing methods and greater population concentration created an 'anonymous, amorphous public, in which distinctions of sex and class could no longer be relied upon to determine who could read what'. 1 One of the century's most comprehensive legislative attempts to control the unruly circulation of pamphlets, newspapers, cheap literature and photographs, the United Kingdom's Obscene Publications Act 1857 (also known as Lord Campbell's Act), was crafted by a political elite that feared the subversive impulses of a newly literate working class, or in blunt terms, 'the uncontrolled mass of women and the mob'.2 The Act authorized the police to search suspect premises, to seize material they believed to be obscene and to get permission for the destruction of these materials from magistrates. Lord , Campbell introduced and justified the Bill in Parliament as a necessary response to the increased circulation of pornographic materials at affordable prices: <It was not alone indecent books of a high price, whicb was a sort of check, that were sold, but periodical papers of the most licentious and disgusting description were coming out week by week, and sold to any person who asked for them, and in any numbers:3 He reassured the Parliament that the Bill was directed neither towards a gentleman's private erotica collection nor 'the masterpieces of Correggio',4 stating that 'the keeping, or the reading, or the delighting in such things, must be left to taste, and was not a subject for legal interference:5 Rather the Act was directed to 'people who designedly and industriously manufactured books and prints with the intention of corrupting the public morals'.' The Act reflected concern with the health of the unruly public body, targeting those purveyors of texts and displayers of images who created a new, excited sensibility among young working-class men and women, creating 'dangerously motivated and suggestible audiences'7 and threatening to compromise the codes of respectable behaviour advocated for women on the streets of the city.8

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Censorship and the Limits of the Literary: A Global View

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Law and society and socio-legal research

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