Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 3, 2013

The Censor’s Library (2012), by Nicole Moore

The Censor's LibraryThe Censor’s Library really is a very interesting book.  Prior to reading it, I had thought that censorship in Australia was mostly a matter of wowserism, but Nicole Moore makes it clear that there was much more to it than that.

The Censor’s Library covers so much territory that it’s hard to know where to begin.  I read a chapter or so each morning over weekday breakfasts for the best part of six weeks, and often found myself scribbling down thoughts while my cereal went soggy and my coffee cooled.  I have scraps of commentary all through the book on the backs of envelopes and sticky notes, and just writing this review makes me want to read parts of it again, particularly since the book has been shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in the Prize for Australian History category.   Exploring 12000 banned items held in 793 boxes covering 60 years of censorship to its relaxation in the 1980s,  Moore discusses censorship on the grounds of obscenity and religious offence; homosexuality and race-relations; birth control, abortion and childbirth without pain; self-censorship; sedition and terrorism.  She also discusses issues of contemporary censorship including something I hadn’t realised about the Intervention: there are restrictions on pornography in indigenous communities which don’t apply elsewhere in Australia.

The book begins with an explanation of the mechanisms by which books were so successfully banned for so many years.  When a country is governed in a muddle of state and federal legislation like ours is, there are limitless opportunities for busybodies to interfere in the lives of others, and the creativity with which officialdom exercised its powers is a wonder to behold.  As the author says:

Mechanisms used to protect Australian readers from offence included the common law, statutes, legal regulations, court rulings and decisions, policy and bureaucratic processes, expert and inexpert opinion and the influence of medical and psychological discourses, as well as the discourse of literary scholarship, employed as the learned practice of decoding meaning. (p. xv)

This last, literary scholarship used to decode meaning, is especially droll in the case of the scurrilous Ern Malley poems.  This famous literary hoax involved sending meaningless mock poems in the modernist style to the hapless editor of Angry Penguins, who published them with great enthusiasm only to have the heavy hand of the censor descend because they were too rude for us to read. In the ensuing obscenity trial, the problem for both prosecution and defence was that they both had to prove that the poems had meaning in order for them to be declared either obscene or alternatively of some literary merit.  I think if you check out the poetry at the Ern Malley website, you will see for yourself just how comic the trial must have been.

Except, of course, that being charged with obscenity was no joke.  In the chapter entitled ‘Literature in Handcuffs’ Moore tells the story of Robert Close and his ill-fated book Love Me Sailor which landed him in gaol because it so offended the South Australian police that the author and his publisher were charged with a ‘rare and antiquated offence of obscene libel’ which was defined by the court as ‘the publication of any indecent, lewd or filthy matter, which tends to corrupt the morals of society’. p. 176).  His sentence was three months, reduced on appeal and he served only ten days, but still, it’s a frightening prospect for any author.  (Remember the case of Harry Nicolaides, imprisoned in Thailand for writing a sentence or two that offended the king?)

Norman Lindsay’s Redheap was the first Aussie book banned, but many of the books banned in Australia, however, were not penned by local authors.  The Department of Customs and Excise was therefore the gatekeeper, and its energetic officials certainly busied themselves with preventing the importation of all kinds of books.  Not just the banning of modernist novels which began in 1929 with James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I have read four times now – naughty bits and all – but emerged unscathed) but before that, my goodness, even Balzac’s Droll Stories was banned in 1901.  It’s no surprise that Zola’s tale of the prostitute Nana was confiscated though its literary merit enabled its subsequent release, but classic works like Ovid’s love poems were banned too.

The trouble was, that the good folk of Australia did not even know which books were denied them, because there was no list published.  Moore cites Nettie Palmer’s evocative image of the censor at work:

One has to do a good deal of imagining whenever a censor is mentioned.  No one ever sees him at his work; he strikes darkling; he never explains … It has been suggested that he does not, and cannot, read, and that he only takes action when he finds his elbow jogged by a little being who reminds him of a customs list that is revised only once in a century. (p. 31)

There were basically three grounds for banning:

  • blasphemy i.e. offensive to the church;
  • literature featuring undesirable behaviour such as crime or ‘depraved’ sex (e.g. prostitution, homosexual relationships etc.); or
  • sedition i.e. anything that hinted at criticism of capitalism or promoted socialism.

So Ulysses was in trouble only partly because of Bloom’s … um …’activities down on the beachfront’.  It was also because of Stephen Dedelus and his mates’ parody of the Roman Catholic Mass.  Australians couldn’t read E.M. Forster’s Maurice because it was an empathetic portrayal of same-sex relationships.  Orwell was banned because of his criticism of conditions for workers in Down and Out in Paris and London .  In some cases, snobbery was at work too: classy editions of some works were permitted for the literati, but the same material in accessible paperback was deemed unsuitable for the newly literate common man to read.  Women (who apparently often led the charge to ban books), of course, had to be protected from risqué books, as children were.  But there were no guidelines for publishers and it was expensive for publishers to try to second-guess what might and might not be repressed.  US bestsellers were often judged too racy for Australians to read, and it was costly indeed if publishers had paid author advances, rights fees, printed Australian editions and for publicity – only to find that they had to pulp everything when the Censor’s heavy hand descended.

The volume of material that was banned, now revealed by Nicole Moore’s research, is extraordinary.  In the 19th and early 20th century books about birth control and even magazines with adverts for contraceptives were banned because (a) they offended the church and (b) they discouraged procreation at a time when the authorities wanted Australia’s population to grow.  Not only that, birth control was part of the agenda for the alleviation of poverty – which tied in with political campaigning for socialism, so advocating birth control had to be stopped and it very promptly was.

The cumulative effect of all this was more than a matter of individual titles.  By quarantining cultural developments overseas, Australian authors and most of its readers were isolated from modern culture, and modernism in literature in particular.  Whereas films could be cut to remove ‘objectionable material (and often was), books were either allowed or not.  It is interesting to speculate on the effects of this on the development of our literary culture…

The heroes of freedom to read are Don Chipp and Gough Whitlam who in the 1970s abolished most forms of censorship.  What remains, however, is a debate about how pornography exploits vulnerable women and children, and how best modern liberal societies might prevent the spread of extremism in the internet era. Nicole Moore’s book is a valuable contribution to this debate because it clarifies the agendas of the past to inform the future.

Other reviews are at Kill Your Darlings and the SMH (if you can still access it behind new paywalls.)

Author: Nicole Moore
Title: The Censor’s Library
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2012
ISBN: 9780702239168
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $39.95


Fishpond: The Censor’s Library


  1. I’m intrigued by “childbirth without pain” as a reason for banning books. Why was that considered banworthy?


    • Unfortunately, it doesn’t really say. It’s included on page 237 in a long list of titles banned in the wake of the controversial banning of James Baldwin’s Another Country in 1963, which triggered a debate about the severity of the Australian regime. (Another Country wasn’t banned in NZ, and it wasn’t even banned in South Africa which along with Ireland was said to have the strictest regime). Moore, describing the debate, says that Peter Coleman had written a report called Obscenity, Blasphemy and Sedition which claimed an improvement over time, but that this was challenged by K.D. Gott when he reviewed the Coleman book, and then Moore goes on to list some of the then current prohibitions to illustrate the point, listing banned titles which included well-known books like The Spy Who Loved Me, The Group, almost everything by Henry Miller, the latest edition of Lady Chatterley’s lover – and “other less -remembered titles, including the textbook Childbirth Without Pain, which was released in July 1963 after outraged protests”.
      Birth control books in general were banned for a long time because it was thought to be in Australia’s best interests to grow its population, and prior to the Holocaust, there were also issues to do with eugenics (which I believe had support in some quarters in Australia). The objection may have come from the Roman Catholic Church (or one of the other churches?) because it was thought to be unnatural, though I must admit I had thought that this attitude was consigned to oblivion when Queen Victoria famously used pain control for one of her labours.
      Perhaps if Nicole Moore stumbles across this review and your query, she may be able to shed some light on it…


      • Hmm, interesting. Thanks for the detailed reply! It’s extra puzzling why they would ban a book about childbirth if they wanted to promote population growth.


  2. sounds very interesting I wonder if over time thing once censored now are everyday ? ,its amazing how society moves ,all the best stu


    • Well, yes, nothing much shocks us these days, and some of the old attitudes seem funny, but now the emphasis is on child pornography and extremist texts.


  3. Your review has piqued my interest in this book Lisa. One aspect that interests me is the role of bureaucrats as interpreters of the law and the power they have to impose their interpretation on the public. This is subtle and can pause unnoticed. Does Nicole Moore address this in her book?


    • Yes, she does … what’s really appalling is that most of the time the censors had no expertise either at judging community standards or at interpreting art, visual or written.
      I’ll be posting this one up to you before long – I’m just hanging onto it for a little bit in case I get any more questions which require the book to answer them.


      • Thanks – looking forward to it!


  4. Hi Lisa,
    Great to read this – so engaged! Thanks so much.

    In answer to the query, Childbirth without Pain was banned because it included close-up photographs of women giving birth – a relatively new feature of birthing textbooks in the early 1960s – and thus technically infringed obscenity regulations. But at least that they listened to protest in this case and released it. I couldn’t always fit this kind of detail into the book – so many bans, so little space!

    Very best


    • Hello Nicole, how lovely to ‘meet you’ like this, and thank you for taking the trouble to clarify my query:)
      By coincidence, I was talking about your book just yesterday with my parents, who were very interested to hear about it, especially the role of the Catholic Church and the Fear of Communism agenda. (Our conversation was triggered by the Abbott government censoring (by default) information about boat arrivals LOL).
      I have sent my copy to Yvonne at Stumbling Through the Past because she is a real historian (not just an enthusiast like me) and writes excellent reviews, so do keep an eye on her blog at
      Thank you for writing such an interesting book!


      • Thank you Lisa! And perhaps your parents might remember some of the more notorious bannings… Thanks for passing the book on.


        • My father was astonished about Orwell being banned. He had read it as a young man in the UK.


          • Keep the Aspidistra Flying is the more astonishing of the two Orwell bannings I think – but both indict the isolation of Australian censors, yes!


            • And they highlight the isolation of Australia from intellectual developments. No wonder those expats had to flee to the UK and Europe!


  5. That mention of women leading bannings was interesting. In most articles I’ve read about recently challenged or banned books it seems it’s always a ‘concerned mother’ filing the charge. Also, wowsers is great word. I had to google the definition I’d never heard or read it before. This was interesting all around, thanks for linking.


    • Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a book like this about censorship in very different countries! Not just the ones that are always in the news for it e.g. China and Turkey, but also Islamic countries in the Middle East and Asia…


  6. […] some parts of Money in both versions to see what else is missing.  For as I know from reading The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore, it wasn’t just salacious material that was censored, though that is bad […]


  7. […] read some parts of Money in both versions to see what else is missing. For as I know from reading The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore, it wasn’t just salacious material that was censored, though that is bad […]


  8. […] Australian identity instead.  And while there was censorship in Australia (see my review of The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore) it was focussed on obscenity and religious offence; homosexuality and […]


  9. […] was a serendipitous library find for Banned Books Week because – as Nicole Moore tells us in The Censor’s Library – Colette was one of many respected authors banned in Australia during the 1930s (even […]


  10. […] hands of the zealous Australian censor.  (To see just how zealous he could be, see my review of The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore.) However, the censor’s cuts weren’t made because of prudery as I had […]


  11. […] and in Australia, gets a fair bit of page space in Nicole Moore’s The Censor’s Library (see my review).  In the chapter titled ‘Sedition’s Fiction’ (and elsewhere) the banning is […]


  12. […] Censor’s Library, Uncovering the Lost History of Australia’s Banned Books by Nicole Moore, (see my review) shows that amongst other disadvantages of over enthusiastic censorship in Australia, it led to the […]


  13. […] Censor’s Library, Uncovering the Lost History of Australia’s Banned Books by Nicole Moore, (see my review) shows that amongst other disadvantages of over enthusiastic censorship in Australia, it led to the […]


  14. […] political history of the period, and the book is an excellent accompaniment to Nicole Moore’s The Censor’s Library in the way that it shows how moralists and paternalists impacted on the messy contest of ideas at […]


  15. Excellent review Lisa. I have just posted mine on GR. Not sure if I should have bothered, I should have just linked to yours, lol.


    • Absolutely you should have bothered! I’ve just read yours there, and what’s good to see is the discussion it triggered. Which means you’ve made more people aware of it — bouquets to you!

      Liked by 1 person

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