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Thomas Bowdler and the Cockrane Affair

Kenneth Walthew explains how, on a visit to Malta for medicinal purposes, Thomas Bowdler the purifyer of English literature, found himself involved in a farce which was worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

In the early months of 1811, chance brought together on the island of Malta two Englishmen whose careers and characters could hardly have been more sharply in contrast, but who were both to play in one of those farcical interludes which occasionally enliven the solemn narrative of history. One of them, Lord Cockrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was the author of the comedy and its leading actor. The other, Thomas Bowdler, filled a minor, offstage role as prompter and commentator.

Later in life, Bowdler was to attempt to purify the works of Shakespeare so that they were, in his opinion, 'fit to be read aloud by a gentleman to a company of ladies'. When it was published in 1818, his ten-volumeFamily Shakespeare brought him a dubious fame, and, posthumously, with the verb 'to bowdlerise', a permanent niche in the English dictionary.

At the time of his visit to Malta, Bowdler was in his late middle age. He was physically small and walked with a pronounced limp, the legacy of a child- hood accident. He once described himself as an insignificant little man, but despite this modest self-appraisal, and his rather extreme views on propriety in literature, he was generously endowed with a charm which had gained him a wide and distinguished circle of friends.

By profession, Bowdler was a doctor of medicine, and he had practised for a time in the fashionable Mayfair district of London in his younger days. The experience had not been a happy one, for he not only detested doctoring, but also despised doctors in general. When his father died in 1785, leaving him financially independent, he immediately resolved, as he wrote, 'Totally to abandon the profession which has made my life miserable; to quit the very name of doctor, and to banish from my mind every medical idea'. He subsequently married a widow with a teenage daughter, and settled on the Isle of Wight.

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