Thursday, 4 November 2010

A load of balls


Is it possible to believe that the publication of a single book, a novel, would begin a major shift in sexual and cultural attitudes; that it would stand as marker on the road to free expression? Well, it did. The book in question is Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H Lawrence, a sexually explicit novel whose publication was only officially allowed in England in November 1960, thirty years after the author’s death, following the failure of a prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. Philip Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis opens with his own wryly humorous comment on the significance of this;

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.


In retrospect it’s difficult to believe just how backward, how antediluvian attitudes were, particularly among the political and legal establishment, towards sexual and artistic freedom in England prior to the lifting of the Chatterley ban, well out of step with far more progressive attitudes to such matters on Continental Europe. Even the mildest sexual references could provoke a reaction.

In 1928, for example, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, a novel which touched ever so gently on lesbian themes, was destroyed on the orders of a magistrate, horrified that a single line (“and that night they were not divided”) meant that the female protagonists had gone to bed together! The prosecution had even trundled in Rudyard Kipling, by then well past his best by date, just in case a literary expert was required, ready to persuade the court of the need “to keep the Empire pure.”

Publishers continued to be prosecuted for breaching uncodified rules on censorship for years after. Even as late as the 1950s books by James Joyce, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Cyril Connolly, amongst others, were only available to those who were able to bring them back from Paris, concealed, of course, from customs officials.

Then came the trial fifty years ago of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which turned out to be a kind of contest between the old and the new. It actually began as a provocation, a test of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, introduced with high-minded intentions, namely to draw a clear line separating literature from pornography. It was the decision of Penguin Books to publish an unexpurgated paperback edition that set the law in motion.

But what a challenge Lady Chatterley was for the morally self-righteous establishment: not only did it use the word fuck a lot, in the midst of a lot of fucking, but a titled lady was being fucked by the family gamekeeper. The horror! The horror! At one point Mervin Griffith-Jones, leading the prosecution, so antique that he would have been out of place in the nineteenth century, actually asked the jury, all male, of course, if they “would allow your wife or even your servants to read this book?” His was a world where wives were property and servants knew their place. Perhaps the worst thing of all from the perspective of Griffith-Jones and the winged-collared brigade is that the Penguin paperback was available for a few shillings (about twenty pence), well within the means of the randiest game keeper with an eye on aristocratic and frustrated wives!

Just as Kipling was ready to testify for the prosecution in 1928, a whole range of impressive literary figures had been contacted, this time, though, on behalf of the defence. The Obscene Publications Act allowed for expert testimony on a book’s literary merits, a provision not lost on the Penguin defence team. They managed to assemble a panel of the great and the greater of contemporary English letters: people like E. M Foster, Iris Murdoch, T. S Elliot, Graham Greene, J. B. Priestley and Aldous Huxley, to mention but a few, people who were prepared to testify directly or to write testimonials on the novel’s behalf.

There was one exception. Evelyn Waugh demurred, describing Lady Chatterley’s Lover as “dull, absurd in places and pretentious.” Of course none of this was relevant under the law. If it was a great many novels would fail the test, and save us all some excruciating hours! I think the prosecution was wrong, I think censorship in literature is wrong, and I’m glad that Penguin Books won the case…but I’m still in full agreement with Waugh: Lady Chatterley’s Lover is “dull, absurd in places and pretentious.”

The thing is I think Lawrence is a grossly overrated writer. I’ve read his main novels, beginning with Sons and Lovers, and I’ve hated them all; hated his overripe metaphysics, his bogus and insincere spirituality, his inflated and unlikable characters and his florid use of language.

There is nothing in Lady Chatterley’s Lover that could possibly ‘deprave and corrupt’, the test under the 1959 Act; it’s just an overblown mess, a bad book by a second rate writer. All the naughty words, all the ‘arse’, ‘fuck’, ‘fucking’, ‘shit’ and ‘balls’ will never make up for the fact that Lady Chatterley, like the rest of this unpleasant man’s canon, is, well, a load of balls. :-)

38 comments:

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  3. Not a fashionable view. :-) When mother was at university she became good friends with the daughter of a senior Norwegian judge, one of whose tasks was to assess if books, as yet unpublished, contravened the country's obscenity laws. His wife always insisted that he bring them home so that she could read them too!

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  5. A judge and the law that stopped people reading The Well of Loneliness truly is an ass!

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  9. I think both the upper class and the lower class (and I make no claim to be anything other than from the latter) have historically generally been able, in their different fashions, sufficiently fortified (by tradition: conventions: and sound good sense) to cope with literature that might advocate degeneracy!

    The middle class, always more insecure about their social position and desperate to feign respectability, and also more prone to adopting transient and trendy ideas and ideals are perhaps a different matter. And indeed the relative social moblity of recent decades (or at any rate widespread break down of class indicators) means more people are vulnerable to nefarious influences. Perhaps a purge of Waterstones in Hampstead would be all for the good then...(this is written only half in jest)

    Incidentally, on the topic of censorship, did you know this (Something I learned yesterday morning, from Proust. Who I must, regretfully, say is both more tedious and prolix than Lawrence) that "Anastasia" was a slang term used to refer to the censorship in place in France during the First World War?

    I did wonder if the judge was being slightly humorous in that line about wives and servants...if he was implicitly suggestng than any of the men of the jury might be liable to being cuckolded...and that they might not wish to explictly give their wives or gardeners ideas...

    I find this kind of very English puritanism (and, even worse, the superfically catholicised, or rather Jansenist-soaked Irish approach) both profoundly annoying and deeply misguided. Of all the things that have depraved or degraded English society in recent decades, a few inter-class fucks from Lawrence is really not among them.

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  11. I think Kipling was one of the great craftsmen of English prose, but his time, his notion of greatness, is long past. The tragedy is that he realised that himself well before he died.

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  13. Dominic, yes, I completely agree. How curious about 'Anastasia', something I did not know. Does Proust give any indication why?

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  15. The exact line in the translation by Ian Patterson is "i do hope the most-high and all-powerful Anastasia doesn't blue-pencil us!" !

    And Sadly Proust doesn't explain the reasons for this, and the editor's/translator's notes of the edition I have (this is the recent Penguin translation of - at last - the final volume, "Finding Time Again"). just says "for some unclear reason, this was the term in general use for the censorship".

    So. Not helpful. Really.

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  16. Oh, Adam, to adapt George Orwell ever so slightly, when it comes to good bad poetry there is nobody to touch Kipling, :-)

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  18. Thanks, Dominic. I wonder if there is a Russian reference here, possibly the Grand Duchess, an allusion to autocracy in general? I can think of nothing else.

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  19. Well, some quick detective work suggests otherwise, surprisingly....

    (Charming cartoon too)
    http://hist-g-salle16.over-blog.com/article-la-censure-anastasie-58194733.html

    And a mildly scary photo here
    http://chamok.unblog.fr/2007/05/29/hier-censure-internet-au-maroc-et-maintenant-en-france/

    Numerous sources online (all in French) suggest that the term (and the associated scissor-brandishing cartoon character) was invented sometime in the mid-19th century by the cartoonist André Gill (certainly before the Grand-Duchess came to maturity). (and relation to Eric Gill? I wonder) And for what it's worth (reluctant though I am to propose Wikipedia as presenting conclusive prove of anything)...the French version of wikipedia suggests (albeit in a fairly indefinite fashion) that the term probably originates from Pope Anastasius I, who condemned Origen and the donatists...

    But online usage strongly suggests the term is still in use today, certainly in Quebec, but possibly in France too. Gosh.

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  20. The efforts of one set of apes attempting to regulate the thoughts and actions of another set of apes might be the very definition of futility. But there's a lot of it about . . .

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  21. This is what I call hot topic. :)
    Hello Ana.
    No Guy Fawkes today?
    I recalled the film V for Vendetta and that reminded you. Mind is strange.

    Thanks again fro dropping by to my blog.

    Best wishes

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  22. Dominic, I really want to think you for this; I simply adore serendipity. I'm going to run with it, see what I can come up with. Have a look after the weekend. I'm off to Paris later this afternoon, so I'll have a look at source!

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  24. Hi, Levent. That's this evening: the fires and the lights are better in the dark! It was a pleasure.

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  25. The best heuristic definition of pornography is "any image or text in which interest is lost within 15 seconds of orgasm".

    It has the added benefit of severely limiting the number of cases a censor could take on.

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  27. Levent's comment reminds me that Alan Moore not only wrote V for Vendetta and Watchmen, but also Lost Girls.

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  28. I have not read Wyndham Lewis's novel, Ana, but googling came across this, which seems to align rather nicely with your scholarly pursuits:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704431404575068010189130910.html

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  29. Bonfire Night: it's a Guy thing.

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  30. Soon enough the only fictional literature to be read in the UK Will be the Qrahn.

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  32. Anthony, and an interesting read it is too!

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  34. Interesting aside re Proust's Anastasia.

    I've never much liked Lawrence myself though Lady Chatterly is arguably as good as it gets with him. Auden liked him and in his writings on him I think he brings out everything that is worth praising in Lawrence. It depends who one is comparing him to. I mean in comparison to Joyce's Ulysses he's a midget. Clifford is impotent, what is the wife of such a man to do?

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