The Chatterley Ban

Well, would you look at that: it's Banned Books Week again. To celebrate, rather than chime in with another essay on why it's silly to ban/censor books, when it's already been done so competently elsewhere, I thought I'd open a brief discussion with these words from Philip Larkin.

Annus Mirabilis

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.

Up till then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle For a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me)-
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

The Chatterley ban, as you may or may not be aware, refers to the novel by DH Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover, privately printed in Italy in 1928 but banned in the UK until 1960 because of its supposedly "obscene" content. On that count, I can attest that it does in fact contain certain four-letter words the use of which, the first time I read the novel, even as a relatively urbane, experienced early-twentysomething, made my jaw drop (although not nearly as wide as it did when I read Henry Miller's Tropics). The ban was lifted following a 1959 act which stipulated that a book could not be judged obscene if it could be proved to be of "literary merit." EM Forster and Raymond Williams testified in court to assure the judge that yes, in fact, Lawrence's text was possessed of at least this virtue. (One can only imagine, deliciously, what Woolf would have said on the witness stand.)

Interestingly, the novel contains an admission of its own potentially corruptive or even destructive power:

"Therefore, the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.

But the novel, like gossip, can also excite spurious sympathies and recoils, mechanical and deadening to the psyche. The novel can glorify the most corrupt feelings, so long as they are conventionally `pure'. Then the novel, like gossip, becomes at last vicious, and, like gossip, all the more vicious because it is always ostensibly on the side of the angels."

As this passage attests, not only is Lawrence aware of the affect the book would have on the public, he encapsulates this general pudeur within Connie's shock at the depth of her own sexuality. Take this excerpt from the infamous Chapter 15 (right before Mellors takes her, "short and sharp and finished, like an animal"):

"He laughed wryly, and threw off his clothes. It was too much. He jumped out, naked and white, with a little shiver, into the hard slanting rain. Flossie sprang before him with a frantic little bark. Connie, her hair all wet and sticking to her head, turned her hot face and saw him. Her blue eyes blazed with excitement as she turned and ran fast, with a strange charging movement, out of the clearing and down the path, the wet boughs whipping her."

Although the passage is not entirely focalized through Connie, the second phrase certainly is, suggesting that we are experiencing the scene if not through her, then with her, and her surprise is our surprise. Although this is not the first time they make love in the novel, this scene is as evocative as any other of the daringness of Connie's act. We are crucially aware of how far outside--literally--she is of the social conventions which apply to her.

Conventions whose boundaries, I might add, gossip functions to establish and police. And, Lawrence suggests, novels have the same function as gossip. What is pure in concept may, it seems, be vicious in its almost fascist insistance on what is pure and what is impure. Lawrence, on the other hand, narrates what we have been conditioned to regard as "impure," and invites us to see the purity of experience in it.

You can find the naughty bits in Lady Chatterley's Lover yourself; the text is here.


Neil said...

It is ironic that with the opening of such freedom to explore sexuality in literature, the shock has worn off and sex scenes almost read as obligatory nowadays. I wonder if that is why so many women have returned to reading Harlequin-type novels and romanticized chick-lit books.

Anonymous said...

And something about the passage made me think of that moment in Women in Love with Gundrun and the bulls. Maybe it's her strange "charging" movement, the wet boughs and blaze. I had sworn off Lawrence along with a pastoral boyfriend but I might take it up again.

maitresse said...

Obligatory, maybe, but still ghettoized, as "banned books," (or "challenged books," as I think the Family Values brigade is calling them), or as erotic literature, or as romance novels.

My favorite example of this is "Sex and the City." For a show about sex, it was awfully-- well-- hygenic, don't you think? Even though we saw lots of shots of Samantha doing the nasty, it was always comic, never really sexual. Even personally, I feel uncomfortable writing sex scenes, if the novel calls for it, not only for fear of my family reading it, but because I feel like I'm writing half-rate, Harlequin romance prose!

Lawrence, in my opinion, captured the texture of sexuality in precisely the right register.

Liza, I'm definitely not a universal proponent of Lawrence, but I wouldn't write him off completely.