There is no reason to ban a book. If a book spreads or incites hatred, then put a warning on the cover. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence does not meet these criteria, yet it was heavily censored in Britain for over 30 years. The novel had the people in charge worried: worried that it would undermine the fabric of society. It is not a book about terrorism, or assassination, or vandalism: it is a book about explicit, extra-marital sex.
“Is this a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?”
In 1960, the state tried Lawrence’s publishers in court for obscenity. Essentially, the Queen of England prosecuted a book for being too saucy, 30 years after it was written. The establishment were terrified of Lady Chatterley. The prosecution famously asked the jury: “Is this a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?”This question reeks of patriarchal anxiety. It assumes the inferiority of women, and the working classes. It confuses social vulnerability with mental weakness. It implies that these groups shouldn’t read Lady Chatterley because they’ll get ideas above their station, rather than: these groups shouldn’t read this because then maybe we’ll have to start treating them like real people.
Unless it’s banned, sex sells.
The mid-century establishment were worried that the narratives of undiluted physicality and adulterous sexuality would ‘deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences.’ The bigotry and arrogance of the question aside, if the establishment were worried that subversive texts heralded movements towards liberation and freedom, they were right.
Regardless of whether Lady Chatterley’s Lover deserved to be banned, its banning was inevitable. It was pretty predictable, and D.H. Lawrence should have seen it a mile off. Modernist texts were being banned left, right and centre- Lawrence himself had a previous, less explicit book banned already. So if Lawrence knew the book would be banned, why write it?
The novel is not porn. Well maybe it is porn, but it is authentic.
There are many schools of thought on this question, but most obviously: sex is interesting. Sex is an entertaining topic, so why not? Unless it’s banned, sex sells. And sometimes even banning it makes it sell more. Not only does it sell, but sex comes intertwined with another money maker: controversy. Controversy, when managed with care, makes careers. Just ask beloved Exeter alumna, Katie Hopkins. Or even Kanye West, who always seems to spark a race row or political escapade weeks before an album release.
These predictabilities notwithstanding, Lawrence had a deeper, more authentic purpose for his Lady. The novel is not porn. Well maybe it is porn, but it is authentic. It strives for the real, whereas pornography exaggerates and surgically alters reality. Lawrence’s work shows a passion for realistic representations of life in its narrative and its dialogue. It captures and presents Midlands dialects, with its ‘thee’s and ‘tha’s and ‘mun’s. Many editions even contain a handy yet condescending Glossary of Dialect Forms in the back. Lawrence had a working-class background, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover includes working class voices and struggles. Lawrence’s other works like Odour of Chrysanthemums follow miners and their families. Ultimately, working class accents occur in Britain, so an accurate presentation of British life should include them.
Cheating happens, affairs happen. People fuck and get fucked. Penises exist.
Not only do people f***, but they also use the word f***. In fact, they have been using it for years, with the first recorded example dating to the 15th century. The word ‘f***’ had a special focus in the 1960 trial – the prosecution noted that ‘f*** or f***ing appeared no fewer than 30 times’. This marked an interesting analysis of quantity in the text. The prosecutors tried to determine, by the numbers, whether it was art or obscenity.
The sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is explicit, but it’s not particularly sexy. It’s intimate and comic – the lovers name their genitals Lady Jane and Sir John Thomas. Notably, when Mellors (the lover) concludes the novel, the last line is when ‘John Thomas says goodnight to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart’. Lawrence finishes his revolutionary masterpiece with the prophetic optimism of a limp dick.
As sex is such a diverse and unique practice, it brings a challenge to deciding whether sex in stories is realism or erotica. The book, to many, is about freedom. Naked, middle-aged bodies charged into mainstream literature like when Mellors and Lady Chatterly charge naked into the storm. The couple frolic in the rain, they hold hands on woodland walks. They weave flowers into each other’s hair, with the childish awe of discovery. Although Lawrence was subversive, Dr. Jana Funke, Exeter’s senior lecturer in Medical Humanities, argues that ‘Lawrence is conventional in wanting good, clean, pure, honest sex’.
Lawrence finishes his revolutionary masterpiece with the prophetic optimism of a limp dick.
The impact of texts like Lawrence’s, was to bring sex out of the Victorian euphemism and boldly into the mainstream. It opened people’s minds to the success of artistic open-mindedness. In a piece for the Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson called the trial a ‘crucial step toward the freedom of the written word’. It was a big step, and present-day fiction is several paces down that slippery road. The legacy of sex in fiction lives on, from the mainstream to the murkiest corners of the internet and back again.
One of the more deformed and inbred descendants of Lady Chatterley is the internet FanFic. ‘FanFic’ or fan-fiction is the horny fan-written spin-off from pop culture. There’s something very coming-of-age about Fanfic: it’s a creative outlet for awkward teens. The volatile offspring of volatile offspring, it comes back to haunt its creators, as a twitter user found recently.
As if to illustrate the perverted pervasiveness of this phenomenon, in this year’s ComicCon panel, Barrowman revealed he has written Dr. Who FanFic under an alias.
FanFic is also responsible for a cultural milestone to rival Lady Chatterley: E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Gray. I haven’t actually read 50 Shades all the way though, nor frankly do I intend to. However, significantly, the text started as erotic FanFic of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, before selling over 125 million in its first four years of release. Applying the method of Lady Chatterley’s prosecutors, it contains ‘no fewer’ than 84 instances of the word f***.
Quantitatively, 50 Shades is …over twice as obscene as our Lady.
For context, this article contains no fewer than 10 instances of f*** or f***ing, so is only a third as obscene as Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
50 Shades is a cultural phenomenon, but of a slightly different sort to Lady Chatterly. Although E.L. James has more popular acclaim, both texts could provoke a reaction if spotted on the Tube. Knowing smirks, quiet eyebrow raises and salacious thoughts. It’s too soon to tell, but Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s hold on the nation may well be longer (or more tender as the apter metaphor may be). Lawrence’s work, after all, is 90 years old. Although 50 Shades spawned three books and three films, it’s been quite a disposable franchise. In my local Oxfam in Swansea, they received so many unwanted copies of 50 Shades of Grey that they built a fort out of them. No, really. Such forts of filthy thoughts are one way in which 50 Shades can be considered a literary ‘monument’. Copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by contrast, were built into bonfires.
D.H. Lawrence releases his lovers into the great outdoors, whilst, from what I hear, E.L. James puts hers in handcuffs.
People still read and study Lady Chatterley, and people still think about it: it’s on the Modernism course in the University of Exeter. Outside of academia however, 50 Shades of Gray must be far more well known. Although this article has explored the overlaps between porn and art, I’d argue that as erotic FanFic, 50 Shades was designed to sexualise and titillate. The purpose of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was honesty and exploration. D.H. Lawrence releases his lovers into the great outdoors, whilst, from what I hear, E.L. James puts hers in handcuffs. In that sense, trying to compare the revolutionary power of each is tricky. Like comparing a fort with a bonfire.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s hold on the nation may well be longer (or more tender as the apter metaphor may be).
Even if books demand upheaval or revolution with obscenity, the solution can’t be to ban the book – that would mean that there are less books (fewer). Instead, authorities should promote more books, and texts and media with different outcomes. Instead of burning all the books, like Montag’s colleagues in Fahrenheit 451, or Hitler’s colleagues in the Third Reich, simply counteract books with other, alternative books- or tweets, or articles, or FanFics. The plurality of information will leave people to draw, or read, their own conclusions.