Tuesday, November 2, 2010


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 to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the 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.

-Philip Larkin

November 2nd is the fiftieth anniversary of "the acquittal of Lady Chatterley," the infamous obscenity trial against the publication of D.H. Lawrence's unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover in London. The impact of this "trial of the century" is still being felt by everyone who reads or writes, and by just about everyone else for that matter.

Originally published in Italy in 1928, copies entering England the following year were seized by customs. This prompted Lawrence to issue another edition in France. At one point, he even considered editing it to please British censors: "So I begin to be tempted and start to expurgate. But impossible! I might as well try to clip my own nose into shape with scissors. The book bleeds." (A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover, 1930)

In 1930, Lawrence died of tuberculosis, and obituaries in England snidely suggested that he was nothing more than a pornographer. A few fellow authors came to his defense, including E.M. Forster and Aldous Huxley.

By the time Penguin books attempted to publish an unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960, existing obscenity laws promised difficulties, even though they had never been enforced. A full-page ad was published in a trade paper reading: "To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the death of D.H. Lawrence Penguins will publish in June 1960 a further group of seven books including the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley's Lover."

The likelihood of proceedings against the publication prompted the solicitor for the defense, Michael Rubenstein, contacted more than 300 contemporary writers, academics, and celebrities to give their opinions of the novel's merits. The jury took a little more than three hours to return a "not guilty" verdict. The first printing of 200,000 copies was sold out in England on the first day. By the end of December 1960, two million copies were sold. The sales persuaded Penguin to become a public company the following year.

When asked to give his opinion of the book, Evelyn Waugh was delighted to express his low opinion of it and of Lawrence in general: "Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts," he wrote. Robert Graves wrote of Lawrence that "I won't have a book of his on my shelves." Waugh and Graves were not being very good (or useful) critics when they wrote their unkind words. Whatever their own merits as writers, which were sometimes considerable, neither had, and probably did not care to have, what a critic most needs, which is the faculty of seeing past their own likes and dislikes, aesthetic and political, to the qualities in every work of art.

Reading about the trial 50 years later leaves me astonished that so many people would be so worked up over a mere book, particularly a good one. Philip Larkin, who was no stranger to obscenity (he was fond of bondage magazines), found the whole affair to be a rather obscene statement on the stupidity of society, that thinks it can stop human behavior by stopping creative representations of it, and that the publication of a novel, no matter how frank, could have any effect whatever on people's sexuality.

50 years ago, people were privately no different from us. We may have freer access to pornography today thanks to the Penguin case, and writers no longer worry about using 4-letter words (the specific words Lawrence used in Chatterley were "fuck" and "cunt"), but people are just as fucked up as they ever were, as the recent teenage suicides in the U.S. demonstrate. Once again, Larkin was right:

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

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