MARY KENNY

Irish Independent - Weekend Magazine - - Column -

At the end of this month, Sotheby’s, the auc­tion­eers, will place un­der the ham­mer an orig­i­nal pa­per­back copy of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover. This is the sex­u­ally ex­plicit novel which was the sub­ject of the very fa­mous court case in 1960, when it was cleared of charges of be­ing likely to de­prave and cor­rupt. It was sub­se­quently pub­lished for the mul­ti­tudes in pa­per­back. Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover is widely ac­knowl­edged to have set the tone (or “opened the flood­gates”) for a more lib­eral so­ci­ety and a more open ap­proach to sex­u­al­ity. The an­te­dilu­vian at­ti­tudes of the pros­e­cut­ing coun­sel prob­a­bly lost the jury when he asked them: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or your ser­vant to read?”

But one par­tic­u­lar wife did read Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover and marked it up for her hus­band’s pro­fes­sional use. She was Dorothy Byrne, who was mar­ried to the judge in the Chat­ter­ley case, Sir Lau­rence Byrne. Jus­tice Byrne was, as it hap­pens, an Ir­ish Catholic who sub­se­quently spent some of his re­tir­ing years in En­niskerry — his fam­ily orig­i­nally came from Rath­drum, Co Wick­low — and rather than fac­ing the te­dious task of read­ing DH Lawrence him­self, he del­e­gated Dorothy to do so on his be­half. Lady Byrne’s an­no­tated book is the very copy which will be auc­tioned by Sotheby’s on Oc­to­ber 30.

There are quite a few ex­plicit sex­ual pas­sages in Lady Chat­ter­ley’s Lover and Dorothy Byrne found some of the lan­guage coarse and vul­gar — with much rep­e­ti­tion of the f-word and the c-word. She also thought that parts of the book were “morally of­fen­sive” — such as the sug­ges­tion that a wife could have a child by an­other man, if her hus­band were “crip­pled”, as Sir Clif­ford Chat­ter­ley is, in the nar­ra­tive.

The Lady Chat­ter­ley trial was sen­sa­tional: the book had been pub­lished in many ex­pur­gated edi­tions, and smug­gled into Bri­tain, and Ire­land, mainly to be read for “the dirty bits”. Poor Lawrence! He wrote it in 1928 as an im­pas­sioned plea to stop peo­ple think­ing that sex was “dirty”. He wanted sex — be­tween Con­nie Chat­ter­ley and her hus­band’s game­keeper, Mel­lors — to be seen as nat­u­ral and ful­fill­ing. And at the trial it­self, church­men came for­ward to sup­port the long-dead Lawrence. The pro­gres­sive Bishop of Wool­wich said that “I think Lawrence tried to por­tray this [sex­ual] re­la­tion in the real sense as an act of holy com­mu­nion, in the lower case. For him, flesh was sacra­men­tal”. The lawyer and par­lia­men­tar­ian Nor­man St John Stevas said that DH Lawrence was “es­sen­tially in the Catholic tra­di­tion... the sex in­stinct is good in it­self, is im­planted in man by God, is one of his great­est gifts”.

Many ex­perts tes­ti­fied to the high worth of Lawrence’s text, in­clud­ing sev­eral women of let­ters, such as Dame Re­becca West. Although the opin­ion of an Amer­i­can critic, Kather­ine Anne Porter, was not so favourable. She called the book “a blood-chill­ing anatomy of the ac­tiv­i­ties of the rut­ting sea­son be­tween two rather dull per­sons…writ­ten with much in­flamed apos­tolic solem­nity.”

Yes, Lawrence had a habit of em­pha­sis­ing his mes­sage about the nat­u­ral­ness of sex with a preacher’s di­dac­ti­cism. EM Forster called him “a preacher in the great pu­ri­tan­i­cal tra­di­tion”. (Vir­ginia Woolf also dis­liked DHL’s “preach­ing” in nov­els. And she noted, of the re­peated use of the f-word, the c-word and the s-word — “English has one mil­lion words: why con­fine your­self to six?” )

In one way, the book’s free pub­li­ca­tion has been hugely in­flu­en­tial: Lawrence wanted to give writ­ers “a lan­guage” in which to write about sex. But it’s also naïve and dated. As Doris Less­ing has pointed out in an es­say, Lawrence el­e­vated the body be­cause he was filled with bod­ily self-loathing: racked with TB, he was both fever­ish and im­po­tent. He wor­shipped “viril­ity” in men and feared that “men were be­com­ing ef­fem­i­nate”. His own mar­riage was tur­bu­lent and even vi­o­lent: he hu­mil­i­ated his wife Frieda by mak­ing her scrub floors, and they both hit each other.

Lawrence might fit into our world for his mis­sion to bring free­dom to sex­u­al­ity; yet he would hate the way the f-word and the c-word are em­ployed nowa­days, as ag­gres­sive forms of den­i­gra­tion.

And the high-minded lit­er­ary de­fend­ers of Lawrence’s frank­ness about sex­u­al­ity could hardly fore­see the tsunami of ca­sual porn trans­mit­ted by elec­tronic means.

To­day, Lawrence is sternly cri­tiqued by fem­i­nists as “phal­lo­cen­tric”: he be­lieved that women yearned for “real men”. He might even be ac­cused of feed­ing into the MeToo move­ment, un­leash­ing re­straints on sex­ual free­dom.

Events are al­ways seen dif­fer­ently in ret­ro­spect, and val­ues and con­text change so much. The judge’s wife found Lady Chat­ter­ley some­times ob­jec­tion­able for its lan­guage, and for some of its moral­ity. What strikes me, to­day, is that this book is as much about dis­abil­ity, the ef­fects of war, and class, as it is about sex, which, as Kather­ine Anne Porter wrote, is of­ten “un­in­ten­tion­ally hi­lar­i­ous”.

Even in 1960, a strong ob­jec­tion to the pa­per­back pub­li­ca­tion was that it would sell at three-and-six­pence. If it had been 10 guineas, it was sug­gested, it would be quite ac­cept­able!

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