Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Wives, Servants and Middle-Class Rabbits

Is this a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?
Mervyn Griffith-Jones, prosecuting barrister in the 1960 obscenity trial against Penguin's publication of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Susan, from Sun Pours Down Like Honey, has just written a post about Read a Banned Book Week. She has linked to a site which list the most "challenged" books in the American library system over the past decade or so and it makes for interesting reading. Particularly as many of the books listed I have both recommended and taught to children in the English school system. So, for example, I know John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men like the back of my hand. It's taught in the UK as a set text at GCSE, it's particularly used for lower set boys. It is a short novel, and one which is invariably masculine, and in my experience the students tend to enjoy it...I once had two or three tough boys in my class cry at the ending. Others listed were Maya Angelou's wonderful I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the English contingent, represented by Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials and JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. Steinbeck and Angelou were accused of obscenity and Pullman and Rowling of, crikey I don't know, promotion of witchcraft? Virulent atheism?

Well, it got me thinking of books which have been banned in the UK over the past century, moreover, why they were banned. James Joyce and DH Lawrence spring to mind immediately, and although I knew that Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover had been outlawed for reasons of obscenity, I didn't know that the same was true for the less controversial Dubliners and Sons and Lovers (a novel I was taught at 16 for GCSE). And, it seems to me, the reasons for the bans on the work of Joyce and Lawrence may be entirely cultural. Being familiar with both Dubliners and Sons and Lovers, I can honestly say that the portrayals of the sexual act, within these books, are no more frank or graphic than the porter's speech in Macbeth, or Marvell's pleading To His Coy Mistress, or Webster's portrayal of The Duchess of Malfi, or Sterne's jack the lad exploits of Tristram Shandy. To put a finer point on it, Joyce and Lawrence were upstarts. Writers who challenged the social order, questioned the class system, satirised the Church and portrayed women, hmm well, in rather a different light to that of Tennyson and Dickens.

I think my point is well supported when you examine Mervyn Griffith-Jones's final address to the jury in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial. At first glance, you could describe his comments as full of a rather naive paternalism. British Conservatism, at it's traditional best, has always been paternalistic, protective and (small c) conservative, and Griffith-Jones may indeed have been pleading to the middle-class British gent's admirable instinct of "not wanting to upset the ladies" in his speech. I contend however, that it was more to do with appealing to the less admirable instinct of "they're after our women". Let us not forget that the sex portrayed in Lady Chatterly is between an aristocrat and her husband's gamekeeper. It is not the adultery, or even the portrayal of female pleasure which got those stiffer upper lips quivering in indignation, but the exploration in prose of the realistic desire and (ahem) natural ability of the working class male. And, in a land where knowing one's place was ingrained into the psyche of every man woman and child this was the ultimate taboo; that your male servant may fancy your wife, sister, mother or daughter; it challenged the social order.

Of course, it all seems rather silly now, and by the time Griffith-Jones made his speech class barriers were crumbling at a frantic rate, by 1960 few people had servants and only the terribly rich could afford a male servant, Phillip Larkin declared that sexual intercourse began in 1963, between the Chatterley ban and the Beetle's first LP, women's skirts were as short as their knickers and attractive working class boys ruled the cultural roost. The ban belonged to another country entirely, and not the land of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and Mick Jagger's aggressive gyrations on Ready, Steady, Go! To ban a novel because it would give wives and servants entirely the wrong idea seemed a little pointless; the ban belonged to a different cultural climate entirely.

So what the heck has this to do with the middle-class rabbits of this post's title? Well, first let me say that I really don't like DH Lawrence; turgid, flowery prose, self-obsessed and overly sensitive; he deserved to be lampooned by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. However, I am a fan of Beatrix Potter, and it was her portrayal of middle-class rabbits which got a London council so worked up that they banned her books from the borough's primary schools. Yes, in the Marxist frenzy of 1980's class-consciousness the trendy lefties declared that Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail were too "middle-class" to be safe reading for the children of East London. Peter Rabbit was obviously a vicious capitalist oppressor, rampaging mercilessly through the produce of fine agricultural workers. I kid you not. And, it kind of proves my point. In the UK, at least, book banning is more of a matter of cultural distaste and social mistrust and this is why I shy away when we talk of which books should be in our bookshops and which should not. It's not that I'm a moral relativist, there are some expressions of popular culture which I would like to see off our magazine, CD and DVD shelves, but I do think books, even bad books, serve a purpose. We can be challenged by them, form our own judgments, strengthen our positions, disagree virulently, have our outlook changed and be spurred into deeper thought and greater action. Reading is anything but passive, we simply have to do it with discretion, especially when it comes to the books we offer to the very young.

Of course these are just my thoughts on why books have been banned in my own country. I have my own hunches on why certain books are deemed unsuitable in the United States, but I'm probably wrong! I know many of my readers are fellow bibliophiles, what are your thoughts on book banning? Hey, you're even allowed to disagree!

Oh, here's a list of books which have been banned over the centuries; they include Huckleberry Finn, King Lear and Luther's Bible, the list makes for interesting reading in itself.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Second attempt...missed out a quote I wanted to include the first time...

Interesting post chuck.

Under the law we are entitled to free speech, and whilst I do virulently disagree with Phillip Pullman's self confessed ("my books are about killing God"; "[I am] trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief") mission to prove that God doesn't exist, I know that he has a right under law to share his opinions. Just as on my own little blog I share my own beliefs about God. I would like to protect my children from it though; and should he be allowed to share such an opinion with children? I suppose it is up to parents to decide. At the end of the day he is, whether he likes it or not, in the hands of a God Who judges justly.

As for the sexual content of novels, I haven't read any of the books you mention so I can't really comment too deeply. I think though that I would steer clear of a book that even suggested that adultery was acceptable or exciting.

Oh and I looove Of Mice and Men - makes me cry.

And I agree about Shakespeare, in th'owlden days they were a little more open about the s*xual act...Get thee to a nunnery! ;) Not that I want people to talk about their private activities, I'm quite shy of those sort of conversations! :)

On the topic of offensive writing being banned, Manchester University now has 'gender neutral' signs on their toilet doors. They now say 'Toilets' or 'Toilets with urinals' as they try to wipe out 'transphobic' words such as 'ladies' and 'gents'.

It's a funny old world.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah
Oh yes, he's also deeply offended by the end of the Narnia books, the fact that the children die and go to heaven, and their sacrifice is glorified by Lewis. Pullman says this is a kind of macabre lie. It's the reason why he wrote the trilogy, to redress the balance of "Christian propaganda" (this makes me laugh, where is this Christian propaganda in British society/literature? Show me it please, I need to know!). The thing about atheists is that they are often far less tolerant than we Christians! I've read the Pullman books, they're brilliant; humane, a good story, moral (but perhaps not holistically so), and not nearly as offensive as Pullman wants we Christians to believe!lol! The books didn't succeed in killing my faith, and why should they? Would they kill the faith of a child? I suppose it's pretty nasty of him to want to achieve an atheist conversion of a child, but to him he's liberator. I'd definitely let my eldest read him if she wants to. The books are meant for older readers anyway. When she gets older I think it will be important to discuss with her the difference between humanist morality and Christian morality, why faith matters, why we need God, why without Him, however much we *try*, all goodness will be gone in the world, a discussion of His Dark Materials would be a decent starting point.

I personally steer clear of books containing gratuitous violence, I can't stomach it. But I do read books which contain s*xual promiscuity, adultery and homos*xuality. I suppose because I feel that decent literature will describe all sorts human failings and compromises. I think a compassionate reading of a well-realised human frailty can be a good thing. I am terribly opposed to cynicism though, the passing off of tragedy as though it were nothing or funny, something to be grinned at. I hate shadenfreude (sp??).

However, your point about using discretion is the right one. What is right for my family may not be right for others.

So Manchester Uni has gone gender neutral. Why does this not surprise me?

Nan said...

And I just read Indian in the Cupboard is on the list! I emailed my husband, a junior high teacher, and he thought it was because of the Indian references. One of the best books of all time in my most humble opinion.
I haven't read Pullman because it isn't my kind of book, but didn't I read somewhere that he used to be Roman Catholic??? Maybe I'm all wrong.

Marie N. said...

An interesting post! I remember studying some of those banned books in school. There are many worthwhile books on the banned lists. Perhaps some readers are a mite too easily offended.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Nan
Yes, that surprised me too, it's such a great book. I didn't know that Pullman was a lapsed Catholic...

Hi Marie
If there are people in the world who can find Beatrix Potter offensive, what hope does John Steinbeck or William Faulkner have?

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Anonymous said...

Lol, sorry for all the deleted comments. In trying to write in a rush I start to waffle. Hormones probably.

Amused that London council banned Beatrix...durn those middle class rabbits!

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah
No worries!