Writing obscenity: from Lady Chatterley to the Earl of Rochester

Jacob Huysmans
 

In this blog, originally published in The Conversation, Claudine van Hensbergen, of Northumbria University, Newcastle argues that “the purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us.” When D.H. Lawrence spoke openly about sexual relations he was labelled obscene. Similarly, argues van Hensbergen, the Earl of Rochester has been unfairly perceived as pornographic due to his use of language…

The judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover used in the landmark 1960 obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s famous novel is to be sold at auction in October. The paperback copy will be sold with a fabric bag, hand-stitched by the judge’s wife Lady Dorothy Byrne so that her husband could carry the book into court each day while keeping it hidden from reporters. The lot includes the notes on significant passages that Lady Byrne had helpfully marked up on the book for her husband, and a four-page list of references she had compiled on the headed stationery of the Central Criminal Court.

After six days of evidence and only three hours of deliberations, the jury found in the favour of Penguin Books, its verdict allowing the publisher to print copies of the novel for the first time. The trial was seen as a victory for liberal ideas over the old establishment. In literary terms, it signalled the opportunity for authors to write with a new type of language and freedom.

First edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1060.
Twospoonfuls via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC

But was Lawrence really the first writer to use obscenity in literature? And were liberal readers of the 1960s the first to appreciate the literary potential of obscene words and sex scenes? In short, the answer is no. The literary world which Lawrence and his fellow modernist writers inherited was that of the Victorian establishment. An establishment that had silenced earlier writers who, like Lawrence, used obscenity for literary ends.

One of the most important writers to be wiped from the publishing record during the 19th century was the poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Even today, we continue to find the obscene language and images found in Rochester’s poetry shocking. Take, for example, his A Satyr on Charles II a critique of the monarch as a man governed by his penis:

 

 

‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,

The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.

Though safety, law, religion, life lay on ’t,

‘Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.

Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,

A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

Following his death in 1680 publishers scrambled to produce editions of Rochester’s poems – correctly perceiving the public appetite for his verse. An initial run of pirate editions of Rochester’s poetry was quickly supplanted with an authoritative collection, produced in 1691 by the leading literary publisher of the day, Jacob Tonson. Tonson is credited with popularising John Milton’s (up to that point, fairly unsuccessful) poem Paradise Lost and also producing the first footnoted editions of William Shakespeare’s collected plays.

So why did a respectable publisher such as Tonson take the gamble of printing Rochester’s verse? The answer lies in the recognition of Rochester’s poetry as literature rather than obscenity. Just as with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we need to read past the obscene language and images of the work to understand what Rochester is really saying.

The animal in human skin

Rochester is a poet of the human condition. He strips man down to his barest drives and desires to see the animal lurking underneath. In this way, he was much like the contemporary philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously pronounced that life was “nasty, brutish and short” and that underneath it all man was a beast like any other.

For Rochester, the sexual realm is just another place where we see (and feel) this stark reality. Rochester strips away all sense of love and romance from his depicted sexual encounters. And there are many of them. His images are those of the mechanics of sex, its failures, disappointments and disease. Take his notorious poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment, a work that opens with a scene indicating the sexual promise to come:

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,

I filled with love, and she all over charms …

Quickly, this promise is destroyed. The poem’s speaker prematurely ejaculates:

But whilst her busy hand would guide that part

Which should convey my soul up to her heart,

In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,

Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.

The speaker’s lover encourages him to try again, but to no success:

Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,

A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.

The obscene language Rochester employs in The Imperfect Enjoyment – and the sexual act on which it focuses – led generations of readers to view the work as pornographic. But this is to misread the poem. The clue is in the title: the poem portrays the ultimate failure of desire. The emptiness of human experience. And its cold, clinical and obscene language (sperm, spend, pore, cunt) is contrasted throughout the poem with phrases that point to the scene’s absent romance (the sexual act “should convey my soul up to her heart”, but it doesn’t).

The beast within

Rochester is often seen as a dangerous or obscene writer in the way he glamorised the licentious world of the Restoration court. But when we read his poetry more closely, we find little glamour in the language expressed. His verse exposes human feeling and behaviour, showing the superficiality of our social world with all its polite manners and codes of behaviour. And the use of obscene language is key to that project. As Rochester succinctly phrased it in his correspondence, “Expressions must descend to the Nature of Things express’d”.

The Victorians couldn’t cope with Rochester’s poetry, and there were no editions of his work published in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1963, in the wake of the Chatterley trial, that American scholar David M. Vieth began work on a modern uncensored edition. Vieth gave us back the real Rochester and made it possible for readers to access his poems once again.

Obscenity might not make for comfortable reading, but that’s often its point. The purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us. For Lawrence this involved using a new language that cut across class and gender in celebrating the sexual act – for Rochester it involved looking into the mirror and confronting the beast within.The Conversation

Claudine van Hensbergen, Senior Lecturer in 18th Century English Literature, Northumbria University, Newcastle.  This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk garter

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent his struggles against obscenity laws and censorship and the right to freely express ideas? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here

 

Interview with Annabel Abbs, author of ‘Frieda’

 

annabel Abbs
Photograph: James Walker

Annabel Abbs is the guest speaker at the 2019 D.H Lawrence Birthday Lecture. Specialising in historical fiction, Annabel recently said that ‘when you write characters, they stay inside you’. We were intrigued as to what aspect of Frieda Lawrence, a non-conformist libertarian, had stayed with her…

Tell us about your childhood. We hear that D.H. Lawrence was almost like ‘a second father’

I grew up in Wales, where my father was attempting to make a living as a poet.  DH Lawrence had been a huge influence on him.  I think he identified very strongly with Lawrence’s circumstances: a working class father, an aspiring mother who believed she had married beneath her, an education system that hadn’t recognised his talent.  He also loved Lawrence’s poetry, so it was all around us.  We grew up hearing about Lawrence to the extent that he became a shadow member of the family. No other writer was quoted – or revered – half as much.

 

What do you think about the observation by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that ‘well-behaved women seldom make history’?   

So true.  Although well-behaved women did make history, it was ‘quiet’ history that holds little drama or interest for most people.  Today we want to hear about Rebel Girls.  I think this is a little sad: It was women (like Lydia Lawrence, for example) who set up hundreds of community charities and the Women’s Institute and wrote cookery books and books of household management – but this reflects their domestic confinement.  Today, as women struggle to escape domesticity, we’re not interested in exploring the ‘well-behaved’ women who revolutionised the kitchen or the local community.  Frieda makes a great story because she refused to confine herself to the typically female sphere and she refused to conform. But I often pay tribute to all the ‘good’ women who worked tirelessly to make their communities better places and have since been lost in the wash of history.

 

It could be argued that ‘women in general seldom make history’ but this is something you appear to be addressing in your first two novels. Why has it taken so long for women to be given a voice and how important is this to you as an author (and a woman)?     

We’re beginning to uncover many lost female voices (like the poet, LEL who was a best-selling poet in the 1830s but has – this month – had her first biography published).  It was often difficult for women (particularly artists and writers) to build up the body of work that men could, either because of their other responsibilities or because they didn’t have the same sort of support.  Even those that were successful in their time were often then squeezed out of the Cannon. These voices are starting to be resurrected and/or republished.  This is important for us, as a society.  Our daughters need to know they’re part of a richly creative legacy of women.  Our sons needs to know that women have always been making history.  Only in this way can we build a genuinely equal society.

 

Who was Frieda Lawrence and why should she be remembered? 

She was the daughter of an impoverished German baron, who married a Nottingham professor called Ernest Weekley, but left him and their three children (after 12 years of marriage) to live a very different life with DH Lawrence.  She’s worthy of a place in the ‘cannon of women who helped forge history’, albeit doing it inadvertently! The decisions she made – essentially to live life on her own terms – were very radical for their time.  Very few of us are so ready and able to shake off the values inculcated in us since birth. She was – and did. A married, mother-of-three baroness living in sin with the (much younger) son of a coal miner (having left the comforts and propriety of home, family and income) was a huge scandal.  It took courage and self-belief – both of which she had in spades.

 

She also deserves remembering because of the impact she had on Lawrence.  Would he have been the writer he became without her? I suspect not. She read and edited much of his work.  She came up with titles.  She believed in him utterly. How many wives (in 1928) would have urged their husbands to publish a book as scandalous as Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  She did and was fully prepared to take on the financial risk of self-publishing a book she knew would shock the world.

 

Tell us why you focused your book on a specific period in Frieda and Lawrence’s life?

I wanted to explore the rift between Frieda and her first husband and children.  I wanted to understand how a woman, devoted to her young children, could simply walk out with a man she barely knew.  I felt this experience – and her subsequent pain – had been largely overlooked.  I also wanted to examine its impact on Ernest Weekley and their children.  We now know that early childhood adversity can have long-term implications – and, of course, Frieda’s departure did indeed result in considerable collateral damage.  At some stage we have to ask ourselves about the price of art (and freedom).  Arguably, Lawrence’s art (and Frieda’s liberation) came at the cost of several people’s happiness.  My first book, about James Joyce’s daughter, explored this theme too: should someone’s happiness be sacrificed for a book?

 

Given the focus of the novel were you ever tempted to write a trilogy? (Frieda, Dorothy Brett and Mabel Dodge Luhan in Mexico would make a wonderful drama) or are you done with Frieda and Lawrence now?

My next book has already been commissioned (it’s non-fiction) and a fifth of it is about Lawrence, Frieda and an episode I didn’t write about in my novel.  So I’m not done yet!  

 

What are the challenges of writing historical fiction and how do you determine what constitutes historical accuracy? I’m thinking in particular of the first time that Frieda and Lawrence got it on… 

Ah yes.  Even biographers have to speculate!  The joy of fiction is having room to imaginatively explore the holes left in biographies. The bits that can’t be footnoted, that have to be pondered and guessed at, are always the most interesting to write because you have free rein to go where you want. I also think these are the scenes in which one slips most effortlessly beneath the skin of one’s characters.  I’m always looking for emotional truth.  This, even if it’s my version, probably has more resonance for a reader than an accurate list of dates and places (although I always try and get these right, of course).   My general policy is to create a scaffolding from the facts and only invent an episode where there’s a line somewhere – however obscure – to indicate it may have happened. 

 

In researching the novel you read the letters between Otto Gross and Frieda. Who was Otto Gross? 

He was a pioneering psychoanalyst who is now credited with devising the extroversion-introversion theory that Carl Jung (according to Gross’s biographer) stole and made his own.  Jung had the drug-addicted Gross locked up, on at least one occasion, in a sanatorium. Gross had a short affair with Frieda that profoundly influenced her. Many of his ideas (Freudian ideas about sexuality, the unconscious and repression, for example) subsequently found their way into Lawrence’s writings.  Lawrence, in his usual magpie style, also used Gross as a character in several stories.  But, more importantly, Gross gave Frieda a deep sense of herself as a free woman, as a woman who could excite the imaginations of great men and thus propel them to genius.  She carried Gross’s letters with her, for the rest of her life.

 

In your novel you credit Frieda as being a big influence on Lawrence’s writing. How important was she? 

Huge.  There’s a brilliant essay-piece-of-fiction by John Worthen in which he imagines what might have happened to Lawrence if he hadn’t met Frieda. Essentially he dies, depressed, in 1912 and is – like the majority of writers and poets – forgotten.  Frieda changed his life, giving him a new impetus to live, to write.  And giving him the companionship, support and intimacy he craved. Without her there would have been no Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  And without Lady Chatterley’s Lover, perhaps the sexual revolution of the 1960s would have been a little tamer, or delayed. Perhaps.

 

Frieda has had an unfair press as someone who walked away from her children but it was more complicated than this… 

Indeed it was.  She never intended to leave them. Lawrence manipulated the situation to ensure he got what he wanted: Frieda.  Weekley’s intransigence and shame sealed her fate.  Effectively both men combined forces, so that Frieda was unable to see her children.  Women who committed adultery had no right of custody then. Neither Weekley nor Lawrence wanted her to see her children (for very different reasons) and so she paid a very high price.  She then had to suppress her pain and anguish because Lawrence wouldn’t tolerate it.  And by then she was entirely reliant on him emotionally and financially. Fortunately times have changed…

 

What kind of person was Ernest Weekley? 

Extraordinary… focussed, diligent, aspiring, kind.  If she hadn’t met Otto Gross or spent time in bohemian Munich, perhaps they would have stayed together.  

 

You once said that ‘when you write characters, they stay inside you’. What part of Frieda has remained with you? 

Her ability to feel so at ease in her own skin, regardless of how wrinkled, droopy or hairy she became.  In a society where women are increasingly supposed to look thin, shaved and instagrammable, I often reflect on Frieda’s lack of self-consciousness.  We could all learn from her determination to simply be herself.

 

dhl-trunk garterIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent Frieda, Lawrence’s free-spirited and courageous wife? Is it possible to distil the spirit of such an enigmatic person into one artefact? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here