Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis. Censored: A Literary History of Subversion and Control.
Surveying literary history from The English Bibles (born out of heresy in the late fourteenth century) to contemporary arguments about teaching Mexican American studies in the United States, Censored is a fascinating and wide-ranging volume which provides not simply a history of published texts, but also an investigation of those people who have prevented--or sought to prevent--the circulation of literature deemed censorious. Through twenty-five brief and broadly chronological chapters, the book assesses which parties have been considered most vulnerable to moral corruption by their reading matter (frequently those who are young, working-class and/or female) and asks what kinds of restrictions on the circulation of literature are sensible. Selecting a variety of suppressed literature, Fellion and Inglis examine the methods and consequences of censorship, questioning who has the right to legislate on these matters and prompting readers to consider where they might draw their own lines on the subject of what should be freely accessible to the public. The book is well-researched throughout, analysing modifications in laws affecting the circulation of literature to suggest that landmarks in the history of free speech provide a revealing image of humankind.
The Anglo-American tradition is chosen as the focus of the book, since the UK and US lay claim to ancient traditions of free speech and political liberty. Fellion and Inglis reveal the irony of this stance, showing how booksellers, printers and publishers are often first in the line of fire when writing is judged to challenge the status quo, often in relation to political, religious and sexual norms. As well as covering well-known cases of literary censorship, such as books defended in court (James Joyce's Ulysses, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and--of course--D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover), the individual chapters also discuss cases of books more covertly removed by school libraries or curricula, including Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. "Literature" is thus interpreted broadly and here includes media such as magazines, comics, children's books and instructional manuals. Among the coverage is Frances Burney's satirical play on literary coteries, The Witlings, Percy Bysshe Shelley's radical poem Queen Mab, a West Indian slave narrative by Mary Prince, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and issue 96 of Gay News which published James Kirkup's poem "The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name" and was brought to a private prosecution by Mary Whitehouse, the face of the British conservative Christian movement.
Given our interest in Lawrence and his battles against censorship, readers of the DHLR are likely to be most interested in the chapters which address the history of the reception of works which discuss definitions of "obscenity" and ways of writing about sex and sexuality. Chapter two focuses on John Cleland's erotic epistolary novel, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), which was first published in 1748. The female protagonist avoids four-letter words and clinical terms, describing male genitalia variously as a 'machine', 'engine', 'maypole', 'master member of the revels' and a 'nipple of Love'. The book immediately fell foul of the censors; since 1727 publishing obscenity had been a criminal offence in English common law and was deemed a libellous, blasphemous and seditious act. The case that resulted in the establishment of the law was that of the bookseller Edmund Curll, who was that year convicted for publishing an erotic dialogue between two nuns entitled Venus in the Cloister; or, The Nun in her Smock. Continental erotica and posthumous editions of the Earl of Rochester's racy poetry were also suppressed during this time, suggesting that it was considered possible to threaten the state simply by circulating publications about sex.
Chapter six covers one of Lawrence's early literary influences: Walt Whitman, whose first, self-published poetry collection, Leaves of Grass (1855), pushed boundaries with its frank approach to sex, deliberately challenging middle-class decorum. Whitman ignored the warnings of his literary mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and added further erotic content to later editions believing that sexuality should be affirmed openly, joyously and without shame. The "Calamus" sequence was recognised as homoerotic by Havelock Ellis, who noted this interpretation in his 1897 medical textbook, Sexual Inversion, (itself a target of censorship). Leaves of Grass met its greatest resistance when Anthony Comstock, the champion of the moral reform movement in the United States, began his campaigns against what he saw as an industry of vice which was allowing young men to become promiscuous. He was paid a salary to form a Committee for the Suppression of Vice and successfully lobbied Congress for stronger postal legislation.
In the UK, the National Vigilance Association (founded in 1885) moved against the publisher Henry Vizetelly & Company, who published cheap English translations of Emile Zola's Les Rougon-Macquart series. La Terre ("The Soil") is the most outspoken of the twenty volumes, featuring unrestrained sexuality, childbirth, scatological humour and naturalistic descriptions of the breeding of livestock. Despite Vizetelly's expurgation of passages that would be offensive to delicate English tastes, the publisher was imprisoned and bankrupted by the NVA's private criminal prosecution against him for obscene libel, and the trial inaugurated a series of moral crusades and legal proceedings throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Out of these, the 1960 Penguin Books trial that ultimately cleared the publisher to circulate unexpurgated editions of Lady Chatterley's Lover is perhaps the most famous.
This case is discussed in Chapter twelve of Censored. The authors have used key sources on Lady Chatterley's Lover, following closely Michael Squires's authoritative 2002 "Introduction" to the Cambridge University Press edition and making very useful reference to Derek Britton's Lady Chatterley: The Making of the Novel (1988). Other instances of censorship Lawrence faced in the late 1920s (such as the seizure of the Pansies typescript in the post and the raid of the Warren Gallery exhibition) are mentioned but not expanded upon due to constraints of chapter length. Lawrence's arguments in Pornography and Obscenity with the Tory MP Sir William Joynson-Hicks could have been addressed, together with a lengthier engagement with A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which is only briefly cited. However, in keeping with the book as a whole, rather than focusing on the author's conception of "obscenity," the emphasis is on the reception of the text and its afterlife in the public domain. The methodology applies records of court proceedings or legal documents to the case of a literary text to judge how alterations in the law affected the publication of the work. Accordingly, the chapter begins by discussing the 1959 Grove Press publication of an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterleys Lover, which was seized by the US Post Office, prompting the attorney Charles Rembar to challenge the ban at a Post Office Department Trial. Rembar had to prove that the novel had "social value" and he invited the critic Alfred Kazin to testify; Kazin astutely observed that "Lawrence was a deeply and naturally religious writer [...]. For him, sex, far from being an obsession in the clinical sense, was a symbol of this path toward imaginative freedom." The chapter proceeds to discuss the UK Penguin Books trial at the Old Bailey, describing the British process as "moralistic and legally unfocused." The ramifications of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, for which Lady Chatterleys Lover was the test case, is used to consider debates raised during the course of the trial about who is the "average reader" and which readers might be "capable of understanding" Lawrence. Lawrence scholars will find nothing very new in the chapter, but the value of the volume is in assessing Lawrence's place in a long literary history of censorship in the Anglophone world.
Censored demonstrates that we are not achieving a progressively greater freedom of speech (particularly in a world of "twitter storms" and fake news, which are not explored by Fellion and inglis). The conflict between subversion and control is a recurrent pattern. Writers like Lawrence who challenged orthodoxies are vital in helping to shift entrenched modes of thought, but are unwelcome to those in power. As the authors of this compelling volume observe in their Afterword, "however free speech might be in theory, only the speech of the powerful is assured."
Nottingham Trent University
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|Publication:||D.H. Lawrence Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
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