The Offence of Veal Stew

Every so often I read something and it strikes me forcibly how different things were in the past and how there exists a gulf of understanding between eras, the scale of which is almost unimaginable. This all began when I started to read The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, an almost complete transcription of that event by academic lawyer C. H. Roiphe, who mercifully punctuates the stolidity of the proceedings with a few good jokes when he can. But it’s quite fascinating to see literature on trial, or at least required to respond to one of the most shockingly bad interpretations of a novel ever by the prosecution, who tried to claim it as a book that aimed to incite its readers to adultery or other forms of ‘corrupt’ behaviour. Of course it is perfectly true that Lady Chatterley is married when she begins her affair with the game-keeper, Oliver Mellors. But to take this situation out of context, to remove everything that D. H. Lawrence is saying about England after the war, about industrialisation and its dehumanising effects, about the layers of ignorance and rancour that separate men from women, is to deform the novel entirely. I read the novel once in my early twenties and retained an impression of it being ‘sweet’. I reread it this week and again couldn’t fit it into the shape the prosecuting council wanted to make of it, nor indeed the angry interpretation of vengeful sexism that the feminist Kate Miller imposed on it shortly afterwards.

On the one hand, you could say these were just readers with agendas. But on the other, I’m wondering whether the historical era in which these readings took place had a far more profound influence on them than I can begin to imagine. I think this, after tracing the obscenity rulings in literature back to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, another significant court case in which literature, after some barracking, was allowed to go free. The trouble came about because Flaubert had taken a contract with the Revue de Paris permitting them to serialise his novel. Serialisation was still relatively new, but it gave writers a chance to read a wider audience, given how expensive books were and how hard to come by. But when the Revue de Paris editors looked over Flaubert’s manuscript, they found sixty-nine passages that they asked to be suppressed or altered, utterly infuriating Flaubert, who hadn’t spent weeks slaving over each sentence for nothing. The reviews knew that the censors were keeping a strict eye on them, and indeed a prosecution was forthcoming.

But some of the passages that the Revue was unhappy with really seem quite extraordinary. For instance, they objected to the phrase ‘un morceau de veau cuit au four’, or ‘a piece of veal cooked in the oven’, which came from the longer passage: ‘To spare him expense, each week his mother sent him by carrier a piece of veal cooked in the oven; and on this he lunched when he returned from the hospital in the morning’.  One may indeed wonder how on earth such a phrase could be considered offensive, and the only clue is that such details were considered by the editors to be ‘inutile’ or useless. This isn’t just a concern about word count here. What we have to think about is the fact that ‘realism’ was a very new genre and as such viewed with suspicion and mistrust. Readers’ ideas were still informed by the classicism of the eighteenth century, which found its justification in imparting wisdom and intellectual restraint in the form of the maxim. These little philosophical truisms litter the pre-novel text, and make of reading an essentially educational experience. Books are good for you, that’s why you read them. But realism was a very strange creature in comparison; what good was it to describe what people did? Particularly when it wasn’t very enthralling or uplifting? When no principle of conduct or insight could be drawn from it? We can only imagine that readers were quite bewildered by details such as veal stews and wondered what on earth they were doing there, what possible purpose such useless information could have.

The world of reading was entirely different in 1856, different in a way we can barely conceive. There was no sense that the views portrayed in the story might be different to those of the author, who was thus fully responsible for his story. To the extent that realism was understood as a faithful portrayal of reality, it was still expected to show stable values and morals as inherent in the world. It would take a long, long time for literature to loosen those bonds of pedagogy and dogma (not to mention censorship), although it is perhaps ironic that when the bonds were loosed, a u-turn took place. Nowadays there is a tendency, fully encouraged by publishers, for novels to be pure entertainment, or to contain every sort of sensational rule-breaking. It is when they ask us to be wise, or try to teach us something, or show restraint that they are viewed as dry, dull and distinctly uncommercial.


8 thoughts on “The Offence of Veal Stew

  1. In college, my British Modernism class did an interesting project while reading Lady Chatterley, in which we researched various historical (mis)readings of the novel, each student taking one on and debating each other from those perspectives. I was assigned Kate Millett’s reading. At first she absolutely infuriated me, but as I spent more time with her I began to soften my stance. I still don’t fundamentally agree with her reading but I do think it’s helpful sooner or later to address Lawrence’s sexual politics; as my professor said at the time, it’s a novel about female sexual pleasure, but not necessarily about female sexual agency. To a certain extent that’s due to Lawrence’s argument that we’re all interconnected, no man an island, etc. – Mellors too must emerge from his self-imposed exile, despite his reluctance. But on the other hand, all the stuff about his wife and her “self-willed,” vilified insistence on controlling her own orgasms doesn’t sit well with me. Mellors’s attitude, which seems pretty close to Lawrence’s, is that simultaneous orgasm is the best and most spiritual outcome of sex, but that if the man happens to orgasm first and the woman doesn’t, that’s still the end of the story. Women who work for their own pleasure are painted as harpies with metal (brass? iron?) beaks for genitalia. So, I don’t know – I guess I’m saying I found the exercise of inhabiting Millett to be eye-opening, despite my disagreement with many of her points. It ended up making the book more complex & interesting for me, anyway. I totally agree that the sexual politics stuff should be taken in context with the themes of war, industrialization etc., but they’re worth noticing. (And now watch, this comment will go to spam for all the sex talk, haha.)

    That bit about the censored veal is fascinating. And what a position for Flaubert the Romantic to find himself in: having to defend the very realism that he took on as an experiment and ended up (to some extent) disliking!

  2. That’s fascinating Litlove. I laughed at the poor piece of veal, but I can picture the angry and bewildered editors. It reminds me of all the to-do a few decades later, at the fin de siecle, and the Yellow Book in England–not over realism, but still over the question of what literature should do.

  3. I really enjoyed this post – I’ve read both books but don’t know the detail about either of the trials. And your explanation about the weirdness of realism at the time has got me thinking. Do you think in 50 or 100 years time people will look back at any current books as a game-changing or culture-challenging classic?

  4. I just read a lengthy introduction to Peyton Place and it seems the case was not very different from Lady Chatterly. But these were the 50s. The book was banned and its reputation damaged. Also because there was a TV series that managed to turn the whole thing into something trashy but tame. My copy is from Virago which means it is getting its due appreciation. Banning a book always strikes me as criminal. It still seems common practice in the US. Peyton Place seems to depict women who choose how they want to be sexual/intimate (oddly phrased, sorry) and this seems to be one of the most shocking things. Maybe to this day. It is sad that Metalious died so young. She didn’t live to see a more positive reception of Peyton Place

  5. I’ve still not read DH Lawrence, but maybe this year. It is interesting to think how books have changed–I hadn’t thought of authors writing only what their beliefs were–and that should mirror what was accepted by society. Now wonder these books were so shocking to the reading public!

  6. Emily – that is so interesting about your response over time to the Kate Millet. I’m trying to find (and failing so far) a book on sexual attitudes in the 1920s when Lawrence was writing Lady Chatterley. I am reasonably sure that for a female character to be at all sympathetic in a book at that time, she would have to be restrained in her sexual appetite. It makes me mad, the huge number of restrictions on female characters that extend into the present day (a poor mother as a sympathetic character in fiction, anyone?) but I wonder whether that played into his ideas. And he would have been a man of his time, of course, as unable as any of us to think outside the current ideology. Generally I like Kate Millet and her readings of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer made me laugh a lot (in agreement). But I guess I think that while she has a point, it’s an excessive point. I do think the task of entering into a critical perspective that isn’t naturally aligned to one’s own must be difficult but fascinating. As for Flaubert and realism, he was GUTTED – that makes me laugh, too!

    Lilian – and isn’t that hitting the nail on the head – what literature ‘should’ do. You’d think we might leave it alone to be exactly what it is, but no.

    Rose – oho, good question. I think Margaret Atwood will last as a paradigm-shifter. And possibly some of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books too. I think John Updike might last, and Toni Morrison, definitely. Further afield, Italo Calvino and Michel Houellebecq (helas!) and one day people will remember Christa Wolf. This sort of list is a lot of fun, and of course pure speculation. Oh! I’ve thought of another – Philip Pullman. Yup, he should be on it, I think. I’m going to stop now because I could play this game for a long time….

    Caroline – the 50s were fascinating because it seems a lot of books came up in court then and it was the beginning of the end of censorship – the Marquis de Sade’s writings were permitted in France, Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence in America, Lawrence again in the UK – all test cases that led to the relaxing of restraints around literature. You remind me that I really want to read Peynton Place, and I completely agree that women taking control of their own sexuality is something that shocked so much no one ever really mentioned it, but charged after the book on other counts.

  7. Danielle – when I really start to think about previous ages, and how differently people thought in them, it blows my mind. It’s a bit like trying to imagine space! D. H. Lawrence is okay – not hard to read at all. I put him off and then when I read him, actually remember that it really isn’t a chore. I’d be very interested to know what you make of him.

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