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.