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The Hand of the Law: Lawrence and Censorship

Sheila Lahiri Choudhury
p. 27-41

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There is no such thing as moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The Picture of Dorian Gray.

  • 1 Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings, ed. H. Orel (London: Macmillan 1967), 262-3.

1Lawrence is one of the writers who has suffered most under the heavy hand of censorship. It is beyond comprehension that he could have had the strength of mind to continue writing after the suppression of The Rainbow. Most readers of the novel would agree that there is neither a single obscene word nor a shred of pornography in the novel. Yet it was banned and like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, consigned to the fire. In 1896, the Bishop of Wakefield had set about arousing public hostility by writing a series of letters to the leading periodicals in order to safeguard his parishioners sense of morality against Hardy’s novel, resulting in its being described as “over frank” and later as “garbage.”1 In the preface to the novel Hardy had appealed to the adult readers:

  • 2 Preface, Jude the Obscure ( London: Macmillan, 1963), 5.

For a novel addressed by a man to men and women of full age, which attempts to deal unaffectedly with the fret and fever, derision and disaster, […] to tell without a mincing of words, of a deadly war waged between flesh and spirit[…] I am not aware that there is anything in the handling to which exception may be taken.2

2Obviously Hardy had underestimated the adult consciousness of his readers or that of the guardians of public morality, even as Lawrence, when he commenced writing, was unaware of the long hand of the censor–morons and their attempt to protect such public morality. Thus it is not difficult to understand why Lawrence continued to vent his anger against the censor-morons for acting in accordance with the heavy hand of law. In a letter as late as 1928, he had complained to Morris Ernest on reading his book, To the Pure: A Study of Obscenity and the Censor:

  • 3 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. VI 1927-28, ed. James & Margaret Boulton, Cambridge Edition (Cam (...)

Myself, I believe censorship helps nobody; and hurts many. But the book has brought it home to me much more grimly than before. Our Civilization cannot afford to let the censor-moron loose. The censor-moron does not really hate anything but the living and growing human consciousness. It is our developing and extending consciousness that he threatens -and our consciousness in its newest, most sensitive activity, its vital growth. To arrest or circumscribe the vital consciousness is to produce morons, and nothing but a moron would wish to do it.3

  • 4 Emile Delavenay, The man and his Work, 1885-1919 (London: Heinemann, 1971).
  • 5 Quoted in the Introduction to The Rainbow, CUP, xlvi
  • 6 Regarding charges of “obscenity” see the Introduction for comments on the “Shame” Chapter.
  • 7 The Rainbow, 303.
  • 8 Ibid., 439.
  • 9 Ibid., 308.

3I am inclined to agree with Emile Delavenay4 that The Rainbow was prosecuted and banned under DORA—the Defence of the Realm Act for its anti-militarism rather than on account of his treatment of explicit sexual relationships. In the novel, Lawrence was expressing views opposed to the public sentiments aroused at the time by the First World War. A contemporary review of the novel had claimed: “The wind of war is sweeping over our life. [...] A thing like The Rainbow has no right to exist in the wind of war.”5 The pregnant silence by the authority when the matter was raised in the House of Commons endorses the view that the suppression was related to more powerful political reasons rather than any literary obscenity.6 Besides, public sentiments had already been aggravated by the publication of the short story, “The Prussian Officer,” which deals with rigid military discipline of differences between officer and orderly, the clash of class distinctions between master and slave. It is apparent that the ban on The Rainbow was enforced only on later consideration under the Act of Obscenity and Pornography, an Act passed by the British Parliament in 1857. Conceivably, a degree of anti-Imperialism expressed in the novel had further exacerbated official judgment leading to the suppression. Lawrence often conveyed opinions opposed to the accepted views of his time. The case in point is his presentation of Skrebensky, an army officer, who had served in South Africa and is posted to India when he meets Ursula. Anti-war sentiments are clearly expressed by Lawrence in Ursula’s response to the Boer War: the feeling of “unease,” “[W] hen men began organised fighting with each other it seemed to her […] poles of the universe were cracking, and the whole might go tumbling into the bottomless pit.”7 Skrebensky appeared to her to be a “nullity”: “ She knew him all round, not on any side did he lead into the unknown.”8 Ursula’s rejection of Skrebensky, apart from sexual mal-adjustment, is based on the very nature of his conception of society and his role as an individual. He believed in the Malthusian theory of the greatest good for the greatest number, “the whole mattered […] his life lay in the established order of things.”9 Ursula on the other hand represented a greater freedom of spirit and individuality, more dominant than the accepted role assigned to the women of the age. Lawrence’s views regarding the role of the British in India is communicated by Skrebensky as—“a good social life with plenty of hunting, polo and always a good horse,” and through Ursula’s shocked response:

  • 10 411.

She could see him so well out there, in India - one of the governing class, superimposed upon an old civilisation, lord and master of a clumsier civilisation than his own. It was his choice. He would become again an aristocrat, invested with authority and responsibility, having a great helpless populace beneath him.10

  • 11 Mark Kinkead-Weekes “Decolonising imagination: Lawrence in the 1920s,” Cambridge Companion to D.H. (...)

4However, Ursula’s views should not be judged in isolation. Lawrence frequently communicated ambivalent opinions regarding class, race and power structures in relation to state authority, through different characters. Mark Kinkead-Weekes warns us against taking Lawrence very seriously regarding what he calls Lawrence’s expression of “anti-Raj sentiments.”11 He points to Lawrence’s contrary views communicated in his letters written around 1920. Indeed, Lawrence’s contradictory opinions regarding race and class are an expression of the confusion and ambiguity prevalent in western culture in the early twentieth century.

  • 12 A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover ( London: Mandrake Press, 1930), 9.

5It is necessary to keep in mind that the persecution by the self-appointed guardians of morality had already commenced with his first novel The White Peacock. This was in the person of William Heinemann, Lawrence’s first publisher, who wanted him to change certain parts of the text since he felt the readers might consider them unpalatable. It was an ongoing battle between Lawrence and the publishers, who forced him to make repeated changes in the text so that it would become more acceptable to his readers. For instance, Heinemann refused to publish Sons and Lovers, describing it as” too Zolaesque,” and eventually it was brought out by Duckworth. The latter refused to publish The Rainbow even though Edward Garnett, an editor at Duckworth, was Lawrence’s literary mentor. The book was eventually published by Methuen, provoking an instant reaction that The Rainbow was “worse than Zola”! It must be remembered that Nana was considered too frank even in the fifties. After the suppression of The Rainbow, it was practically impossible for Lawrence to find a publisher for Women in Love, though on account of a certain degree of popularity with the reading public, his short stories and poems were still accepted for publication. Lawrence left England and began his long exile in Europe, Australia and America. It is hardly surprising that his Aaron’s Rod and The Plumed Serpent did not attract much public attention. But his 1929 collection of poems, Pansies, was banned and so were his paintings when they were exhibited in London. Very few authors would have been able to survive this level of mindless censorship and still continue to write the three versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and publish it privately. It required a writer who possessed a tremendous amount of confidence in himself and conviction of his beliefs to continue writing under such subversive circumstances. Thus, in “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lawrence claimed: “In spite of all antagonism, I put forth this novel as an honest, healthy book, necessary for us today.”12

  • 13 Ibid., 10-12.
  • 14 “Pornography and Obscenity,” Sex Literature and Pornography, Essays by D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. (...)
  • 15 A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 30.

6Lawrence’s repeated attempts to fight against the imposition of antediluvian notions of sexual morality ended with his novels being constantly censored as obscene. His fundamental conflict with the censor board gradually began to emerge. He had questioned the very existence of such authority and their right to assume control over the freedom of speech in a living society. His works, like all literature, reflect the social, religious and cultural issues of the period he was writing in, but they also establish his effort to go against the conventional ideas of that age. Thus he tried to reverse the popular notions connected with sex by writing about the subject in frank, honest and candid terms. In the same essay Lawrence urged “I want men and women to think sex, fully, completely, honestly and cleanly,” through a “proper reverence for sex.”13 In an earlier essay entitled “Pornography and Obscenity” he had made a clear distinction between “phallic sex” and “pornography”: while phallic sex is a creative flow, pornography is “the attempt to insult sex and the human spirit,” and “to do dirt on it.”14 His efforts were to change Victorian attitudes to the man-woman relationship by working at the limits of the accepted literary and social mores. Moreover, his novels not only reflected the class and social conflicts of his age but also his bitter opposition to the major conservative notions of the Victorians regarding sex and sexuality. That he did not support pornography becomes clear when he says: “But even I would censor genuine pornography, rigorously.”15 Lawrence believed that the Victorians were responsible for destroying normal and natural human relationships by brushing such matters under the carpet, whereas he was prepared to deal with such relations as explicitly as possible. His lifelong endeavour was to sanctify sex and to remove the opposition between the sacred and the profane that had been introduced by Christianity. His most severe attack was directed against the Protestants and what he was to describe as the “perversion of puritanism,”

  • 16 “Pornography and Obscenity.”

The Christian religion lost, in Protestantism finally, the togetherness with the universe, the togetherness of the body, the sex, the emotions, and the passions, with the earth and sun and stars.16

  • 17 “Pornography and Obscenity,” 200-201.
  • 18 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Trans., Robert, Hurley (Penguin, Harmon (...)

7According to him the Protestant religion was responsible for turning sex into a taboo word by enforcing a division between body and soul. It had mentalized sex by separating it from the body. This attitude had pushed sex into the dark chambers, turning it into dirty pornography. Thus, he asserted, “Pornography in art is calculated to arouse sexual desire, or sexual excitement. It is intended to arouse such feelings…by thwarted, disappointed, unfulfilled people …whereas sex is beneficial.”17 Michel Foucault, in his History of Sexuality,18 suggests in a similar vein, that the Seventeenth century bourgeois revolution was responsible for the repression of sex, but then moves further to demonstrate that sex had always been a taboo subject in western society, simultaneously admitting the greater openness in the ancient cultures of India, Egypt and China.

8Censorship in Western Literature has a long history dating back to the ancients. One wonders what the Greeks did with Aristophanes’ Lysistrata? Did they consider it necessary to censor the play for the young viewers? Caligula banned the Odyssey in 387 B.C. since it expressed Greek ideas of freedom. The history of censorship is long and over the years presents different types of restrictions that were imposed in the name of public morality. Religious censorship is perhaps the oldest, but suppression on political and moral grounds is closely aligned to it. It is difficult to conclude whether it was religious considerations only or combined political reasons that led to the prohibition of the religious texts by the Roman Catholic Church in A.D. 325. Tyndale’s translated version of the Bible, for instance, was burnt even as the author was in 1536. Was the reason religious or political when in 1581, Elizabeth I ordered the complete prohibition of the Mystery Cycle of the Passion plays? In between we have the burning of the Protestants as heretics under the Inquisition, that of Joan of Arc in 1431 and Savoronola in 1498, the beheading of Thomas More in 1535, Galileo’s imprisonment in 1633—to name a few eminent figures. While admittedly the main reason was religious censorship in most of these cases, the hidden political agenda was never far behind. Hence, in any consideration of the strong hand of law in the form of censorship, one may admit that Lawrence is in illustrious company.

  • 19 Kamasutra by Vatsayana, 4th c. A.D.

9However, in India, it is an established fact that the ancient Hindus did not appear to believe in censorship of books or sculptures, especially the erotic ones on the temple walls. For if they had, neither the Kamasutra—a sex manual, belonging to the 4th century A.D.19 nor the erotic sculptures of the Konarak Temple built around the 12-13th centuries would have survived for us to appreciate. There is one instance, however, of an overzealous Maharaja who boarded up the entire sides of the walls of the Jaganath temple in Puri to guard it against the contamination of public gaze. In recent times this attempt to destroy an ancient artistic creation in the name of public morality has been rectified through extensive excavations. If there was one Priapus in Pompeii, which came under the scrutiny of the censor-morons of the Victorian age and for which one is informed that the Act of Obscenity and Pornography was passed in 1857, there are millions of lingams, the phallic symbol of Siva, strewn all over India and worshipped through various rituals even to this day.

  • 20 “Pornography and Obscenity,” 205.
  • 21 cf. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: CUP, 1985).

10Vatsayana’s book is not just a celebration of love but a manual on the initiation into sex life within marriage and even outside it. For hundreds of years the book has been revered like any sacred text on religion. It has never been considered obscene nor reduced to pornography, not to mention being censored. Perhaps the western text that comes closest to its spirit of lyrical exaltation of the conjugal relationship without any of its eroticism is The Song of Songs from the Book of Solomon in the Old Testament. Lawrence would no doubt have been familiar with the text since the Bible was his favourite reading and he would have drawn a degree of inspiration from it. Foucault defines the two approaches to sexuality as “ars erotica, implying that sex is an art as found in ancient civilizations, while the other is the science of sexuality, which is a product of the modern era. By the end of the nineteenth-century, sex had been turned into a study of technical and scientific subjects with a number of treatises written on it. This was also Lawrence’s complaint feeling as he did that modern man had intellectualised sex and turned it into an abstract subject: “Marriage is no marriage that is not basically and permanently phallic,”20 related to the basic instincts of life, and not turned into a topic for discussion and analyses. Thus he simultaneously challenged the Victorian double standard regarding moral values and the modern scientists’ attempt to deal with sex as a technically scientific topic. Lawrence succeeded by negotiating a two-fold strategy: first, by challenging the repressive Victorian laws and taboos related to sex and second, by attempting to evolve a discourse on sexuality that would liberate it from the label of obscenity and pornography. For the first, he sought to establish the relationship between art and morality in numerous essays like “Art and Morality,” “Morality and the Novel,” “Why the Novel Matters” and “Surgery for the Novel—Or a Bomb,”21 in which he constantly redefined the fine balance between the two. He had started out consciously to achieve this agenda but realised that in order to do so it was necessary to strike at the very basis of the Victorian concept of morality. Thus he further continually bombarded the conservative repressive Victorian social beliefs in essays like “Pornography and Obscenity,” “State of Funk,” “Cocksure Women and Hensure Men,” while secondly, in his novels he explored the discourse on sexuality. This was his search for a phallic language, which the censor-morons would not suppress as obscene. He continually experimented with words that would express “real” and “pure” sex as opposed to “counterfeit” and mechanical sex. Moreover, it is in the novels that he endeavoured to ameliorate the two positions and introduce a more rational approach to sex.

  • 22 “Pornography and Obscenity,” 195.
  • 23 Ibid.

11The obvious question that arises is: does censorship create a difference in public morality? Or is it actually an attempt by the state authority to impose certain constrictions on the public consciousness? Censorship laws are enforced from time to time in various forms by the state machinery to keep public morality under control. But the intended result often works conversely when the public starts to express its own moral choices and demands. Censorship in its attempt to control public morality only succeeds in creating a repressive condition that distorts the expression of such desires: “[…] bow down to vox populi”; cries Lawrence, “Vox Dei, or you plug your ears not to hear its obscene howl […].”22 The “grey Puritans” had succeeded in turning sex into a “dirty little secret”23 and further creating double standards and hypocrisy in society. Literature is a reflection of the social milieu and culture of the age that produces it. If Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Chapmen were using obscene language on the stage then it was the reflection of an age that thrived on bawdiness and ribaldry as an expression of its exuberance. Thus when Ben Jonson wrote The Alchemist, he was aware that the opening line of Act I, scene I, “I fart at thee,” was not meant to shock an Elizabethan audience but rather to convey a popular form of free exchange between acquaintances. Obscene lines of The Alchemist or those spoken by Falstaff in the History plays cannot be bowdlerised. To do so the Master of Revels would have had to suppress the entire collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. This for instance, would have been a case in point for a play like The Bartholomew Fair which was not only bawdy but written using the thieving cant; and the other example would be ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford. The Puritans, however, were not prepared to allow such licentiousness to continue unchecked in the theatre. Thus theatres were closed under the Theatre Regulation Act of 1642. All that occurred was the increase in the sale of the obscene “conny catching pamphlets” and transference of obscenity from the stage to fiction. The state of affairs was such that in 1722 Defoe’s Moll Flanders was banned and in 1749 John Cleland, the author of Fanny Hill or The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, was arrested and charged with “corrupting the King’s subjects.” However, this perversion has persisted down the ages since puritans and censor-mongers have continued to suppress texts, which do not in any sense qualify being placed under the Obscene Publications Act. The list of authors and the texts that have been banned would appear to be shocking to say the least. It would suffice to mention two from a list that runs in the hundreds: Huck Finn by Mark Twain and the Harry Potter series: in the first case, the book was banned in America because it depicts children as too independent and self-reliant, while in the second case, the Harry Potter books encourage wizardry and witchcraft.

  • 24 Jonathan Dollimore, Sex, Literature and Censorship (Cambridge: Polity Press, Blackwell, 2001).
  • 25 Ibid. Introduction

12The case is argued by Jonathan Dollimore from a different angle: he claims that the “safe reading of canonical texts constitutes a form of censorship”24 since literature often violates human values instead of confirming them. He identifies a darker and more dangerous side of creative imagination. The relation of art and censorship, he points out, is thus an ambivalent one because there is a constant “oscillation between the conservative agenda and the liberators whose recognition more often than not fails to ameliorate.” Adopting a new position, Dollimore states, “what the aesthetic defence represses is the disturbing and dangerous knowledge conveyed by literature and art.” “To take art seriously must be to recognise that its dangerous insights and painful beauty often derive from tendencies both disreputable and deeply anti social.”25 Despite the attractive production of the book and equally convincing argument, Dollimore’s assumptions smack of a degree of philistinism bordering on the earlier stance of the Puritans. Since, conversely, one can question the very idea of the dangerous in literature as it raises problems like knowing for whom it is unsafe and who decides what is hazardous? The beauty of art lies in the eyes of the beholder. Is the statue of Apollo by Praxiteles or that of the Cnidian Aphrodite in the Vatican dangerous? If they are considered dangerous or obscene, then in the manner of Lawrence, we must declare that the viewer’s mind is obscene. Lawrence strongly argued:

  • 26 “The State of Funk,” D.H. Lawrence: Selected Essays (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin 1950), 99.

The whole trouble with sex is that we daren’t speak of it and think of it naturally. We are not secretly sexual villains .We are not secretly depraved. We are just human beings with living sex.26

13So he chose to launch a discourse related to sexuality that his readers were not prepared to accept. Hence a constant curb was placed by the public prosecutors of morality on what was considered to be an uncensored flow of obscene language. Lawrence was conscious that artistic endeavour is always ahead of society and man is slow to accept the changes in his social associations. The artist works with a vision since he possesses the capacity to look ahead, to explore and innovate in his artistic effort. The freedom to do so has to be provided by society and the state:

  • 27 “A Propos,” 49.

If England is to be regenerated - then it will be by the arising of a new blood-contact, a new touch, and a new marriage. It will be a phallic rather than a sexual regeneration.27

14It is remarkable that Lawrence never felt the need for any paradoxical or ambivalent rhetoric to disguise the nature of the sexuality that he was describing. He did not feel the necessity of disguising what he had to say in innuendo. He expressed the innermost feelings and sexual actions with as much clarity and transparency as possible. He was aware that certain words and phrases that he used would be censored, but he resolutely held on to the belief that future generations would become familiar with them.

  • 28 “The State of Funk,” 98.

As a novelist, I feel it is the change inside the individual, which is my real concern. The great social change interests me and troubles me, but it is not my field. I know a change is coming—and I know we must have a more generous, more human system based on the life values and not on the money values.28

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1 Thomas Hardy’s Personal Writings, ed. H. Orel (London: Macmillan 1967), 262-3.

2 Preface, Jude the Obscure ( London: Macmillan, 1963), 5.

3 The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Vol. VI 1927-28, ed. James & Margaret Boulton, Cambridge Edition (Cambridge: CUP, 1991), 613

4 Emile Delavenay, The man and his Work, 1885-1919 (London: Heinemann, 1971).

5 Quoted in the Introduction to The Rainbow, CUP, xlvi

6 Regarding charges of “obscenity” see the Introduction for comments on the “Shame” Chapter.

7 The Rainbow, 303.

8 Ibid., 439.

9 Ibid., 308.

10 411.

11 Mark Kinkead-Weekes “Decolonising imagination: Lawrence in the 1920s,” Cambridge Companion to D.H. Lawrence, ed. Anne Fernihough (Cambridge: CUP, 2001), 67.

12 A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover ( London: Mandrake Press, 1930), 9.

13 Ibid., 10-12.

14 “Pornography and Obscenity,” Sex Literature and Pornography, Essays by D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore (London: Heinemann, 1955), 203.

15 A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 30.

16 “Pornography and Obscenity.”

17 “Pornography and Obscenity,” 200-201.

18 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Trans., Robert, Hurley (Penguin, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979).

19 Kamasutra by Vatsayana, 4th c. A.D.

20 “Pornography and Obscenity,” 205.

21 cf. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: CUP, 1985).

22 “Pornography and Obscenity,” 195.

23 Ibid.

24 Jonathan Dollimore, Sex, Literature and Censorship (Cambridge: Polity Press, Blackwell, 2001).

25 Ibid. Introduction

26 “The State of Funk,” D.H. Lawrence: Selected Essays (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin 1950), 99.

27 “A Propos,” 49.

28 “The State of Funk,” 98.

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Sheila Lahiri Choudhury, « The Hand of the Law: Lawrence and Censorship », Études Lawrenciennes, 41 | 2010, 27-41.

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Sheila Lahiri Choudhury, « The Hand of the Law: Lawrence and Censorship », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 41 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 janvier 2014, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.141

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Sheila Lahiri Choudhury

Sheila Lahiri Choudhury, Jadavpur University, has published numerous essays on Lawrence in various national and international journals. She is the author of An Alternative Gaze, Essays on D.H.Lawrence (New Delhi: Chonicle Books, 2008).

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