Everyone remembers the famous DH Lawrence obscenity trial with all its C-words and people running around with flowers in weird places, in the book that is, not the trial. What people tend to forget is that Ulysses by James Joyce was also banned and the trial that led to the ban being revoked changed American and British censorship laws forever. Before the Ulysses trial The Hicklin Rule, established during Victoria’s reign, decreed that any book with a hint of obscenity in was therefore completely obscene, which was the crux of the Ulysses problem.

Ulysses was different to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in fact if it hadn’t been for Ulysses then the Lawrence trial might never have come about. The reasons for banning Ulysses in the US were very specific, there was one passage that offended above all others, in which Leopold Bloom indulges in some metaphorical masturbation. The swearing was one thing but God forbid there be a sexual metaphor in there, assuming you even noticed it. If I were to quote the passage I’d probably run out of article. Suffice to say it a big old complicated one that involves roman candles and fireworks and the first time I read it I wondered what was happening because it does everything but say Bloom is having a wank while watching a woman at a firework display. This one bout of metaphorical masturbation got Ulysses banned and suddenly made it very interesting indeed. I can’t help but think that the people who read it for smut value were disappointed although Melissa Mohr observes that in Britain a critic called Shane Leslie claimed the book was ‘blasphemous and detrimental to the morals of society’[Page 241] so the British Home Office banned it too. I’ll have to take his word on that because I’ve never made it to the end, terrible scholar that I am.

This presents a problem though because with the focus so firmly on this one section leading to the ban what else do you ban? It’s a big book to ban solely on one comparatively small section. If it’s so easy for the inference to be missed where do you stop? Not to knock Joyce but before it was banned how many people made it to page 350 to be offended? And, of course, if you ban a book then everyone wants to read it and, as it was still being published in France by Obelisk Press, people with the money could afford to import it and be scandalised.

Speaking of the cost of books, as a lot of people still couldn’t afford books in the 1920s, other than the cheaply produced variety, it seems unlikely that there would’ve been a mass erosion of morality in any case. The Hicklin Rule hadn’t really consider the fact that the ‘lower classes’ it was trying to protect in the 19th century couldn’t afford the books, assuming they could read to begin with.

The ban was lifted in America in 1933 (1936 in Britain) partly by overturning this rule due to Ulysses literary merit and because it was… *cough* boring. For any Joyce fans the courts said in, not me.

It was this notion of literary merit making sex acceptable that eventually led to the trial in Britain in 1960 that overturned the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. After which the under the counter brown bag became a thing of the past and the door was opened on sex in literature.

 

References

Mohr Melissa, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)


For more writing advice see my archive page.

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