Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Naughtiness through the Centuries

The language of love is probably French, or maybe Italian.  It’s no coincidence that so many of histories great romantic figures have had a Latin background.  Casanova.  Valentino.  Don Juan (all right, he was a literary invention, but you get the idea–he wasn’t Mister Jones or Herr Helmut).

But there’s also a tradition of erotic literature in English that might have become a bit of a “mommy-porn” joke on the literary side thanks to the antics of a certain Mr. Grey, (although I suspect that EL James is laughing all the way to the bank, because the books are big business).

But there was a time when erotic literature was not a laughing matter, and publishers and authors could face real consequences for dabbling in the genre, anything from fines to imprisonment or, more recently, to literary ostracism.  But the pull was always there, and the books got written.

There are likely uncountable reams of bad erotica sitting on dusty bookshelves, but there are three books that, to me, have always been the landmark classics of English language lewdness: Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.

You’ll probably recall that I wasn’t terribly impressed by Lady Chatterley‘s erotic content, so when I picked up Fanny Hill, a book published nearly 200 years before the Lawrence.

Fanny Hill - John Cleland

Man, was I in for a surprise.

John Cleland, unlike Lawrence, doesn’t just describe sex as a mechanical activity, but actually brings eroticism to bear.  You can tell the author, even in the first half of the eighteenth century, took the time to research his subject exhaustively, and then went on to describe what he’d learned.

Free writing tip: if you’re writing erotica, this is probably the the most enjoyable approach.

As a piece of pornography, Fanny Hill is infinitely more successful than Lady Chatterley.  To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t just trying to write himself into obscenity law history but also to make a statement about class distinctions in Britain.  The reason the Cleland is a better book is because Fanny Hill is unconcerned with politics–pushing your politics as a central theme of your book is a sure way to soporific stultification (see what is happening in the science fiction genre today for a vivid example of politics making it difficult for literature to shine).

Is Fanny Hill a great book?  Simply put, no.  It’s a great bit of pornography, and I’m not surprised that it’s now considered a classic because it’s very good at what it does.  I think the next well-written pieces of literature to do it so well (at least in English) were produced in the middle of the twentieth century.  But like pornographic movies, it gets a little repetitive after a while because the underlying story is paper thin (despite the fact that Cleland was clearly a gifted writer).

Also, as a purely modern critic, there is very little sexual variety in the book, which, even if you updated the sometimes archaic language, would date the book to a less adventurous era.

Still, hats are off to the spirit of Mr. Cleland for setting the bar so high that it would take Henry Miller two centuries later to surpass it.  Of course, that’s an assumption that I need to get my hands on Tropic of Cancer to confirm.

I suspect I’ll enjoy that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who isn’t afraid to put a little heat into his books.  Timeless is an excellent example of this, and you can check it out here.

Controversy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Lady Chatterly's Lover - D.H. Lawrence

I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.

As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir.  Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.

So, how was it?

From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start.  Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader.  In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks.  That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Interior Illustration

The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today.  Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex.  Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book.  The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.

That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important.  They are.  Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.

So what happened?  I think it’s a conjunction of two things.  The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this.  One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes.  Lawrence knew it perfectly well.

The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality.  I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure.  Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.

Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with.  As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it.  The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating.  One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim.  If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.

Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway).  If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).