Maybe it was the commemoration of Banned Books Week, which occurs at the end of September in the UK, but I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about D.H. Lawrence. Too often we conflate the fight for freedom of expression with “high literary activity”, suggesting that it is the concern of the prosperous elite and not that of the common man. In that sense, Lawrence is the perfect exemplar of the opposite view: that the banning of books is really about the banning of new ideas by a dominant elite and its highhanded wielding of authority. It is about the stalling of progress and the denial of reason, all of which leave the common man poorer, with less rights and fewer freedoms.
Think of the first banned book you ever heard of and you think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, banished from bookshelves everywhere for its “obscenity”. Long before Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1955 or Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988 (what is it about bearded men and banned books?), Lawrence’s novel about illicit love had scandalised pre-war Britain to the extent that they felt it necessary to ban the book for 30 years after its publication. While lines like “he laid his hand on her shoulder, and softly, gently, it began to travel down the curve of her back…with a blind stroking motion, to the curve of her crouching loins” may have shocked (and maybe excited?) in 1928, the ban was almost certainly not about the book’s graphic sexual content.
Lady Chatterley was anathema to the establishment not so much for its supposed indecencies its anti-establishment stance. He subverted the class-order and, in doing so, questioned the status quo. That more than anything needed to be suppressed. When Penguin won a landmark case in 1960 allowing it to publish the unexpurgated book, three million copies were sold in the first three months alone. The two world wars had swept away much that the ruling classes held dear and there was no point in keeping the revolutionary ideas in Lady Chatterley under wraps anymore.
Despite this victory, Lawrence was never fully accepted. He was the quintessential outsider. Born into a poor family in Eastwood in Nottinghamshire, he was destined to be a miner like his father. Except that he and – maybe more importantly – his educated mother, had other ideas. He was swimming against the tide right from the start. Deciding to write and have his work published at a time when working-class writers were thin on the ground was an act of rebellion in itself. Throughout his life he was dogged by the same lack of acceptance, which eventually sent him travelling all over the world on his “savage pilgrimage”, attempting to escape England, even as he tried – and failed – to resettle a number of times.
Despite having a prodigious amount of work published, Lawrence felt rejected by the establishment, and with good reason. His early novel, The Rainbow, was banned in 1915 for 11 years for (what else?) “obscenity”. His focus on the physical aroused, but it also aroused suspicion. He was then expelled from Cornwall, on charges of spying. In the year before his death, his collection of poems, Pansies, was impounded, as were his paintings. The obituaries on his demise too were mostly dismissive but 20 years later, he was being hailed as one of the 20th century’s literary greats. Another 30 years on though, his reputation had suffered again. Yet through it all, his work would be reprinted, taught and adapted into numerous films and plays, and even a musical in 2013.
His profoundly uneasy relationship with the establishment was never more apparent than in this last year when he was both the guiding light of Nottingham’s successful UNESCO City of Literature bid and deeply revered by its creative community, but also inconsequential enough for the municipality to shut down one of the few museums dedicated to him, the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre, despite high-profile pleas for its rescue from filmmakers Glenda Jackson, Rosamund Pike and William Ivory. Thus, in death as in life, Lawrence remains a David versus Goliath symbol of rebellion to rally around, a ground-breaking (and not with a miner’s pickaxe as might have been expected) teller of truths.
“If there weren’t so many lies in the world…I wouldn’t write at all,” he had said. And banning books has ever been about burying facts. Truths that might mobilise those who have been kept in the dark into overturning the accepted order of things. It has everything to do with keeping people in their place, and nothing at all with shielding our “frail”sensibilities or maintaining the peace. Nor is it a thing of the past.
In these intolerant times, challenging or banning books that present a different point of view to mainstream belief is back in vogue, with school-shelf space for even classics like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men being questioned in the US. In the same period, books with unconventional perspectives such as Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman or Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus have been systematically challenged in India, while no-questions-asked book banning rolls on relentlessly in the likes of Qatar. But questions need to be asked and action taken, because banning books obscures the truth, narrows our horizons, stemming creativity and progress. Most frighteningly, it puts us in the power of tyrants who ban yet more books in their pursuit of unthinking obedience. Is that the legacy we want to leave our children, one they perpetuate in turn? No, of course not. We need to take a leaf from the patron saint of banned books, literary pariah as well as messiah, D.H. Lawrence and discuss, dissuade and dissent – as well as celebrate those that won.
Shreya Sen-Handley writes and illustrates for the British and Indian media, teaches creative writing in England and is Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature ambassador. Her memoir Memoirs of My Body (HarperCollins) is set for release in 2017.