Lessons from Lady Chatterly

2010 marked two seemingly unrelated occasions which nonetheless fused  for me as the year began to wind down. First, as book lovers will know, this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Chatterly trial, wherein a jury of 12 at London’s Old Bailey acquitted the publishers of Lady Chatterly’s Lover on charges of obscenity for having published the novel. In addition, in September, I began my work as a teaching assistant as part of my graduate program. The first event marks a major social and cultural turning point of the 20th century and the second was merely a nerve-wracking experience that most involved would probably like to forget as soon as possible. If I’m going to put a positive spin on my abilities as a teacher, I can only say that perhaps I will improve over time and that this first term was a learning experience, the latter of which is no doubt true. Nonetheless, the pointed questions of literary freedom raised by the Chatterly trial have an important lesson to impart for all teachers, no matter the level at which they work.

The broadest issue at play in the crusade against Lawrence’s novel, one which we would like to think is a thing of the past, is that of enforced moral standards from authority figures, whether they be parents, schools, churches, or the state. Particularly, this moral reinforcement was not once which concerned action or harm, but morality in the sphere of thought, publication and art. Geoffrey Robertson, in an eloquent reflection on the trial, writes,

Judges in 1960 regarded themselves, rather more than they do today, as the custodians of moral virtue. In performing this egregious function, they came to blur the distinction between literature and life. Their confusion was well represented by Lord Hailsham, in the parliamentary debate that followed the verdict: “Before I accepted as valid or valuable or even excusable the relationship between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, I should have liked to know what sort of parents they became to the child . . . I should have liked to see the kind of house they proposed to set up together; I should have liked to know how Mellors would have survived living on Connie’s rentier income of £600 . . . and I should have liked to know whether they acquired a circle of friends, or, if not, how their relationship survived social isolation.”

The attitude of the prosecution, and it seems the prevailing general attitude of the time, was that art had a duty not to violate or potentially subvert prevailing social or behavioural norms, not even in depicting the lives of fictional characters. Robertson notes Justice Laurence Byrne’s imploring of the jury to consider,  “whether the book ‘portrays the life of an immoral woman’, to remember the meaning of ‘lawful marriage’ in a Christian country and to reflect that ‘the gamekeeper, incidentally, had a wife also. Thus what the ultimate result there would be is a matter for you to consider.'” In other questions posed to witnesses, such as whether or not they would allow their own daughters to read such alleged filth, the notion of censorship for the sake of protection from thoughts impure and abnormal come through once again. Ian Brown sees this attitude still presenting itself today in crusades to ban certain publications from schools or local libraries. Brown quotes Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, as saying,

In the United States we now have parents following what their children are reading into college. I imagine the reason they want to ban books is that parents are increasingly anxious about the dangerous world they are putting their children into. And books are an easy target. It’s not easy to remove bullying from the world. But if they see a book that has bullying in it, they think they can get rid of the problem by getting rid of the book. And economic anxiety just breeds a lot of protective censorship.

While reason emerged the victor in 1960, the fight for our right to freedom of conscience continues and with it our ability to be thoughtful and critically thinking (read: not morons) beings. Brown’s article concludes that being shocked is certainly not the same as being harmed, and this conclusion of the Chatterly trial gave way to a loose connection between questions of censorship and how I came to view my duties as a teacher.

The question that students, certainly those entering their first year of university, will have to ask themselves, or at least should ask themselves, is simply, “Why are you here?” What should an undergraduate, particularly one in a liberal arts program, hope to achieve over the course of four years of relentless reading and confrontation with authors and ideas? Furthermore, what role is the teacher to play in facilitating any such goals? Now as a graduate student teaching undergraduates, I took a little time to reflect on my own undergraduate experience, asking what of any value I gained out of those four years. The clearest answer, and certainly not the only answer, just the most immediate, is that I underwent a second socialization having been exposed to a barrage of new ideas which expanded my sensibilities and imbibed me with copious new perspectives by which to ask big questions and attempt answer those questions. This usually resulted in more questions than answers, but I only see that as a sign of good scholarship.

More specifically, the idea of a second socialization simply means that we might gain some additional perspectives with which to view the world, realizing that perhaps we didn’t have all the answers as we thought we did and maybe just weren’t as knowing as we thought ourselves to be. Typically, we are raised as carbon copies of our parents, reaching the age of maturity with their values, politics, religion, etc. University brought with it the opportunity to at the very least consider whether or not I genuinely held these beliefs. Looking back on my undergraduate career and my current time as a graduate student, this purpose was always best served by authors and ideas who were at least a tad dangerous in their thinking and shocked me out of my comfort zone.

Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback, read in my first year of university, gave me an entirely new way in which to understand American foreign policy through the eyes of those on the receiving end of what the author called America’s imperial hubris. Perhaps it was the case that terrorism was retaliation for such hubris and not something born simply out of a clash of competing values across civilizations. Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil, both comprised of ideas that can still shock today, called into question how self-evident and immutable conceptions or morality really were or whether or not they were merely convenient constructions. Frantz Fanon showed me the world through the eyes of the colonized and Malcolm X introduced me to the fight faced by the disenfranchised at a particular place and time. The list rages on: Aristotle’s support of slavery, Plato’s benevolent dictatorship, Nozick’s lambasting of the nanny-state, Marx’s ever relevant questioning of the logic of capitalism, and many more which I can’t recall.

University was  a grab-bag of new ideas which I simply couldn’t have fathomed growing up as the son of a truck driver in Scarborough, jumping through the hoops of the public school system and not taking the initiative to seek out these intellectual treasures on my own. The additional benefit was that I had the opportunity to work through these ideas with brilliant professors and teachers who carefully laid out the big ideas and questions implicit in these texts, allowing me to avoid the other extreme of simply accepting point-blank whatever I read just as I might have accepted ideas during my childhood. In simply presenting these ideas in a critical light of their own, I considered that there might be something else outside of my own worldview worth considering. Those who know me might disagree, but I emerged from my undergraduate years as a more thoughtful and sensible individual with a healthier attitude toward new ideas, not just within the confines of academia, but in all aspects of my life.

We are, as the old cliche goes, living in a democracy. A democracy thrives and depends on thinking citizens if anyone wishes to realize those ideals of progress and self-actualization that we claim to hold dear. We’ll never get there by clinging to old ways simply because they provide some semblance of comfort and shelter us from shock. Having truly fallen in love with teaching over the course of this last term and highly anticipating having another go come the new year, I think I’ve established at least one plank of my teaching philosophy.

We have no right to not be shocked or offended, but in fact have a duty as independent thinkers to consistently drench our own beliefs in doubt, measuring them against new and perhaps dangerous ideas while also struggling to reaffirm our own convictions. I’m not the first to come across this realization, and I’ll certainly struggle to execute it, though I hope I’ll have a long career as a teacher to do so. I’ll take inspiration from Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, who summarizes precisely why we love brave and eccentric teachers:

We all want our children to thrive, and kids now also seem to want success — often in the most conventional terms. These desires are to be respected. But a college education is about more than acquiring negotiable skills and knowledge. It’s also about figuring out who you are and what you bring to the world. It’s about understanding that your existing self-conception may leave a lot of things out or may be radically inaccurate. People succeed best when they set themselves to doing what they love, and finding out what you love and beginning to get good at doing it are at the heart of a college education. Good teachers matter because they can surprise you out of your complacency and into new views of yourself and the world. Or — and often this is just as valuable — they can induce you to struggle to affirm intelligently what you’ve previously believed in indolent, unconsidered ways.

Leave a comment


  1. karen

     /  December 22, 2010

    Great post! I’m glad that this article helped you realize what it means to be a great teacher. You should be proud of the work you’ve done for your students! I’m sure that they will look back to their undergrad experience 3 years later and remember how much they’ve learned from you- academics and life-wise. I just copied down the last quote myself =)

    You raised an interesting distinction between shock and offense. Unfortunately, I believe that the “shock” in our culture nowadays does not inhibit the same intellectual value as it once did.

    • I don’t know that my students will necessarily feel that way. This is all theory that I’ve yet to properly execute in practice. Shock is good, and perhaps we’ve become a little bit too timid in dishing it out. But I don’t mind a little bit of straight up offense just for the hell of it since it keeps things from getting dull. Thanks for reading!


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