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Is Fifty Shades of Grey the Lady Chatterley’s Lover of the 21st Century?
The erotic novel, and trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey has set the publishing, and social media, world ablaze topping best seller lists around the globe. The book, which contains explicit erotic scenes featuring bondage and sadism, has already hit headlines by being banned from some libraries in the US, with the justification by Florida’s Library Services Director that “it’s not a classic”. However on the shelves of those same libraries you are also likely to find a well thumbed copy of D.H. Lawrence’s classic novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was considered so controversial that it’s publishers Penguin Books were taken to court. So, what impact have “Thrill Seeker Erika” and “Dirty Bertie’s” books had on sex and the World of Literature? And, is Fifty Shades of Grey the Lady Chatterley’s Lover of the 21st Century?
First published in May 2011, the novel by British author E.L. James focuses on the relationship and graphic sexual encounters of college graduate Anastasia Steele and a young, billionaire businessman Christian Grey. Lawrence’s novel is a story about a young woman, Constance Chatterley, trapped in an unhappy marriage with a disabled and impotent, aristocratic mine owner, Sir Clifford. She finds her life lacking, and unable to have sexual relations with her husband, is attracted to and eventually falls in love with her husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors.
In Fifty Shades of Grey, 21 year old, Anastasia Steele is a virgin, much to the shock of the sexually experienced Grey. While in Lady Chatterley’s Lover despite an early sexual experience in her teens after several years of sex-less marriage even Constance Chatterley’s father comes to describe her as a “half-virgin”. As both couples embark upon an affair, their sexual relationship becomes a central aspect of their intimacy and marks a sexual awakening in both women, with Steele repeatedly referring to her ‘inner goddess’.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover successfully broke a number of sexual taboos including the immorality of extra-marital activity with the added value of being someone well below Lady Chatterley’s social standing as well as its frank sexual descriptions;
“Tha’s got such a nice tail on thee,’ he said, in the throaty caressive dialect. “Tha’s got the nicest arse of anybody. It’s the nicest, nicest woman’s arse as is! An’ ivery bit of it is woman, woman sure as nuts.”
Mellors, a working class gamekeeper, is in contrast to the central male character in Fifty Shades of Grey, although their mutual appreciation of the female form is clear. Christian Grey is a super rich, impeccably dressed, successful businessman with a need to control everything in his life and dominate his sexual partners;
“He places his hand on my naked behind, softly fondling me, stroking around and around with his flat palm. And then his hand is no longer then… and he hits me-hard. Ow! My eyes spring open in response to the pain.”
But, while the scandal surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover was certainly notable in Lawrence’s own lifetime, it was not until the 1960 court case, when Penguin Books fought to publish the unexpurgated version of this novel, that both D.H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover became household names. The trial, a test case under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 that made it possible for publishers to escape conviction if they showed the work had literary merit, took place between 20th October and 2nd November and was a major event in the country.
In the opening statement for the prosecution Mervyn Griffith-Jones tells the jury that the book “… commends, and indeed it sets out to commend, sensuality almost as a virtue. It encourages, and indeed even advocates, coarseness and vulgarity of thought and of language”. To illustrate this point he attempted to shock the jury by highlighting Lawrence’s frequent use of four-letter words: “The word “fuck” or “fucking” appears no less than thirty times… “Cunt” fourteen times; “balls” thirteen times; “shit” and “arse” six times apiece; “cock” four times; “piss” three times, and so on.”
While the defence, Gerald Gardiner, later examined Lawrence’s use of these words, and his technique of repetition and reiteration, knowing this was an important issue for the trial. The witnesses for the defence argued that this initially shocking sexual language was an essential part of the literary merit of the novel.
At the end of the trial, after hearing thirty-five expert witnesses testifying for the defence in favour of the book, including academics, teachers, writers, publishers, and religious leaders, and none for the prosecution, the jury reached its verdict. On 2nd November 1960, after six days of arguments and three hours of deliberation, the jury came out in favour of Penguin, with a verdict of “not guilty”.
Penguin could now go ahead and release the book in full, changing Britain’s censorship laws forever. On 10th November 200,000 copies went on sale, for the same price as ten cigarettes, putting it in easy reach of women and the working classes. There were queues outside bookshops, and copies sold out the same morning. Some figures suggest that within a year two million copies were sold, and even today this is almost certainly the best-selling Lawrence novel published by Penguin.
Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover between October 1926 and January 1928. He had no doubts about the controversial nature of his book, and knew that it would run foul of the English obscenity laws;
“I am in a quandary about my novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s what the world would call very improper. But you know, it’s not really improper – I always labour at the same thing, to make the sex relation valid and precious, instead of shameful. And this novel is the furthest I’ve gone.”
This was a writer with a track record in pushing the boundaries of literature with his 1915 novel The Rainbow, which explore the topic of female sexuality, seized by police and burned. In the end he published the Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately in Florence, and the furore surrounding the novel began. Initially as the novel had not been published in England no official ban could be imposed on the book, although it was later added to a list of pornographic material. While many contemporaries championed his genius, others were shocked, instantly branding it as obscene. Copies of the book were seized or refused by booksellers in both England and America, and Lawrence had to rely on his network of friends to circulate copies. But, by the end of the year the books were all but sold out.
Fifty Shades of Grey, was first released as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback in May 2011 by The Writers’ Coffee Shop, a virtual publisher based in Australia. With a restricted marketing budget they relied largely on book blogs for early publicity, and like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, sales of the novel were boosted by word-of-mouth recommendation.
The jury may still be out on the literary merit of Fifty Shades of Grey but its remarkable success cannot be denied. The book is the first in a best-selling Fifty Shades trilogy which has sold over forty million copies worldwide, with book rights having been sold in thirty-seven countries and Fifty Shades of Grey now the fastest adult novel of all time.
Through Fifty Shade of Grey James has been able to tap into an existing genre to titillate her readers and explore a world of sexual fantasy. The novel was written at the right time just as e-books, with the development of Kindle and the Internet, were granting anonymity to the readers and the popularity of social media helped spread word of its notoriety causing the book to go mainstream.
Lawrence knew that Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s sexual content and the language he used would be shocking but he was ambitious and wanted people to think differently about the importance of sexual relations between men and women. He allowed nothing to be held back; with sex not the overriding theme of his novel but something that allows for the frank exploration of other ideas.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was D.H. Lawrence’s final and most infamous novel before he died, of tuberculosis, at the age of forty-four in March 1930. His novel is evidence of his controversial beliefs in the overriding importance of sexual relations, in a world he saw as being ruined by intellectual and industrial concerns. The book not only changed his reputation forever but also become his only best seller and earned him more money than all the rest of his career.
Lawrence was an outsider, with both his personal and professional life plagued with controversy. Born in 1885, in the mining town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, Lawrence with the help of his ambitious mother, escaped the pull of the pit to write as well as go onto attend University and train as a Teacher. In 1912 he fell in love with another man’s wife, Frieda Weekly, who he later married in 1914. In 1913 his novel Sons and Lovers was banned from public libraries. Later some of his novels and poems were seized by police; there was even a Home Office file with his name on it. Even a move from pen to paintbrush led to controversy, with an exhibition of Lawrence’s work at the Warren Gallery, London in 1929, raided and thirteen paintings, including all of those showing pubic hair, removed by the authorities.
In contrast E. L. James, real name Erika Leonard, is a former television executive who lives in West London with her husband of over twenty years, and their two teenage sons. She describes the three novels as “my midlife crisis, writ large… all my fantasies in there, and that’s it.” Some critics have described the book as “poorly written” and “appalling” but this hasn’t stopped the author being listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in April 2012.
Despite Lawrence’s, or “Dirty Bertie’s”, liberal intentions the original publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover brought with it its share of negative media reactions with one newspaper taking the headline “Shameful Book – A Landmark in Evil” explaining that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “the most evil outpouring that has ever besmirched the literature of our country”. Lawrence reacted badly to this lack of understanding, “Nobody likes being called a cesspool”. Branded “Mummy porn” Fifty Shades of Grey has also had its critics, being described as “disturbing”, “disgusting” and “The slimiest piece of filth hell ever threw up” by one Christian reviewer.
Today cursing in public and depiction of sexualised images is almost commonplace but in 1928 Lawrence was a Revolutionary and the world wasn’t ready for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Now however Lawrence’s work is seen as a significant event in the Sexual Revolution.
Is Fifty Shades of Grey the new Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Lawrence’s described Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a bomb “let’s hope it’ll explode and let in some fresh air.” It did explode bringing in a new phase of openness to the 20th Century, ending the taboo on sexual discussion in art and entertainment. Fifty Shades of Grey has brought about yet another phase of openness that pushes readers understanding of sexuality and pleasure, to a mass audience. It is unlikely that Lawrence would want to have been associated with this type of literary erotica but it he would have no doubt been supportive of the frank discussion of sex and sexual discovery and reawakening the book, and it’s trilogy, has brought its readers.
During his short life D. H. Lawrence produced a vast collection of work and today this legacy is celebrated in his hometown of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, through the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum and D.H. Lawrence Heritage Centre. This heritage attraction, along with its annual D.H. Lawrence Festival celebration in September, helps thousands of visitors discover more about this often misunderstood writer. It may be too early in E.L. Jame’s career to establish if she will continue at this level of commercial success however the Fifty Shades of Grey marketing machine is currently working overtime with a Hollywood film already in the pipeline. So, in the future is there likely to be a Fifty Shades of Grey Museum with the star attraction Grey’s “Red Room of Pain”? It could only be a matter of time.
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