Monthly Archives: October 2019

Sex in the Sixties: “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and the Pill

The PIll in the Sixties

Sex was complicated in the ’60s.  Women wanted to get laid but they didn’t want to get pregnant or the clap.  

Many critics and sociologists believe sex became less complicated for women in the ‘60s.  In Celia Brayfield’s brilliant book,  Rebel Writers:  The Accidental Feminists, she attributes this phenomenon in Britain to two events:  the legal publication in 1960 of the unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (formerly banned) and the introduction of the birth control pill by the NHS in 1961.

I want to add here that many counterculture women in the U.S. did not consider the pill safe, and opted for other methods of birth control—the diaphragm, the IUD, condoms, and tubal ligation.  

Still, I am fascinated by Celia Brayfield’s interpretation.  

In Britain the “age of ignorance” began to fade away in the early sixties, with a loosening of general attitudes towards sex.  In 1960 a pivotal moment arrived when Penguin Books was acquitted of the charge of publishing obscene material in its edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—a book in which the word “fuck” appeared eight times on one page.  In the words of Geoffrey Robertson QC, one of Britain’s leading liberal lawyers, “No other jury verdict has had such a profound social impact.”  A few months later, in 1961, the contraceptive pill, which was almost 100% effective, became available for the first time through the National Health Service, but only to married women, although a very small number of specialist clinics accepted patients without worrying about their marital status.  By 1964, half a million women in Britain were using oral contraception and it was made legally available to women from 1967, although the provision was not widespread and restricted to special clinics for some years afterwards. 

Brayfield delves into social history as well as literary analysis in this fascinating study of seven women writers of the ’60s:  Shelagh Delaney, Edna O’Brien, Lynne Reid-Banks, Charlotte Bingham, Nell Dunn, Virginia Ironside and Margaret Forster.

I strongly recommend Rebel Writers, but I wonder if Lady Chatterley’s Lover had that great an impact on women?  Most of Lawrence’s books are erotic.

But it’s about the censorship, of course.  Attitudes were changing.  The unexpurgated edition of LCL was published by Grove Press in 1959 in the U.S.

It’s not as good as The Rainbow, though.

Yoga Before Dawn & Other Delusions

This morning I had a dramatic thought when I opened my eyes at five o’clock.  I will start a new exercise regimen.  I will do yoga every day, I said to myself peppily.  Doing yoga before dawn would be the equivalent of imbibing a mystical drug that reveals the meaning of life.  And I loved the image of myself as a graceful aging woman who does Sun Salutations.

Alas, I am not delusional.  I will never be that stretchy woman.  I might lift an occasional hefty book over my head, but I have no time for yoga.  As I drank coffee and read my book, I forgot about doing the Downward Dog.

Aging is a long wrangle with flexibility, strength, expensive facial creams, and cardiovascular exercise.  And you learn that you grow older even if you stretch, lift weights, cut carbs, constantly moisturize, run, bicycle, and go to the gym.

Not surprisingly, my  favorite exercise is going to the bookstore. I recently walked there, going the long way, climbing up and down hills.  I wasn’t out of breath, but I was surprisingly tired.  Once there, I sank into a chair exhausted.   The real reason I read the first few chapters of the new novel by Elif Sharak was that I was too tired to go home.

The next day, my hamstrings were ridiculously tight.

This would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.  Strange to say, I was a frenetic exerciser for years.  My hamstrings were never tight, they were loose.  Walking, Dancercise, exercise classes—I was so healthy that my resting pulse was 42.  Once when I was sick, my husband had to explain to a doctor my low pulse was not from incipient heart failure, it was from cardiovascular exercise.  I was so proud of that low pulse–and now I know it was mostly about being young.

And so I need to do yoga, I told myself.  I have to be able to do hills.

Tomorrow, I start.


Light Reading: Future Politics on the Planet Earth

Ah, Sunday! My favorite day of the week. Slouching around in L. L. Bean sweatpants, repotting a plant or two. 

And then I sat down to read the newspaper. I am  horrified by reports of the wild fires in California and the power outages for millions of people.  The Democratic race for president is still light reading at this point, because it is so far away, so I focused on that. 

But several bad news items caught my eye.  

For instance, Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke allegedly said that he “was open to allowing people to use assault weapons at gun ranges and hunting clubs.”  In the past he has declared he would ban assault weapons, so my guess is this quote was out of context.  

Then in The New York Times (Oct. 22), I read a depressing article about elite members of the Democratic party turning on their own.   Apparently they are concerned  about whether Joe Biden can beat Trump and are thinking about finding someone new to enter the race.  And they think Elizabeth Warren is too liberal, and that Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, would not get the black vote.  

So whom do they like?

Several high-profile politicians say they’ve been approached and would stomp out of their dusty stables and run for president if they thought they could win, but they doubt there will be an opening.  Among them are Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.  That’s all we need:  a rerun of politicians past.  I voted for them both, but they have had their turn. 

Then there are the obscure guys who campaigned last spring and dropped out because they didn’t have the support.   If you recognize the names Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor, and  Sherrod Brown, a senator from Ohio, you are ahead of me.  Who?  Why?

Let us pray that no more Democrats enter the race.  The field is too crowded.

But if they can get Oprah, she could beat anyone.  Celebrity vs. celebrity.

Are You Pretentious? Cicero’s Book Signing & Other Encounters

“Cicero Denouncing Catiline,” The Comic History of Rome.

Have you ever met one of your favorite writers?  Was he/she glazed after lecturing to 100 people and giving autographs to the whole audience? Did he/she get your name wrong?  You will hilariously show everyone the signed title page, “Best wishes to Carrie (from illegible).”  (Your name is Mary, or perhaps Kelly.)

That writer may not have been at the peak of his/her charm at the event. And the less you expect, the better.  Some writers are amiable and make an effort (you have bought their book, after all), others are too busy craning their neck at the editor in the back of the room.

One guesses that Cicero was too busy networking to chat with fans.  This, however, would not have bothered Dickens’s Mrs. Blimber, an eccentric character in Dickens’s Dombey and Son.  She  would make the best of any encounter—because she says she wishes she could have met Cicero.

Mrs. Blimber has not read Cicero, but she is married to one of Dickens’s most rigid classical headmaster/teachers, Doctor Blimber.

Mrs. Blimber…was not learned herself, but she pretended to be, and that did quite as well.  She said at evening parties, that if she could have known Cicero, she thought she could have died contented. It was the steady joy of her life to see the Doctor’s young gentlemen go out walking, in the largest possible shirt-collars, and the stiffest possilbe cravats.  It was so classical, she said.

She is eloquent about the classics after Mr. Dombey enrolls his  six-year-old son Paul at the school. She gushes that she envies Paul.

“Like a bee, Sir,” said Mrs. Blimber, with uplifted eyes, “about to plunge into a garden of the choicest flowers, and sip the sweets for the first time.  Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Plautus, Cicero.  What a world of honey have we here.”

Back to writers:  have you met a favorite writer?  Was it inspiring, or a let-down?  

Tell all, please!  I used to go to a lot of readings.  Nowadays I stay home and read the book.

NOTE:  I may or may not have a signed copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  First I asked his brother, who looked just like him.  Then Ken Kesey himself (I think) doodled a flower on the title page.  I treasure this book.  Signed or not, it’s a good story.

Loving Mediocrity: The Digital Generation vs. “David Copperfield”

Will they get off the phone to read David Copperfield?

The other day I blogged about a teacher who claimed in a post at a Millennial blog that she hates the classics.  Not only does she loathe Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Emily Bronte, but she believes that Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the seventeenth century.  

I wish I hadn’t read this woman’s boastful declaration of ignorance.  Why ? Because I do not want to be the kind of person who despises the younger generation. 

“This is the end,” my husband said, laughing.

 It is, though we laugh.  We dismiss this problem from our mind, because it is not our line of work.

This problem of barely literate, proud, classics-bashing students is becoming the norm, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. We have all read about students who demand “trigger warnings” and decline to read books on the syllabus that may trigger bad memories.  (That makes for a lighter reading load, doesn’t it?)   And if I may interject something  controversial, we all have been (choose one or more) cyber-bullied, sexually harasssed, threatened, beaten, mugged, raped, or traumatized by war.  Reading great disturbing literature  can even be therapeutic.

There is now a glut of articles about falling enrollment in the humanities. The digital age has changed the ball game: YouTube, Twitter, and other social media are now frantically integrated in some classes to engage students.  Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,  believes attention spans have shortened since he published his book in 2009.  His thesis  is “that youths are too caught up in social media to outgrow adolescent ignorance.” 

Nowadays, it is worse, he says.  Instead of just making phone calls, students write 3,500 texts a month and take countless selfies.  He says, “ I disallow screens in my classes and make freshmen write papers by hand, preferably in cursive. Between classes, I sit on the quad and count the kids rushing from one building to another as they focus on that tiny screen to see what monumental things have happened during their 90 minutes offline.”

In The American Scholar, Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College and professor of English at Drexel  University, writes about  teaching a 10-week one-credit course on Dickens’s David Copperfield.  Most of the students read very little, but committing to one long book  a semester gets them to engage with a classic.  She is proud of the success of this program and has expanded it.  She wrote in 2016,  “A filmmaker colleague will teach John Ford’s classic exploration of racism, The Searchers, in the summer, and an art history professor will teach Thomas Eakins’s The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic, paintings that depict the evolution of surgical procedure, in the fall, when they will be hanging together in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Again, sounds like a light load, doesn’t it?  But many students admitted to Cohen that they thought David Copperfield was the magician! Now they’ve read the book.

Bravo!  Whatever works.

N.B.  There have always been mediocre, even bad, teachers. I do not mean to idealize the teachers of my generation.  During my teaching days,  I once sat in on a college composition class in which the students were asked to do two things:  free writing for fifteen minutes (most spent it surfing on the net on their computers) and then the teacher went around the class and asked each student to identify the beginning and end of a paragraph in an essay.  No discussion of the essay, mind.  Just look at the indentations. Surely we weren’t first-grade prodigies, but we learned about paragraphs  from the Dick and Jane basal reader!

Charlotte Bingham’s “Coronet among the Weeds” & Celia Brayfield’s “Rebel Writers”

Are you looking for a fascinating read?  I recommend Celia Brayfield’s Rebel Writers:  The Accidental Feminists, an astute study of seven  writers of the ‘50s and ‘60s,  Shelagh Delaney, Edna O’Brien, Lynne Reid Banks, Nell Dunn, Charlotte Bingham, and Virginia Ironside, and Margaret Forster.   In their groundbreaking early work, these women questioned assumptions about sex, class, work, female friendships, and marriage. Brayfield says this spontaneous women’s literary “movement” is parallel to the “Angry Young Men” (Kinglsey Amis, John Osborne, John Brayne, Alan Sillitoe, etc.).  And I have gobbled Brayfield’s delightful book like a cookie, because I am a great fan of five of the seven writers.

I was also lucky to find a copy of Charlotte Bingham’s charming coming-of-age novel, Coronet among the Weeds, published in 1963 when she was 20.  This autobiographical novel was billed as an autobiography when it was first published.

I thoroughly enjoyed it:  it’s like Nancy Mitford meets Dodie Smith and J. D. Salinger.  Like Charlotte, the narrator of Coronet is the daughter of an impoverished lord and a playwright mother.  

She doesn’t worry about the future, but her parents do:  she is too busy with droll observations of people and dissecting society and class.  Some of her friends want to marry and are very romantic, but Charlotte is holding out for a “superman.” She  divides the men she knows into three types:  weeds, drips, and leches.  The only superman she knows is an actor, who, alas, is older and has other commitments.

Meanwhile, she unenthusiastically dances with “weeds” (the dull chinless men she knows), enjoys a year in Paris after leaving convent school,  becomes a Beatnik in London (she finds it boring), then a deb (just as boring), and then a secretary (hardly fulfilling for a bad typist). She worries about being fat and having no chin–typical!–and at one party wakes up in a closet and crawls out into a darkened bedroom full of couples making out, while her friend has already put on her face cream and climbed into bed, ignoring them.  Despite bad parties and horrible jobs, she is buoyant and funny.  “I’ll tell you another corney thing.  I’d like to write a love poem to the whole world.  Really I would.  Sometimes I love it so much I could die.”

Light, bubbly, comical, realistic, cheerful, and occasionally a bit sad.

Here is a delightful quote from Coronet about debs who hide out in the loo.  (Who hasn’t?)

Loos are very important during the season.  I should think they’re practically the most important bit of the season for some girls.  I know one girl who did her whole season in the loo.  She used to take this small edition of War and Peace about with her in her evening bag.  She got through it seven times in one season.  She was quite a slow reader.  Migo had a copy of Gone with the Wind she hid in the Dorchester loo.  There were a terrible lot of dances at the Worcester, so she just curled up with it till it was time to go home.  They couldn’t go home straight after dinner because their mothers would be furious and say they were failures.  It’s one thing to be a failure.  But it’s a hell if your mother keeps telling you.  And some of them could go on for hours.

The Future of Education: Why Is It Trendy to Trash the Classics?

Although I am trying to be peaceful and positive— avoiding the crowd, steering clear of argument, making chitchat for the greater good, bicycling to save a devastated planet—I have decided to respond to an irresponsible, depressing article published at the Millennial blog, Book Riot“When You Hate the Classics, But You’re an English Teacher.” 

First, let me say I have known many splendid, well-read English teachers.  And yet I have been appalled by others who have not cracked a classic since college.

The writer Lily Dunn may well be of the latter persuasion.  She begins, “Hello, my name is Lily and I hate the Classics. Also, I am an English teacher.”

She writes,

I know what you’re thinking.…but wouldn’t it be more hypocritical if I made my students read books I pretended to love while secretly wishing I could bring the dead author back to life just to tell him (it’s usually a him) how overrated he is? 

Indeed, Dunn is an equal-opportunity enemy of the classics: she spares neither sex in her ravings.  She despises Hawthorne’s The  Scarlet Letter, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Melville’s Moby Dick,  Mark Twain (she finds the dialect too challenging), Joyce’s Ulysses, and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.  

One does wonder if she has finished  any of these books.  She writes of her loathing of Thomas Hardy, “I can’t expect a 17th century author to be all woke.”  Can’t you imagine her professor writing gently in the margin, “Victorian”? 

I am sure Book Riot has some talented, bright contributors who could have written a thoughtful essay about the classics.

When you click on Dunn’s bio, you will discover that she is not a high school English literature teacher, as she implies, but a literacy teacher in Hong Kong.   


Visiting the Charles Dickens Museum and Revisiting “Great Expectations”

The Charles Dickens Museum

I traveled to London last month to visit the Dickens Museum.

Very, very foolish, I know. Even with a cut-rate deal on a flight, no American flies to London to visit the Charles Dickens Museum.  

Still, I felt exhilarated as I walked briskly through the Holborn district to 48  Doughty Street, where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839.   After buying a ticket, I euphorically explored the Georgian house, using the self-guided tour pamphlet.  The dim autumn light poured through the windows,  and it was easy to imagine Dickens returning from one of his 10-mile walks on a cool day and picking up his pen. The museumgoers all had the look of Victorian guests, albeit in modern slacks and jacket, eager to listen to Dickens read aloud in the drawing room from his manuscripts, which he reputedly did.

The Dickens Museum is both authentic and commercial: the perfect blend, honestly, for museumgoers with different tastes.  In the dining room, the table is set with  plates bearing the names of famous guests,  like Thackeray and John Forster.  The first time I visited, I thought the plates a little corny.  But lo!   This time, I wondered who would dominate the chat at the table.  Would Dickens be in competition with Thackeray? 

Dickens’s desk.

Upstairs,  I looked with awe at the desk where Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and began Barnaby Rudge.  (The desk followed him to other houses:  he wrote all his books on it.) I squinted at first editions and manuscripts in his library.   I admired the desk he designed for his public readings.   And I learned he didn’t cut his hair on his American tour because fans kept asking for locks of hair, and he was nervous about it.

And then I decided to read more Dickens.  I had recently finished Little Dorrit (which I wrote about here).  I considered The Pickwick Papers, but instead picked Great Expectations, a short book I had somehow never returned to.

I wondered, Can I read this in a week? (Yes, because it’s 400-some pages, as opposed to 800-some pages.)  And then I realized, Oh dear, I was doing Internet speak:  conflating the “anxiety” of finishing a  (self-)“challenge” with real anxiety over crucial issues like climate change and war.  The real issue we consider on the internet is, I think, how to get control.  And so the focus is tiny.

And, yes, I finished Great Expectations in a week (by the skin of my teeth!), by reading half of it yesterday.  It is “compactly perfect,” as Shaw said, but, in my view, not the equal of the dark but flamboyant Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.   Dickens needs  room, I think.

Still, Great Expectations is perfectly structured, following two parallel lines of narrative.  The narrator, Pip,  an orphan raised by an abusive older sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, and her kind but slow-witted blacksmith husband, Joe, is astonished when Miss Havisham, a weird, wealthy old woman who  has never left her cobwebby house since she was jilted, invites him to come over to “play.”  Here, she wears her wedding gown and is raising an orphan girl, Estella, to hate men and hurt them. Of course Pip falls in love with beautiful Estella, who  cannot love Pip—or anyone.  

Illustration of Miss Havisham by Harry Furniss

But something traumatic and much darker, or darker on the surface, happened to Pip when he was very young, sitting in the graveyard contemplating his parents’ tombstones.  (He never met his parents.) An escaped convict named Magwitch accosted him and threatened him with death if he did not bring him food and a file to saw off his manacles. Magwitch, however, has a sense of justice:  when he is caught hours later, he calls out that he himself stole the food and the file, to save Pip from trouble.

Which of these two adults has committed the greater crime?  Miss Havisham or Magwitch? As the novel progresses, we learn more about their histories (which do intersect).   And when Pip is told he has an anonymous patron, who wants to raise him from blacksmith’s apprentice to gentleman, he ascends into hubris.  He does not visit Joe, because he is ashamed of him.  And he assumes that Miss Havisham is the patron and intends him for Estella.  

Pip is annoying and silly, but we all remember foolish things we did when we were young.  And we didn’t inherit a fortune.  

Great Expectations is exciting, suspenseful, and, of course, often comical.  You must read the scene where  Pip and Herbert see a very amateurish production of Hamlet in which an old neighbor of Pip’s plays Hamlet.

Here’s an excerpt:

Several curious little circumstances transpired as the action proceeded. The late king of the country not only appeared to have been troubled with a cough at the time of his decease, but to have taken it with him to the tomb, and to have brought it back. The royal phantom also carried a ghostly manuscript round its truncheon, to which it had the appearance of occasionally referring, and that, too, with an air of anxiety and a tendency to lose the place of reference which were suggestive of a state of mortality. It was this, I conceive, which led to the Shade’s being advised by the gallery to ‘turn over!’ –a recommendation which it took extremely ill.

Dickens is so much fun.

Dreaming in Latin: My Affair with Cicero & Chortling over Ovid

Every autumn I sit under multiple blankets, drinking cups of chai, surrounded by dictionaries, poring over my favorite literature in a foreign language. I swear the comfort of dictionaries—a word can change its meaning entirely when combined in different phrases, in different contexts—makes it possible to escape from the gloom of chilly fall days.  Recently, reading in another language distracted me from my fierce fights with 25-mile-per-hour winds on my bike, and a wish that our leaves would blow into somebody else’s yard.

 Thank God for the charm of languages!  Hipsters read French, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish, travel, and perhaps join the Peace Corps, while nerds read classical languages and often stay home.   Much as I love Latin, you will not get social points for spending the summer reading Statius.  And claiming you dream in Latin is, in my opinion, always going too far. That is not to say that I have not gone far: and yet, one does not want to be a don or a scholar (unless you’re Mary Beard).  A language is more than words: it shapes the culture and the structure of thought.  It is difficult to translate this reality to people who do not know a foreign language. And in the U.S., where we seldom bother to learn other languages, xenophobia grows.

I hide the fact at dinner parties that my  “affair” with  Cicero, a binge-reading of his speeches and letters, turned into a sympathetic imaginary dialogue with this brilliant, annoying, insecure orator.  In a flash,  I understood his character and the politics of the first century B.C. as I had never experienced through reading history.  I flashed on the elaborate networking, the insane politics, the chances Cicero took with prosecuting mobsters:  he wanted political fame so desperately that he wrote letters begging  friends to write the history of his suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy against Rome. 

I see Latin poetry through scrims of different readings and interpretation over the decades.  Is Ovid’s myth of Daphne and Apollo in Metamorphoses humorous or tragic? Is it about unrequited love or rape? Probably both. Cupid shoots the god Apollo with an arrow of love and shoots the nymph Daphne with an arrow of repulsion.  Daphne runs away, and the out-of-shape Apollo chases her,  begging her to run more slowly, promising he will run more slowly, too.  She is dedicated to the chaste goddess Diana, and begs her father, Peneus, the river god, to  save her.  He turns her into a laurel tree, which Apollo obnoxiously claims as his own.

As an undergraduate I scribbled the following irreverent remarks in the margins: 

  • Couldn’t Peneus have done better? Why a tree?
  • Is she a lesbian?  Is that the arrow of repulsion? 
  • Why does Prof think this erotic?  The wreath holds her rumpled hair “without law.”  She  is a mess and prob stinks from running.  Unshaven legs, I’m sure.  A modern feminist.  (N.B. We didn’t often shave our body hair back the.)

I could have garbled on like this forever, but I doubt it went into my paper on Ovid. 

Or perhaps it did.