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.

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.