An Irishman’s Diary on Lady Chatterly’s Lover and the school history exams

Leo Keohane: the Educational Company of Ireland wrote to the publishers of Lawrence’s book, ‘Movements in European History’, suggesting it would put it forward for inclusion on the secondary schools’ history curriculum

 DH Lawrence: Apart from spending some time in Cloonee House outside Ballinrobe, where he was believed to have written some of his better known novel ‘Women in Love’, Lawrence is generally regarded as having little or no dealings with Ireland. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

DH Lawrence: Apart from spending some time in Cloonee House outside Ballinrobe, where he was believed to have written some of his better known novel ‘Women in Love’, Lawrence is generally regarded as having little or no dealings with Ireland. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Capt Jack White, co-founder of the Irish Citizen Army, once punched DH Lawrence, the celebrated English novelist.

Ironically, they had been arguing over love and how it was manifested in the teachings of Christ. Never one to waste an experience, Lawrence featured the incident in his novel Aaron’s Rod where White is represented as the character Jim Bricknell, an incorrigible Irishman. In fairness to Lawrence, he doesn’t spare himself either; his character Rawdon Lilly, behaves in a provocative manner and fully deserves to be punched (or kicked in the arse, as the novelist Cowper Powys, more satisfyingly describes it).

Apart from spending some time in Cloonee House outside Ballinrobe where he was believed to have written some of his better known novel Women in Love, Lawrence is generally regarded as having little or no dealings with Ireland.

He did however have another more complex, and far more unlikely, connection with this country.

Intermediate Cert

The author of Lady Chatterly’s Lover penned a history book that was considered for use on the old Intermediate Certificate course. In 1926 the Educational Company of Ireland wrote to the Oxford University Press, publishers of Lawrence’s book, Movements in European History, suggesting if certain amendments were made from an Irish perspective that it would put it forward for inclusion on the secondary schools’ history curriculum for the Intermediate Cert.

After a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing and despite the liberal use of the censor’s red pen, Lawrence agreed to the amendments. In general, any criticism of the Catholic Church was to be deleted. On a more specific (and petty) basis, Protestant martyrs, for example, could not be described as going bravely to the stake.

On the other hand, words like connivance, or conspiratorial, were not to be employed when describing actions of the papacy and indeed, any negative adjectives like arrogant or avaricious were not allowed to describe Roman Catholic clerics.

Three thousand copies were published in 1926 and nearly 300 were distributed for review to the various secondary schools. By the end of the year sales were beginning to become quite respectable (nearly 800 sold) when those self-appointed guardians of righteousness intervened in the personage of a Revd Brother Crehan.

He told the Educational Company that it was completely insane and criticised the book for its Protestant bias although, it could be reasonably assumed it was Lawrence rather than the religious prism that was the fundamental problem. In fairness to the Christian Brothers, their outrage at someone like Lawrence writing for schoolchildren would not have been confined to Ireland. The history itself was originally published in England with the author being given as Lawrence H Davis, suggesting that even in that country there may have been a reluctance to embrace him as an educator of children.

For example, an exhibition of his paintings had been raided by the English police and in 1929 copies of Lady Chatterly’s Lover were confiscated. At his death in 1930 his reputation was primarily as a writer of “dirty books” and it took EM Forster to begin a re-assessment by declaring him, in an obituary, to be the “greatest imaginative novelist of our generation”.

Dismayed at sales collapsing, the Educational Company of Ireland suggested it might remove his name as author in Ireland. Despite his exasperation about those “Irish bastards”, Lawrence was willing to agree (his financial situation would never have been very sound). However the English publishers had had enough.

Translation into Irish

There was even a final suggestion mooted to translate the book into Irish but Lawrence’s reputation was such that it damned any salvage operation. Whatever about his work succeeding in England there is a certain irony in the juxtaposition of an author, famed at that time more for his worldliness than his words, with a newly fledged state whose censorious ambitions were matched only by the conservatism of its institutions.

That is, a state with a moral and political climate where a white paper on censorship around that time was entitled “The Committee on Evil Literature” and Kathleen Kirwan, a pundit on the debate on the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1935 suggested that extramarital sex should be made a criminal offence.

Of course, no one seemed to have taken into account the potential readership in all of this. Surely the Inter Cert history students would have applied themselves more assiduously to a work by the author of Lady Chatterly’s Lover if only in the hope, in those more innocent days, of finding “dirty bits”.