Here’s a well-known pub quiz trick question: “What year was James Joyce’s Ulysses banned in Ireland?” Answer: “Ulysses was never banned in Ireland.” Because Irish literary censorship became so notoriously fierce, it’s always assumed that Joyce’s edgy masterpiece was banned. But it never was.
Ulysses was first published on February 2, 1922 – the centenary is just coming up – and it created a stir from the start. As parts of it had been published previously in an American magazine, it was already the subject of an American obscenity trial even before it was published, in 1921. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice considered it obscene and campaigned against the book for years – copies were routinely burned by the US postal service.
It was also banned in Britain, and although the ban was officially lifted in 1934, it still attracted disapproval – the historian Paul Johnson had his copy confiscated by customs officials on arriving at Dover in 1954.
France was where Ulysses was first published by Sylvia Beach, and among customs officials, France was where all the “dirty books” came from. Maurice Girodias’s Olympus Press in Paris had published all the erotic stuff which couldn’t be legally published in the English-speaking world, from the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom to Henry Miller’s explicit novels, like Tropic of Cancer. France was permissive about sexual matters, and it was the sexual content in Ulysses which distressed the English-speaking world in 1922.
Even Virginia Woolf, who recognised that Joyce was a genius, nevertheless disliked Ulysses, calling it a “low-bred” book. She “shuddered” when she dipped into it. The novelist and critic Arnold Bennett declared it “more indecent... than the majority of professedly pornographic books”, although he recognised it as “dazzlingly original”.
The charges of indecency were prompted by the episodes about masturbation – especially Molly Bloom’s soliloquy (42 pages long, without a single full stop), which is a kind of poetic evocation of a woman bringing herself to orgasm. And such an explicit treatment of sexuality was, then, shocking – even for progressives like the Bloomsbury set, who had advocated sexual liberation. Previously, erotic material had been confined to the underworld of porn merchants and salacious publications: but now, it was appearing in highbrow literature.
DH Lawrence’s frank treatment of sexuality was also considered offensive, and the first publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928 was heavily censored and abridged: the unexpurgated edition did not appear until after the famous obscenity trial in 1960.
The reason why Ulysses wasn’t banned in Ireland is that nobody submitted it to the censorship board. A book could be banned either because it contravened the law (Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex was banned because it advocated contraception before that law was changed), or it could be submitted by two readers as offending public morals, and many readers (often lady librarians acting with library committees) submitted titles. A trifling reason could ban a book – a novel by Barbara Cartland was condemned because it contained the word “bastard”.
Nobody on these library committees evidently read Ulysses at the time – or perhaps, as has been suggested, people didn’t understand the allusions to masturbation. And I suspect there was another explanation: Ulysses was too expensive to obtain. In 1960, the hardback edition available in Ireland (although not banned, Irish customs, too, had sometimes held it up on a loophole) cost 25 shillings. At this time, £5 was a good wage for an office worker – that is, 100 shillings. If my maths is correct, Joyce’s book would have cost a quarter of a week’s wage.
Ulysses is internationally recognised now as a masterpiece – describing characters’ innermost thoughts in the innovative “stream of consciousness” – and will be widely celebrated as such in February 2022. But for many people in the 1920s, the new candour in literature (and movies) was as concerning rather as widespread porn available to young people on the internet worries parents today. Wouldn’t it lower public morals, and disrespect women?
The League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, held an international convention in 1923 to discuss increased traffic in “evil literature”, and 36 countries signed an agreement to halt trading in obscene material. Ireland was, ironically, the last to sign.
A hundred years on, it is almost compulsory to be familiar with Ulysses, and if reading it is your new year’s resolution, here’s the most accessible way of doing so: it’s a post-modern book – it doesn’t have to be tackled cover to cover. Dip into episodes, any which way you like – and skipping sections (such as the tedious Episode 15, named “Circe”) is entirely acceptable!