22 February 2010

Freedom for Fanny

Yesterday marked the beginning of Freedom to Read Week; I spent much of it stripping wallpaper. Truth be told, I don't much feel like joining the charge led by the Book and Periodical Council and their Freedom of Expression Committee. Their slapdash "Challenged Books and Magazines List" hasn't changed in over a year – still nothing about Rodolphe Girard, Jean-Charles Harvey, the 1961 RCMP raid on the Vancouver Public Library or the temporary embargo placed on The Satanic Verses. Not even the committee's error-ridden work on Lady Chatterley's Lover has been added. A bit of a surprise, really, since the organization saw fit to spread this misinformation by email last August. An "important legal victory", their researcher noted at the time, adding that it is "poorly documented by the historians of literary freedom in Canada".

Not only poorly documented, but entirely ignored in material being distributed by the council and its committee.

It goes without saying that F.R. Scott's defence of Lady Chatte in Brody, Dansky, Rubin v. The Queen is one most important cases in the fight against censorship in this country... and nearly 48 years after the man emerged triumphant from the Supreme Court we're still waiting for the story to be told. When it is written, I think a chapter should be devoted to the coup de grâce delivered two years later by Fanny Hill.

The Globe and Mail, 2 March 1964

John Cleland's "woman of pleasure" received something of a delayed reception in Canada. She was ignored for two centuries, until November 1963 when local police moved in on a Richmond Hill Coles seizing eight copies. Not to be outdone, two months later Toronto police raided two Yonge Street branches, rounding up a couple of thousand more. It was all laughable; even the staid Globe and Mail thought the raids ridiculous, dismissing the police in a 28 January 1964 editorial as a group of "merry men".

During subsequent court proceedings Robertson Davies testified that Fanny Hill was "a Jolly sort of book". Saturday Night editor Arnold Edinborough joined in, praising Cleland's work as "funny, gay and light-hearted." Oh, but then there was the morality squad's Detective-Sergeant William Quennell, who declared that he'd read the book and had found it to be obscene. On 17 February, Judge Everett L. Weaver sided with critic Quennell: "Jollity in its presentation does not purge it of its pornographic taint." Ontarians who have a copy of Cleland's classic need not worry, that December the decision was overturned by the province's Court of Appeal, securing Fanny Hill a place on the bestseller lists.

Chief Justice Dana Porter, father of Julian, father-in-law of Anna.

So, during a week in which the Book and Periodical Council would have me fret over the anonymous Toronto Public Library patron who in 2003 complained about violence in a Richard North Patterson novel, I'll be watching for real threats... and thinking about the words of Chief Justice Dana Porter in rendering the ultimate decision over Fanny Hill:

The freedom to write books, and thus to disseminate ideas, opinions and concepts of the imagination – the freedom to treat with complete candor an aspect of human life and the activities, aspirations and failings of human beings – these are fundamental to progress in a free society.

1 comment:

  1. I've read about American and British censorship and cases but hadn't heard of this -which is your point. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.