Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


4. Sex, the Milkman and Lenin

“The book deals,” said the Attorney-General, “with what everybody will recognize as an unsavoury subject – gratification of sexual appetite.” [1]

E.M. Forster died in 1970 and two years later a selection of his work called The Life to Come and Other Stories was published. One of the stories is called What Does it Matter? and the title, points to the idea that runs through the whole book. This is Forster’s picture of official life in Britain, from the church through the schools, the magistrates, the police right down to your local doctor, all lined up in rows saying “No!” Behind them people are furtively and cheerfully saying “What does it matter?” and snatching sexual pleasure together in spite of that massive “No!”

Take, for example, the longest story in the book called The Other Boat. In this Lionel March, an Army officer, breaks away from his education in sexual frigidity and finds in a homosexual affair what Forster calls “luxury, gaiety, kindness, unusualness and delicacy that did not exclude brutal pleasure”. To arrive at this Lionel has to grow beyond his lopsided upbringing. He remembers:

he hadn’t been so much bothered by sex as were some of them. He hadn’t had the time, what with his soldiering duties and his obligations at home as eldest son; and the doc said an occasional wet dream was nothing to worry about. Don’t sleep on your back, though. On this simple routine he had proceeded since puberty. [2]

This simple routine is of course the dismal equipment with which generations of people in this country were supplied to meet the splendour of their own sexuality.

Obviously, sex is an essential human instinct – without it the species would die. But as soon as you start to talk about it and about the forms it takes you move away from the universal towards the specific, the social. In other words, when you start to talk about sexual practices and beliefs in, say, Britain, you bump up against the central fact of British life, namely class divisions.

There’s a good instance of this in Forster’s diary. He wrote that what he wanted was “to love a strong young man of the lower classes, and be loved by him, and even hurt by him. That’s my ticket.” On the face of it this is perhaps a surprising statement to come from a quiet Cambridge don with a large private income. Yet if we look at his fiction we find that he almost never shows people finding sexual happiness within their own circle. Again and again characters have to reach out far beyond their British middle-class setting to find a partner.

In Maurice, as we’ve already seen, the lovers are a Cambridge graduate and a gamekeeper. The same sort of pattern repeats itself in many of the short stories in the Life to Come collection. In Doctor Woolacott it’s a squire and a farmhand. In The Obelisk it’s a suburban housewife and a sailor. In The Life to Come it’s a vicar and an African chief. In Arthur Snatchfold it’s Sir Richard Conway and the milkman. In The Other Boat, it’s Lionel March and a character his brother officers, with customary sensitivity, describe as “a wog”.

You might be tempted to write all this off as one of Forster’s quirks, part. of the price he had to pay for all the disadvantages of a British ruling class upbringing. But once you start looking around at other writers you find that the set-up repeats itself too frequently to have anything to do with Forster’s personality. Fantasising about an escape from the drawing room and Conservative Party fetes into the brutal; sweaty arms of foreigners and/or the working classes fills the fiction that the middle classes have consumed for a century and more.

Victorian pornography, for example, was aimed exclusively at the well-to-do and is full of dreams of this sort. Open Henry Spencer Ashbee’s Index of Forbidden Books at random and instances of this are everywhere. Here’s how he summarises the plot of a typical piece called Eveline: or, The Amours and Adventures of a Lady of Fashion published in London around 1840:

Eveline, or Evelina, a young lady of good family, daughter of Sir John C—, allows herself to be deflowered by her father’s valet on board the packet while crossing to France. She afterwards passes into the arms of her different pages, one a negro, into those of her father’s coachman, with whom she knows her mother to be intimate, of her own brother and father, both of whom she, as it were, seduces. She assumes male attire, and parades the streets of Paris by night in search of adventures; grants her favours to a shoemaker, to a whole bevy of coachmen, etc.; and she fights a duel. On principle, she never allows any man of birth to enjoy her.

The association of sex and abroad is the basis of the appeal of E.M.Hull’s novel The Sheik, a bestseller that came out in 1919. When it was filmed it gave Rudolf Valentino his most famous part. Diana Mayo the British heroine is kidnapped by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan, taken off to his harem and raped more or less nightly. In the end, though; she Falls In Love with him, so that makes it alright. As Vogue once insisted:

There are few Vogue readers who have never harboured a slinking desire to be thrown across the saddle of a plunging white stallion, galloped to a palmy oasis and stuffed with dates in a striped silk prison by swarthy warriors. [3]

Quite, madam.

The same sort of dream is also there in two things D.H.Lawrence wrote in 1926, the year of the General Strike. The difference is that Lawrence is aware as the editors of Vogue are not that the dream is connected to the emotional emptiness of the British ruling classes and he writes out of that sense. In The Virgin and the Gipsy, the virgin Yvette is hard and restless in her rectory home of crossword puzzles, Horlicks and degenerated comfort. She’s warmed into life by a gipsy with the “curious dark, suave purity of all his body ... purity like a living sneer.”

In the other work, The First Lady Chatterley (the first draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover), Lady Constance’s husband Sir Clifford is paralysed below the waist from a war wound. Lawrence intends this to stand for the sexual paralysis of a whole class. Lady Constance runs from this frigidity into the bed of the gamekeeper, Parkin. By the end of the novel Parkin has left the Chatterleys to become a factory worker and secretary of the “Communist league” in Sheffield. Constance decides to follow him there because

there came a breath of fresh air with him, and a breath of fresh life. My lady’s fucker, as he called himself so savagely! How he had hated her for not taking him full seriously in his manly fucking! Ah well! The future was still to hand! [4]

Enough examples. From Victorian pornography up through Vogue and Valentino to the art of Forster and Lawrence, the message seems to be the same. It concerns the British middle classes, whose views can be summarised as follows. “We in the middle classes have managed to get the sex thing in its place and under control, thank God. Sex, anyway, is basically unBritish – an unsavoury subject, as the Attorney-General once noted. Of course, there’s a lot of it goes on amongst foreigners, who can’t be expected to know any better, and amongst the working classes – but they’re sub-human and therefore scarcely British anyway. These people have beastly thoughts and do beastly things and so breed like rabbits, as Sir Keith Joseph has proved. Give them half a chance and they’re all at it – whilst we attend to the nation’s business. If we didn’t it’s a well known fact that the country would pretty soon go to the dogs.”

The problem is that the sex thing does rear its ugly head from time to time, so that when the British middle classes want to have a quiet think about it they are straightaway forced out of their board rooms and bored rooms. Perhaps by the Mediterranean, in a gamekeeper’s hut, at the harem, in Paris, there’s a milkman, a sheik, a sailor, a gipsy who can supply what’s missing from their own hysterical, comfortable, empty lives? Maybe down behind a factory in Sheffield or over there, under the palm trees; people are making love unafraid, without their fathers and Our Father standing behind them with a Bible and a big stick, without Mrs Whitehouse getting ready to throw a bucket of water? There’s no hope of thrills on the 8.43 into Waterloo because most of them read the Daily Telegraph and vote Tory, but maybe next summer in Majorca ...? Or, to use the terms of 1984, we in the middle classes are all paid-up members of the Anti-Sex league, but we’re aware that down amongst the proles the dirty, fascinating little secret still survives.

Knockabout aside, I think there is a real significance in all this. It points to a dim sense, smothered deep in bourgeois hearts, that they don’t live in the best of all possible worlds; that the society they sing the National Anthem. about and praise at Rotary Club lunches is in important ways twisted and inhuman; that somewhere else, in a caravan or beyond Calais, people could and do live finer, gentler, happier, sexier lives. We mustn’t laugh at these damp and unpatriotic little dreams. The fact that they exist at all is a tribute to the power of human sensuality to survive generations of Christianity and public schools.

Perhaps, you may say, all this is out of date. We now live, it says here in the newspaper, in a permissive society. Apparently this means that Naughty Nights in a Nunnery is being held over for another week at your local Odeon and tomorrow the Mirror will show you a naked nipple. What all that has to do with human freedom is obscure, though it is true that they couldn’t have got away with it twenty years ago. But it’s more accurate to see part of its source in the changing needs of capitalism, constantly and feverishly revolutionising itself in order to survive, though an equally important part lies in other factors like the development of reliable methods of birth control, a generation of post-war prosperity and so on.

Capitalism must go on expanding and finding fresh markets or else it begins to collapse in on itself and die. In the past this drove it to colonise and exploit Asia, Africa, the world. That business complete, it hunts for new areas to seize, turn into a product and re-sell and it’s come up with sex. (“Okay, they buy plenty of Coca Cola in Kuwait now, but maybe they’ll buy breasts in Burnley? We can’t sell any more Weetabix in West Africa, the market’s flooded, but maybe they’ll pay a lot for nudes in Nebraska?”)

Sections of the ruling class led by Lord Longford are upset about this shift and protest, but other sections are making far too much money out of it for their protests to be taken very seriously. Socialists, of course, take no sides in this squabble. We reject both the traditions of middle-class puritanism on the one hand and the plastic pseudo-sex of Men Only on the other. The former was and remains repressive, the latter is a straightforward rip-off.

What socialists offer instead is perhaps less clear, though there have been attempts to suggest what a genuinely liberated sexuality might mean. One of the best and briefest indications of this is in a letter dated 17 January 1915, that Lenin wrote to Inessa Armand. He comments on her plans for a pamphlet for working-class women as follows:

Dear Friend,

I very much advise you to write the plan of the pamphlet in as much detail as possible. Otherwise too much is unclear.

One opinion I must express here and now:

I advise you to throw out altogether number 3 – the “demand (women’s) for freedom of love”.

That is not really a proletarian but a bourgeois demand.

After all, what do you understand by that phrase? What can be understood by it?

  1. Freedom from material (financial) calculations in affairs of love?
  2. The same, from material worries?
  3. From religious prejudices?
  4. From prohibitions by Papa, etc.?
  5. From the prejudices of “society”?
  6. From the narrow circumstances of one’s environment (peasant or petty-bourgeois or bourgeois intellectual)?
  7. From the fetters of the law, the courts and the police?
  8. From the serious element in love?
  9. From child-birth?
  10. Freedom of adultery? Etc.

I have enumerated many shades (not all, of course). You have in mind, of course, not Nos. 8-10, but either Nos. 1-7 or something similar to Nos. 1-7.

But then for Nos. 1-7 you must choose a different wording, because freedom of love does not express this idea exactly.

And the public, the readers of the pamphlet, will inevitably understand by “freedom of love”, in general, something like Nos. 8-10, even without your wishing it.

Just because in modern society the most talkative, noisy and “top-prominent” classes understand by “freedom of love” Nos. 8-10, just for that very reason this is not a proletarian but a bourgeois demand.

For the proletariat Nos. 1-2 are the most important, and then Nos. 1-7, and those, in face, are not “freedom of love”.

The thing is not what you subjectively “mean” by this. The thing is the objective logic of class relations in affairs of love.

Friendly shake hands!
V.I. [5]

The letter is brief and therefore, as Lenin admits, leaves many questions untouched. Moreover, what were progressive demands for working class women in Czarist Russia arguably fall short of the full needs of men and women here and now. But one way of arriving at a correct sense of those needs might be to take Lenin’s letter step by step, see what it still has to offer and see where its demands need changing.



1. Daily Sketch, quoted in Michael Bateman (ed.), This England, Penguin 1969, p.29.

2. The Life to Come and Other Stories, London 1972, pp.192-3.

3. Quoted in This England, p.117.

4. The First Lady Chatterley, Penguin 1973, p.253.

5. Lenin, On Literature and Art, Moscow 1967, pp.196-7.


Last updated on 14.7.2001