The Suppression of The Worm and the Ring
A Clockwork Orange is the most famous, and superficially the most controversial, of Anthony Burgess’s novels, with its themes of ultraviolence and state control, yet it never attracted the attention of the censors. His novel that was most profoundly affected by censorship, although not for reasons of obscenity or politics, was The Worm and the Ring.
This novel, published in 1961, is a contemporary retelling of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, itself based on the early German saga Nibelungenlied. The setting is an Oxfordshire grammar school and follows Christopher Howarth, a Burgessian teacher who is unhappily married and in pursuit of a young female teacher called Hilda Conner. In a subplot, there is the discovery of a pupil’s stolen diary (in place of Wagner’s stolen ring) by the teaching staff which reveals unsettling fantasies of seduction by the school’s headmaster. At first glance, this setting, and the classical foundation upon which the novel is built, do not indicate controversial material. Yet, the book was withdrawn from sale shortly after its publication.
Much of the novel was inspired by Burgess’s own experiences of teaching at Banbury Grammar School in the early 1950s. The first draft of the novel dates from 1954, showing that Banbury was fresh in his imagination as he began writing the book. The similarity between the novel’s setting and the real school attracted attention from people who saw themselves in the characters. For example, one of Burgess’s colleagues, Moyna Morris, recognised herself in the character of Hilda, the object of Howarth’s affections.
Burgess’s troubles with this novel began when the school secretary, Gwendoline Bustin, noticed a character with a striking similarity to herself. Alice, the novel’s school secretary, is a gossip and a frustrated spinster who secretly lusts after the headmaster. This was too much of an insult for Gwen Bustin, who was active in the Banbury community, and had served as the town’s mayor. She wrote to the publishing company, informing them of her intention to begin legal proceedings.
Burgess writes about this in You’ve Had Your Time, though he is careful to not admit any fault: ‘Miss Gwen Bustin […] had been eager to identify herself with the fictitious school secretary of the book. The strength of her case rested mainly on an onomastic coincidence: her own doctor had the same name as the doctor of the secretary in the novel. A letter from her lawyer made the standard accusation of malice, and my publisher promptly withdrew the unsold part of the edition. Now I was to await the delivery of a writ.’
It is perhaps disingenuous of Burgess to describe the similarity of real life and the world of the novel as ‘coincidence’. Despite being an upstanding member of the community, Gwen Bustin was mocked by students at the school for being miserable and a spinster, qualities that are apparent in the novel’s secretary.
Whatever the circumstances of the creation of Burgess’s fictional character, Heinemann, the publisher of The Worm and the Ring, decided the best course of action was to remove the book from sale. The original print run was withdrawn from sale and pulped, and the few copies that remain often fetch high prices at auction. It is apparent that Burgess did not understand the severity of the accusation from Gwen Bustin, but quick action of Heinemann protected Burgess from going to court.
Another edition of the novel, bowdlerised by libel lawyers, was published in 1970, but the original has not appeared since its publication in 1961. Gwen Bustin died in 1974, and Moyna Morris died in 2000, meaning that it is now possible to republish the novel in its original form.
This experience of legal suppression impacted upon Burgess’s future writing. In 1961, his autobiographical novel Devil of a State was altered before publication. Instead of being set in Brunei, where Burgess taught at the Sultan Omar Saifuddein College, the action takes place in the fictional African nation of Dunia. This was specifically to avoid further libel claims against Burgess and his work.
While the suppression of The Worm and the Ring was not for reasons of politics or obscenity, it nevertheless prevented Burgess’s work from reaching an audience. As his career developed, he began to develop his ideas that literature should reflect all aspects of life, whether the obscene or emetic, defending boundary-pushing novels such as Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr, and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. Burgess’s fullest statement against censorship is in Obscenity & the Arts, a lecture he gave to the Maltese Library Association in 1970.
Obscenity & the Arts by Anthony Burgess has been published internationally by Pariah Press for the first time, including a new response by Germaine Greer, original photography, and an interview with Burgess by Marie Benoit. It is available to order from their website.