Paul Johnson writes in The Spectator about “things that get into print and make us shudder”:
Hard to remember an occasion when an author has aroused such unanimous distaste as Cherie Blair’s revelation that the birth of her son Leo was due to her unwillingness to take her contraceptive kit to Balmoral, where the royal butler would unpack her suitcase and see it. ‘Ugh!’ or ‘Oh dear!’ were the universal responses; and ‘Poor Tony! How embarrassed/ashamed he must feel!’ To the dismay of her friends, and the delight of her enemies, Mrs Blair has been made to realise the sheer adamantine power of cold print. A tale which might be tolerable, even amusing — or touching — when told, mouth to ear, in gossip, becomes offensively leaden when spelt out on the page and read by countless firesides. All professional writers learn by bitter experience, or helpful censorship by their elders, that there is a rubicon which divides private speech from public print: cross it at your peril…
It is some consolation that most, perhaps all, authors, even the greatest, have committed comparable blunders, have put into irrevocable and perpetual texts phrases, whole sentences or even entire paragraphs which return to haunt them on sleepless nights, or blot records for good taste, fine judgment and literary decorum…
In her canonical novels Jane only once plunges across, or rather into, the rubicon. She is close to the brink once or twice, notably when she has the sophisticated, town-bred Mary Crawford, speaking of junior admirals she knows, say that of ‘rears and vices’ there are plenty. This is a deliberate double entendre, the only one in the entire corpus, and must have caused Jane to hesitate long before she penned it. But I would not have it cut for words. The one real disaster occurs in Persuasion, a novel of her experienced maturity and therefore all the more surprising. She writes: ‘The Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before his twentieth year.’ This is a shocking, detestable sentence — no argument about it — and she follows it up by adding: ‘he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved’. All Austen’s admirers shudder when they think of this horrible lapse.
Then there is the case of Evelyn Waugh, a writer who used words, and the images they convey, with immense care and precision, and often got up in the middle of the night and padded downstairs to alter a term or a phrase in his exquisitely handwritten copy. But he, too, once or twice, made hair-raising mistakes. Thus in Brideshead Revisited, where he used words like jewels as a rule, and produced unrivalled metaphors in profusion, he fell off his horse when he came to describe the tender moment, on the transatlantic liner, when the hero and heroine first make love: ‘It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.’ Hard to think which is worse — that awkward phrase ‘narrow loins’, which becomes more embarrassing the more you think of it, or pronounce it (worse), or the gross idea of Charles Ryder as a sexual property developer. The book was an instant success, so it was some consolation to Waugh’s rivals and friends that they could snigger and gloat over this dreadful lapse. Bowra roared. Cyril Connolly read it aloud with relish. Nancy Mitford took to referring to her ‘narrow loins’ whenever she went to her dressmaker, or joked that Louise de Vilmorin was carting her narrow loins from one lover to another.
Finally, as yet more pitiful balm to the much-battered Cherie, there is the case of Shakespeare. Considering how much he wrote, and how quickly, and the vertiginous risks he took with words, often inventing them, he fell into the river remarkably seldom. But there was a big splash in Macbeth, his best-written play, albeit the text we have is corrupt. He has Lady Macbeth saying:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me,
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn
As you have done to this.
Such stuff is unbelievable, and unpleasant, and makes you worry horribly about the author.
Does it? Isn’t Lady MacBeth supposed to be unpleasant? In any case, might she not have been exaggerating to spur her husband on to dastardly deeds?
I have heard or read this passage a number of times without lingering too long on Lady MacBeth’s nipple, but, unless I’m missing something, perhaps this passage does indeed suck. It's the mechanics of it: you can’t smile and suck at the same time. Ah, you say, perhaps the baby sucked a bit then smiled a bit then sucked a bit more. But that won’t do. If the baby was “smiling in [her] face” she wouldn’t need to “pluck” her nipple to free it from those boneless gums: it would have slipped out already. Perhaps Shakespeare was a bit numb and vague about babies and boobies.
"good taste, fine judgment and literary decorum"
As a long time admirer of Mr. Johnson as well as his prose, I have to say I am shocked by the level of priggishness (or is it just sexual squeamishness?) on display in this quotation.
Surely, Mrs. Blair blurting out her personal stupidity is not in the same league with and should not be used as an excuse to trot out his hobby horse complaints about Mr. Waugh and Miss Austen. As for his comments on Shakespeare, the phrase "gormless bums" comes unbidden to mind.