Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Six weeks after a London criminal court permitted the unexpurgated publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on November 2, 1960, a forlorn rearguard action took place in the crimson and gold chamber of the House of Lords, then still a chamber of hereditary peers, profoundly conservative in a rural and military way. The sixth earl of Craven recounted an experience he had recently had at a bleak modernist café on a concrete bridge over the new superhighway from London to Manchester, itself a symbol of Britain’s modern age.

Describing D. H. Lawrence’s famous but overrated novel as “a book with a filthy reputation known to every schoolboy troubled by desire,” the noble earl recalled with dismay the scene he had witnessed. “At every serving counter sat a snigger of youths. Every one of them had a copy of this book held up to his face with one hand while he forked nourishment into his open mouth with the other. They held the seeds of suggestive lust, which was expressed quite blatantly, by glance and remark, to the girls serving them.”

He had seen the approaching doom of the world in which he had grown up. In nasty strip-lit eateries perched over growling lanes of traffic, lewd youths (no doubt wearing drainpipe trousers) freely perused filthy books, openly and cheaply bought, in which the crudest words in the language were lawfully printed . . . and while they did so, they forgot their table manners.

The earl’s extraordinary speech, which had no effect on anything at all, was a cry of pain. To read it now is like looking at pictures of extinct creatures on an Edwardian magic lantern, doubly distanced from us by both the contents and the manner in which they are displayed. Yet while it is risible, and even pitiful, I do not see why it should not be taken seriously, too. For it had not been so very long since the earl’s beliefs were supreme in the land, and uncensored versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been regularly seized by customs officers. King George V was even said to have confiscated a smuggled copy from Queen Mary. Is it possible that this trial really was a defeat for the forces of good and a victory for the forces of indifference? For it is the indifference of the lofty which we need to fear most. They are generally too wealthy and sequestered to understand the evil they visit on the poor, who live far away in their fatherless homes, noisy streets, and chaotic schools.

Most people know nothing important about either the book or the trial that led to its free publication. Though huge stacks of copies were sold in the months after the verdict, most of them were first greedily thumbed, then rapidly scanned, then laid aside. By the time I was first introduced to Lawrence’s writing in the late 1960s, compelled at school to study Sons and Lovers, his heavy, portentous style was fast slipping out of fashion. Even the promise of filthy words and rude passages (still rare in those days) never persuaded me to bother with Lady Chatterley.

As for the trial, everyone knows only two things about it. One is the question posed by the prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, to the jury: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” The other is Philip Larkin’s statement in his poem “Annus Mirabilis” that sexual intercourse, at least for him, began “In nineteen sixty-three, / . . . Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.” To understand the event you must read C. H. Rolph’s superb account, originally privately printed in 1961 and later more generally available, The Trial of Lady Chatterley.

From this work it swiftly becomes clear that there was scarcely a chance of the jury deciding that Lady Chatterley should stay banned, and almost everyone involved knew it. I regularly astonish people by telling them, for instance, that there were no prosecution witnesses at all at the trial, unless you count the policeman, Detective Inspector Charles Monahan, who obtained twelve copies from the publisher and testified to that effect. This merely established that the book had been published and so was subject to the laws of England. People also tend to be amazed that the publisher, Penguin, had printed 200,000 copies before the prosecution began. Surely, given the book’s history, they must at least have suspected that a prosecution could be heading their way. So why were they so confident?

Actually, they had good reason to be. The same book had already been part of a test case in the United States in July 1959, more than a year before. Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan, in a decision upheld as precedent by the Supreme Court, had ruled that, in the case of Lady Chatterley, “redeeming social or literary value” was a defense against obscenity charges. Even more important, a clever alliance of social and moral liberals from both British political parties had just changed the ancient English law on obscenity by cunning and determination. Their coalition, because it crossed Britain’s normally very rigid party lines, was unstoppable by the electorate, and would in the next twenty years completely transform the country. When elections came round, voters had no idea whom to punish for radical changes that had never featured in any party platform.

These reformers had done an astonishing thing to the obscenity law. Even if Lady Chatterley was found to be obscene, its publication would now be permitted “if it is proved that the publication of the article in question is justified as being for the public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern.” It would have been a poor lawyer who couldn’t show in that year of grace that a work by David Herbert Lawrence qualified on that absurd measure.

For Lady Chatterley’s time had come at last. Early 1960s London, blackened by soot and full of gaps left by bombs and rockets, still looked at first sight like an Edwardian capital. The English people of the time seemed underfed, repressed, and scrawny, while everything on sale, from clothes to food, was generally either gray or brown. Olive oil was only available in pharmacies, as a remedy for unlovely complaints such as blocked ears. Cooking was done with lard or beef dripping, thank you. Travel abroad was limited by a sternly enforced limit on taking money overseas. Many got round this rule by carrying tinned supplies with them so that they did not have to spend any money on foreign food.

It was, or seemed to be, puritanism without purpose, deferred gratification without a reward. An attempt to restore the pre-1939 world of class distinction and fairly strict Protestant morality was visibly failing. Thousands of marriages had been wrecked by the war and its separations. Many children had grown up without fathers. Crime was increasing, some of it involving guns (more or less unknown before then in England). Many wondered, as they paid their high taxes and made do for another year with clothes and furniture which were past their best, “Is this what we fought for?” After an interminable age in which the national slogan had been “mustn’t grumble,” they longed for some fun and relaxation. They probably thought that, after a while, the pendulum would swing back toward restraint, not grasping—as we do—that there is no such pendulum.

An intellectual class hugely influenced by the advanced ideas of forty years before now ran the BBC. As they seized control of the nation’s microphones and transmitters, these once-derided followers of Fabian socialism and Bloomsbury sexuality became rather bossy. Bloomsbury people, as Dorothy Parker noted, “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.” George Orwell had mocked the overlapping Fabians a few years before as fruit juice drinkers, nudists, sandal-wearers, sex maniacs, Quakers, nature-cure quacks, pacifists, and feminists. And now the followers of these people, after decades as outsiders, sat in charge of radio and television studios.

All this helps explain why this frankly rather terrible book was, for a few weeks, so important, and why, in a way, it changed the country forever. Just how terrible it was could not be admitted, for to do so would have destroyed the argument that its greatness justified its explicit crudity. The intellectual fashion of the time said that Lady Chatterley was a great work. And who would dare defy that fashion? Nobody. The prosecution failed to persuade any important British intellectuals, academics, or “experts” to testify that the book was either worthless or obscene. The days when academics were conservative in politics and morals were very much over. As in the U.S. the year before, when such lanterns of enlightenment as Edmund Wilson had declared Lady Chatterley admirable, all the clever people were on the same side. All? Almost. Only one respectable intellect could be found to condemn the work. But she was not in the courtroom. This was Katherine Anne Porter, an American writer who had written a thoughtful, relentless attack on Lady Chatterley in the February 1960 edition of Encounter.

Mr. Griffith-Jones brought this up while cross-examining the first defense witness, a Cambridge lecturer called Graham Hough. Mr. Griffith-Jones quoted Miss Porter’s article: “When I first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, thirty years ago, I thought it a dreary, sad performance with some passages unintentional hilarious low comedy, one scene at least simply beyond belief in a book written with such inflamed apostolic solemnity.” Mr. Hough did not agree. Mr. Griffith-Jones pressed on, eventually reproducing Miss Porter’s merciless condemnation:

Nowhere in this sad history can you see anything but a long, dull, grey monotonous chain of days, lightened now and then by a sexual bout. I can’t hear any music, or poetry, or the voices of friends, or children. There is no wine, no food, no sleep or refreshment, no laughter, no rest nor quiet—no love. I remember then that this is the fevered dream of a dying man sitting under his umbrella pines in Italy indulging his sexual fantasies.

Mr. Hough did not agree with that, either.

What a tragedy it is that the prosecution did not persuade Miss Porter (no political conservative, by the way—she campaigned for Sacco and Vanzetti) to testify. Perhaps the earl of Craven and his fellow backwoods peers might have clubbed together to buy her a stateroom aboard the RMS Queen Mary, both ways across the Atlantic. For she was and is right, and nobody has yet put it better. Lady Chatterley is a dreadful, ridiculous book, and the claims of one witness that it is somehow puritanical are as nonsensical as the claims of another (a bishop of the Church of England, naturally) who said that Lawrence was “trying to portray the sex relationship as something essentially sacred” and “as in a real sense an act of holy communion.” How would all these experts and grandees have sounded, with their praise of four-letter words and their bloviations about purity and regeneration, if just one real writer had told them what they must have known to be the truth—that it is the product of a once-fine author’s sad decline, being used as a battering ram against restraint?

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