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Lady Chatterley’s Lover
by d. h. lawrence
macmillan, 432 pages, $12.99

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?

Almost all the experts were careful to admit that one particular chapter is indefensible. This is the passage in which the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors has a lewd conversation about his mistress with her wealthy artist father in his London club. Imagine what might happen if P. G. Wodehouse tried to write a conversation in dialect among striking coal miners in West Virginia, or if Evelyn Waugh ventured into magical realism, and even then it could not possibly be so bad. I will supply only the beginning. Sir Malcolm Reid (Constance Chatterley’s father) is closeted with Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper who is having an affair with his daughter:

“Well, young man, and what about my daughter?”

“Well, Sir, and what about her?”

“You’ve got a baby in her all right.”

“I have that honour!” grinned Mellors.

“Honour, by God!” Sir Malcolm gave a little, squirting laugh and became Scotch and lewd. “Honour! How was the going, eh? Good, my boy, what?”

“Good!”

“I’ll bet it was! Ha-ha! My daughter, chip off the old block, what! I never went back on a good bit of f***ing myself.”

He then complains about Constance’s mother, rolling his eyes to indicate sexual dissatisfaction, before continuing: “But you warmed her up, oh, you warmed her up, I can see that. Ha-ha! My blood in her! You set fire to her haystack all right.”

This is a passage not so much purple as mauve, and censorship of it was a mercy to author and reader alike. But, despite the claims of the book’s supporters that it is uniquely bad, it is far from untypical. Let us not be wholly unfair, though it is tempting. There are some moving and thoughtful passages in the book, though they are mostly about the industrial ravaging and gouging of the English countryside and the wretched consumer society coming into being after World War I. But the idea that these miseries might be redeemed by adulterous sex in an old hut on an army blanket, by twining wildflowers in one’s pubic hair, or by capering naked in the rain is far-fetched. Miss Porter’s conclusion that it is a self-titillating fantasy, in which the two main characters physically resemble Lawrence and his wife, Frieda (who deserted her husband and three young children to run away with him), is hard to deny.

A writer’s private preoccupations emerge involuntarily in his writing. He is usually too obsessed with them to notice that he is giving himself away. Take buttocks, for instance. I was at first amazed and then reduced to gasps of laughter by the number of times the word “buttocks” appears in Lady Chatterley, about as frequently as our old friend “penis” or the famous four-letter “good old Anglo-Saxon words” for which schoolboys used to hunt the book’s pages. Buttocks are “like hillocks of sand.” They are “globes.” They “thrust.” They possess “unspeakable beauty.” Mellors has a plan for world reform that requires men to wear scarlet trousers “and buttocks nice and showing scarlet under a little white jacket.” And if you think this a passing fancy, swiftly suppressed, you are wrong. The plan to save the world with red trousers is restated at the end of the book, where Mellors raves, “If the men wore scarlet trousers, as I said, they wouldn’t think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash.”

Any serious enemy could have mocked this book out of court. Katherine Anne Porter was right to see it as the work of a dying man, indulging his sad fantasies as his powers waned. But thanks to the lack of such enemies at the crucial moment, it became the battle ensign of permissive society. It remains an object of reverence, and has now been made available by Macmillan in a sort of boudoir edition, with a turquoise cover, gold-edged pages, and a fiddly little lace bookmark, looking surprisingly like a maiden aunt’s prayer book from sixty years ago. It seems that we cannot be done with this book.

Yet will those who buy this latest deluxe edition really read it? Or will they just feel the need to possess it, as a relic or talisman? Apart from the plethora of buttocks, if there can be such a thing, and the theories about red trousers, the book contains blots and scabs of anti-Semitism, such as “corrupt as any low-born Jew”; “You only bully with your money, like any Jew”; “When Jesus refused the devil’s money, he left the devil like a Jewish banker, master of the whole situation.” Two of these are directly attributed to Constance Chatterley herself, and the third appears to be her thought. The author does not intend them as the thoughts of despicable characters.

Oliver Mellors, for his part, has some fairly uncomplimentary things to say about women in general and lesbians in particular. In an unhinged passage, Mellors, a gamekeeper and former Army officer, rages in dialect about the sort of woman

that puts you out before you really ‘come’ and go on writhing their loins till they bring themselves off against your thighs. But they’re mostly the Lesbian sort. It’s astonishing how Lesbian women are, consciously or unconsciously. Seems to me they’re nearly all Lesbian.

Anybody finding himself next to someone talking like this in a train or a bar would swiftly make an excuse and move away. But the devoted or determined reader of Lawrence’s supposed classic has to hear the whole theory set out: “And do you mind?” Connie asks. “I could kill them,” Mellors responds. “When I’m with a woman who’s really Lesbian, I fairly howl in my soul, wanting to kill her.”

He goes on to explain that he disapproves of lesbians even more than he disapproves of homosexual men, having “suffered more” from lesbian women. Later, in a discussion of his estranged wife, Bertha, Mellors also recommends a lethal remedy for marital discord.

And she was a doomed woman. This last time, I’d have shot her like I shoot a stoat, if I’d but been allowed: a raving, doomed thing in the shape of a woman! If only I could have shot her, and ended the whole misery! It ought to be allowed! When a woman gets absolutely possessed by her own will, her own will set against everything, then it’s fearful, and she should be shot at last.

These words are spoken by a man who owns and uses a gun in his work. He has also recently distressed his ten-year-old daughter (mysteriously named Connie) by shooting a cat in front of her. It is almost the only time the child appears in the book. She is despised as a “spoilt, false little female” by Lady Chatterley, and called “tha false little bitch” by her own father to her face. She is then promptly dumped into the care of the gamekeeper’s mother, which is very convenient for the two illicit lovers. But it makes the reader wonder about the fate of any child born to them.

A few lines later we get some racial bigotry: “I thought there was no real sex left: never a woman who’d really ‘come’ naturally with a man: except black women, and somehow, well, we’re white men and they’re a bit like mud.” I failed to find any disobliging remarks about transgender persons, but this must be because Lawrence had not heard of such a thing. Under the censorship of today, no new novel could possibly contain such comments, though it might be full of every sort of sex and every coarse word (except one, see below). How long before these incorrect passages are quietly expurgated from future editions?

As for the dismissive treatment of Sir Clifford Chatterley, a man confined to a wheelchair as a result of his bravery and sacrifice in war, I am puzzled that modern readers do not find it revolting, or that those who defended the book in 1960 were not more embarrassed by it. There is an especially unkind scene in which Sir Clifford’s motorized chair cannot climb a slope, so that he has to depend on the gamekeeper who (though he does not yet know it) is cuckolding him, and he understandably loses his temper. Sir Clifford is portrayed as petulant and childish, though he remains a young man well aware of the powers and pleasures he has lost forever, and it is the only time in the book when the terrible humiliation of his condition ever gets the better of him. Compared to Mellors, with his sexual greed, his frequent rudeness to Constance, his callousness toward his own daughter, and his bloodthirsty outbursts, the wronged baronet seems like a saint.

As the London trial proceeded and notable persons repeatedly extolled Lawrence’s novel as a modern gospel, poor Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the prosecutor, almost imperceptibly retreated from his original line of attack and concentrated on the book’s undoubted general hostility to the married state. He thought he had lost on the issue of obscenity. This was perhaps because he was too coy to say what he was driving at when he described the passage often referred to as “the night of sensual passion.” Or he may well not have fully realized what the words describe. A worldly man of his generation could not necessarily have been assumed to know such things in the London of 1960. During this part of the book, Mellors clearly did to Lady Chatterley what his estranged wife later denounced as “low, beastly things.” Lawrence makes it plain that the night is different from the pair’s previous encounters. He says they were “burning out the shames, the deepest, oldest shames, in the most secret places,” adding of Constance that “she would have thought a woman would have died of shame. Instead of which, the shame died.”

So much for Lawrence’s famous frankness about sex and his ready use of taboo words, for which he and his book are so much praised by its admirers. On this occasion (which must surely refer to anal penetration) he is as mysterious, euphemistic, and evasive as can be. But the code he uses to conceal this is broken a little later. Sir Clifford (still ignorant of the affair) writes to Constance about how the gamekeeper’s estranged wife (the one he wants to shoot) is going about the village denouncing him in a deeply embarrassing fashion. Sir Clifford says she “has aired in detail all those incidents of her conjugal life which are usually buried down in the deepest grave of matrimonial silence.” Lawrence then tells sophisticates (but not the ordinary reader) what he means. He has Sir Clifford add, liberal-mindedly: “Humanity has always had a strange avidity for unusual sexual postures, and if a man likes to use his wife, as Benvenuto Cellini says, ‘in the Italian way,’ well, that is a matter of taste.” Actually, in the England of Chatterley and Mellors, and still in the England of 1960, this “unusual sexual posture” was not merely “a matter of taste.” It was a criminal offense.

One of the defense attorneys, the late Jeremy Hutchinson, had been afraid before the trial that this passage could cost them the case. Yet it is not clear if the prosecution even realized what was being described. Mervyn Griffith-Jones read out the whole lurid segment in his closing speech. But because Lawrence’s famous candor had deserted him, and because he did not use the “fine old Anglo-Saxon word” beginning with the letter b which describes this act, a respectable English jury of the period probably had no idea what he was talking about. John Sparrow, the warden of All Souls’ College, Oxford (who, shall we say, was more knowledgeable than most about unconventional sexual tastes), knew exactly what Lawrence was writing about and pointed out the extraordinary fact that so many others did not. It is a lovely paradox that, had Lawrence been as courageous as his admirers claimed, and had acted according to his supposed beliefs about the reviving purity of the sex act, the book might well have stayed on the banned list for many more years.

But at the end of it, what had happened? There had been a transformation, but of what? Rolph’s book reproduces a brilliant little cartoon by George Sprod from the long-deceased humor magazine Punch, published on November 9, 1960. A respectable gentleman with derby hat and umbrella is in a shop selling sordid magazines and books with titles such as I Was a Call Girl and Tales of the Harem. The shop owner is saying “Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Listen, mate, if that’s the book that’s so pure and decent it’s even fit for schoolgirls to read, then we don’t stock it.”

This is why prosecution was so futile. Every single one of the respectable expert witnesses in the trial had been able to read the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley without great difficulty. People who thought themselves intellectual had felt almost obliged to slip across to Paris and pick up a copy. But the ban had managed to keep it out of the hands of most other people, and especially out of the hands of leering young men in concrete cafés. They had little need of it, if they were prepared to court shame and embarrassment. But it was shame and embarrassment which, until Chatterley, patrolled the boundary between normal, respectable life and the sordid and dirty. Central London in those days had plenty of grubby shops, which remained open through a mixture of corruption and discretion. They served the rather small numbers who at that time were ready to risk being seen in these quarters. They accordingly charged high prices to clients who were in no position to complain. Their purpose was to deprave and corrupt, and nobody doubted it. This was the underbelly of puritan society, and the tribute that vice paid to virtue.

But it was the underbelly, secret and shady, not the upper surface, and the frontier between that milieu and normality was well-defined. The trial ended that distinction and tore down that frontier. It did not suddenly make available material that had not been available before. It did not make pornography any less nasty and damaging to those who were its victims. But it made many more people into its victims. By allowing the sale of such a book as if it were a normal novel, at three shillings and sixpence (about 45 cents by American values of the time), it destroyed shame and hypocrisy, two things essential to a decent society. It also began the slow process of turning four-letter words from taboo expressions into common daily currency, so that they now feature frequently in respectable newspapers and on the cultured channels of the BBC. Parents use them before children, and educated men and women pepper their conversations with the f-word and the c-word, so that they are drained of force.

The liberation of pornography from dingy shops in seedy quarters has not led to the death of repression or an outbreak of sexual health, but to even more pornography, to the commodification of flesh, and to a society deader in the loins and in the head than anything Lawrence knew. This is what the Chatterley trial was about. Some of those who championed the book must have known what they were doing. But their campaign succeeded because so many people did not take words and language as seriously as they should have. They thought they could take a brief, sunlit Mediterranean holiday from morals and restraint, and then return comfortably to the old, secure ways. In fact, they said goodbye to them forever. It takes centuries to create a taboo, and an afternoon to destroy it.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.

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