As famous trials go you might think that this one wouldn’t be so high on the list of interesting ones to report on. Okay, it was ground-breaking and important and we’re all shaped in some small way by its outcome but, interesting?
Well, actually, yes!
Set aside the fact that the defendant is not a person but an object. Set aside the fact that this case was the first to test the newly drawn-up obscenity laws. Set aside even the fact that the Defence drew on any number of eminent persons to form its phalanx of witnesses. All these things are interesting in their own right, but set them aside because at the very heart of this trial reportage – that’s essentially what this book is – is the wondrous theatre of social history. It’s nothing less than the broadening division in the class system that’s on display. Not on trial in the dock – at least not entirely, it’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, after all, which is much more about Class than the goings-on in the undergrowth – but on display in the manner of the Prosecution, and the measure of the Defence. There’s a great line early on (yes, it almost feels it could be fiction it’s so telling) where the Prosecution asks, “…Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?” This is 1960. It sets the tone of the Prosecution’s case. In such a pantomime we’d readily boo Mr Griffith-Jones as the villain of the piece but, as in all good literature, at the end of things I felt something akin to sadness and pity for him, having watched him fall so far: screaming obscenities in the courtroom as though that’s what Lawrence’s repetition was all about; inviting – with no small measure of smugness – a Senior Lecturer in English to straighten him out about his misapprehension of the word puritanical, and being summarily straightened out; reverting again and again, and each time seeming more petulant, to the only real line of defence he could muster, that it was all about the sex and nothing else.
Against this, Defence witness after Defence witness offers their understanding of the book, of what it is about and what Lawrence was trying to achieve in the writing of it. Of Lawrence’s place in Literature, of his ability, of Lady Chatterley’s worthiness as literature. Witnesses drawn from universities, schools, publishing houses, even churches, come to state their view, and it’s hard to imagine now how the Prosecution could’ve stood against all this without the certain understanding that they were in the wrong.
Through all this Sybille Bedford, who was commissioned to report on the trial, guides us with fairness and clarity. Being an author, we can easily guess which side of the argument she came down on, and Thomas Grant’s introduction to this edition confirms her stance. It is testament to her skill indeed that she remains as impartial as she does in the rendering of the proceedings. What stands out most for me is the apparent warmth with which she greets some of the witnesses, notably the aforementioned Senior Lecturer, a rather feisty Classics Mistress from a Grammar school, and a ‘most smartly dressed’ editor of, no, ‘Not a Ladies’ page. It hasn’t been called that since 1912.’ You can almost feel Sybille Bedford’s relish in Miss Scott-James’s small victories. Though, plus ça change, one might think some 55 years on.
It’s a striking thing to be so sure of the fallacy you’re opposing, to be so confident of the outcome that it seems the height of unreasonableness that anyone would even hold such a position. And to us now – certainly to me – it seems obscenity itself that such a prosecution could ever have taken place, but in these uncertain times, these days of political division, it is surely possible to read Sybille Bedford’s account of this famous trial and imagine, before the verdict comes down, what it would’ve been like to sit and wait, not knowing which way the jury would swing.
This edition of The Trial Of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in October 2016 by Daunt Books ISBN:9781907970979
My sincere thanks to Daunt Books (and to Angela Carter) for allowing me to read this book.