At the end of this month, Sotheby’s, the auctioneers, will place under the hammer an original paperback copy of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This is the sexually explicit novel which was the subject of the very famous court case in 1960, when it was cleared of charges of being likely to deprave and corrupt. It was subsequently published for the multitudes in paperback. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is widely acknowledged to have set the tone (or “opened the floodgates”) for a more liberal society and a more open approach to sexuality. The antediluvian attitudes of the prosecuting counsel probably lost the jury when he asked them: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?”
But one particular wife did read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and marked it up for her husband’s professional use. She was Dorothy Byrne, who was married to the judge in the Chatterley case, Sir Laurence Byrne. Justice Byrne was, as it happens, an Irish Catholic who subsequently spent some of his retiring years in Enniskerry — his family originally came from Rathdrum, Co Wicklow — and rather than facing the tedious task of reading DH Lawrence himself, he delegated Dorothy to do so on his behalf. Lady Byrne’s annotated book is the very copy which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s on October 30.
There are quite a few explicit sexual passages in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Dorothy Byrne found some of the language coarse and vulgar — with much repetition of the f-word and the c-word. She also thought that parts of the book were “morally offensive” — such as the suggestion that a wife could have a child by another man, if her husband were “crippled”, as Sir Clifford Chatterley is, in the narrative.
The Lady Chatterley trial was sensational: the book had been published in many expurgated editions, and smuggled into Britain, and Ireland, mainly to be read for “the dirty bits”. Poor Lawrence! He wrote it in 1928 as an impassioned plea to stop people thinking that sex was “dirty”. He wanted sex — between Connie Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper, Mellors — to be seen as natural and fulfilling. And at the trial itself, churchmen came forward to support the long-dead Lawrence. The progressive Bishop of Woolwich said that “I think Lawrence tried to portray this [sexual] relation in the real sense as an act of holy communion, in the lower case. For him, flesh was sacramental”. The lawyer and parliamentarian Norman St John Stevas said that DH Lawrence was “essentially in the Catholic tradition... the sex instinct is good in itself, is implanted in man by God, is one of his greatest gifts”.
Many experts testified to the high worth of Lawrence’s text, including several women of letters, such as Dame Rebecca West. Although the opinion of an American critic, Katherine Anne Porter, was not so favourable. She called the book “a blood-chilling anatomy of the activities of the rutting season between two rather dull persons…written with much inflamed apostolic solemnity.”
Yes, Lawrence had a habit of emphasising his message about the naturalness of sex with a preacher’s didacticism. EM Forster called him “a preacher in the great puritanical tradition”. (Virginia Woolf also disliked DHL’s “preaching” in novels. And she noted, of the repeated use of the f-word, the c-word and the s-word — “English has one million words: why confine yourself to six?” )
In one way, the book’s free publication has been hugely influential: Lawrence wanted to give writers “a language” in which to write about sex. But it’s also naïve and dated. As Doris Lessing has pointed out in an essay, Lawrence elevated the body because he was filled with bodily self-loathing: racked with TB, he was both feverish and impotent. He worshipped “virility” in men and feared that “men were becoming effeminate”. His own marriage was turbulent and even violent: he humiliated his wife Frieda by making her scrub floors, and they both hit each other.
Lawrence might fit into our world for his mission to bring freedom to sexuality; yet he would hate the way the f-word and the c-word are employed nowadays, as aggressive forms of denigration.
And the high-minded literary defenders of Lawrence’s frankness about sexuality could hardly foresee the tsunami of casual porn transmitted by electronic means.
Today, Lawrence is sternly critiqued by feminists as “phallocentric”: he believed that women yearned for “real men”. He might even be accused of feeding into the MeToo movement, unleashing restraints on sexual freedom.
Events are always seen differently in retrospect, and values and context change so much. The judge’s wife found Lady Chatterley sometimes objectionable for its language, and for some of its morality. What strikes me, today, is that this book is as much about disability, the effects of war, and class, as it is about sex, which, as Katherine Anne Porter wrote, is often “unintentionally hilarious”.
Even in 1960, a strong objection to the paperback publication was that it would sell at three-and-sixpence. If it had been 10 guineas, it was suggested, it would be quite acceptable!