New Edition of Lady Chatterley Reviewed

Peter Hitchens has revisited the 1960 obscenity trial of D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This is in response to the reissuance of the novel by Macmillan in a new “deluxe” edition. The review appears in the religion and public policy journal First Things. Hitchens sees the trial as having had a foreordained conclusion because of changes in the law that took place prior to the book’s UK publication as well as changes in public opinion that supported that legislation. He also notes that no leading UK literary figures were called to testify for the prosecution, although it was widely believed by several perceptive readers that the book was not worth all the fuss. He cites the opinion of US author Katherine Ann Porter that the novel was the product of a writer who was well past his prime. She was not called as a witness but her critical assessment, quoted from an issue of Encounter published earlier in the year, was used in the prosecution’s cross examination of one of the defense’s expert witnesses:

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….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.

The witness, a Cambridge University academic, was unmoved by Porter’s dismissive opinion. Hitchens himself sees little or no literary value in the book and summarizes his assessment of what he deems its worst passage with this reference to Evelyn Waugh:

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.

Not satisfied with his comparison, Hitchens then quotes the passage, which is, indeed, rather cringe-making. The new edition is little discussed except for this description of it as

…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.

Waugh leaves several comments about the trial in his letters, at least two of which touch on subjects raised in Hitchens’ article. In a letter sent to Ann Fleming during the trial, he wrote:

How I wish I had been called as a witness…to explain to the bemused jury that Lawrence’s reputation had been made by an illiterate clique at Cambridge. He couldn’t write for toffee. He is right down in the Spender class…Why did [the prosecution] not call expert witnesses? (Letters, p. 552).

In subsequent letters, he comments on John Sparrow’s explication of Lawrence’s description of buggery (of which description Hitchens makes rather a meal) in an Encounter article.

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