Lady Chatterley’s Lover was in both Catholic and puritanical traditions

In 1974 I was summoned to see the professor of pathology and chastised for publishing the word fuck in Synapse, the Edinburgh Medical School magazine, which while I was editor I wittily renamed Perhaps and Prolapse. I was, of course, immensely proud of my achievement, although I was nine years behind Kenneth Tynan creating national uproar and four parliamentary motions of censure by using the word on television. And Tynan came five years behind the trial of Penguin Books for obscenity for publishing an unexpurgated edition of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That trial was one of the great British cultural events of the 20th century and wonderfully tied up with the Profumo Affair and the Swinging Sixties, which actually may have been only Mick Jagger and 16 other people, mostly “chicks.” I’ve been reading extracts from the trial, which make amusing and slightly ridiculous reading 50 year on.

Mervyn Griffith-Jones argued for the prosecution that the book “sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse….It commends…sensuality almost as a virtue. It encourages…coarseness and vulgarity of thought and of language.” Perhaps we are reaching a time when not everybody knows the basic plot of the book, so let me tell you that it’s the story of an upper class woman whose husband was injured in the first world war so that he couldn’t have “sexual intercourse” (as it was always called at the trial) who has an affair with her gamekeeper.

Lady Chatterley was based on Lady Ottoline Morrell, who had affairs with Bertrand Russell, Axel Munthe, Augustus John, Dora Carrington, and Roger Fry. Katie Roiphe in her marvellous book on marriages of the early 20th century argues that Morrell went to bed with her many guests less out of passion and more as a simple extension of her famous hospitality. Lady Ottoline was, however, said to have had “flings” with her gardener and with “Tiger”, a stonemason who carved plinths for her garden statues. Lawrence stayed with her (and was perhaps put out that the extended hospitality wasn’t offered to him).

As Roiphe’s book makes clear, adultery was as much an everyday experience of the British upper classes as it is of French politicians today. The trial had the unfortunate overtone that sexual freedom was fine among the upper classes but not among the lower classes and that sexual intercourse between an upper class woman and a lower class man was as offensive as sex between a white woman and a black man in interwar years in the South of the United States.

“There are, I think,” said Griffiths-Jones, “described in all thirteen [episodes of sexual intercourse] throughout the course of this book. You will see that they are described in the greatest detail. [The “I think” perhaps implying that he couldn’t sully himself by reading the whole book.] He runs through the episodes and regrets that “the book abounds in bawdy conversation. Even a description of the girl’s father, a Royal Academician, has to introduce a description of his legs and loins.” Just imagine, a Royal Academician; thank goodness it wasn’t a Fellow of the Royal Society.

So the argument is that the sex is omnipresent, gratuitous, and there for titillation and so will inevitably deprave and corrupt. But, in addition, “the word “fuck” or “fucking” occurs no less than thirty time….”Cunt” fourteen times; “balls” thirteen times; “shit” and “arse” six times apiece; “cock” four times; “piss” three times, and so on.”

Gerald Gardiner for the defence argued that the book was literature not pornography and wholly different from pornographic books which “have got no message…no inspiration…no thought. They have got nothing. They are just filth and ought to be stamped out.”

A whole raft of eminent people appeared for the defence, beginning with Dame Rebecca West, who had herself scandalised Britain by having a child by H G Wells in 1914, when she was 21 and Wells 47 and married to another woman. She’s also said to have had affairs with Charlie Chaplin and Lord Beaverbrook. But by 1961 she was not only a highly distinguished novelist but also a Dame, which would impress the honest folk on the jury.

The trendy Bishop of Woolwich, who was still in post when I attended the Youth Parliament in Woolwich, gave evidence on behalf of the defence and gave rise to newspaper headlines saying “A book all Christians should read. (The newspapers were just as prurient then as now but more restrained by the law.)

Some of the best evidence came from Richard Hoggart, author of The Uses of Literacy, and who unusually for those days “went from elementary school and grammar school to university and took an English degree.” Hoggart like Lawrence came from the lower classes and knew about the language they used and about the deficiencies of the English language when it comes to sex (still a problem for health professionals today). “We have no word in English for this act which is not either a long abstraction or an evasive euphemism, and we are constantly running away from it, or dissolving into dots…He [Lawrence] wanted to us to say ‘this is what one does. In a simple ordinary way, one fucks,’ with no sniggering or dirt.”

It’s always hard for witnesses to get the better of barristers, who have years of experience of court and can usually make anybody look an idiot if they are so minded, but Hoggart clearly dominated Griffith-Jones. He, Griffith-Jones seemed appalled and astonished, when Hoggart boldly claimed that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “virtuous, if not puritanical.” Presumably thinking of the 13 episodes of sexual intercourse, the 30 uses of “fuck” or “fucking” and 14 of “cunt,” he said sarcastically “I thought I had lived my life under a misapprehension as to the meaning of the word ‘puritanical.’ Will you help me?”

But the barrister should have known better. “Yes,” said Hoggart, “many people do live their lives under a misapprehension as to the meaning of the word ‘puritanical.’ This is the way language decays…The proper meaning of it is somebody who belongs to the tradition of British puritanism generally, and the distinguishing feature of that is an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience. In this sense the book is puritanical.”
Griffith-Jones tried to come back by reading a particularly colourful description of what he called “a bout” in which the gamekeeper climaxes but “stayed firm inside her” until he felt “the frenzy of her achieving her own orgasmic satisfaction.” “Is that a passage which you would describe as puritanical?” “Yes,” answered Hoggart, “puritanical, and poignant, and tender, and moving, and sad, about two people who have no proper relationship.”

Later for the defence came Norman St John-Stevas, a Tory politician, prominent Roman Catholic, friend of the royal family, somebody who sometimes lapsed into Latin, and what Auberon Waugh in his Private Eye diaries would call a “homosexualist.” He told the court that he thought Lawrence “essentially a writer in the Catholic tradition. By ‘within the Catholic tradition” I mean the tradition which regards the sexual instinct as good in itself. It is implanted in man by God, and it is one of his greatest gifts; we should always be grateful for this. And I think that this tradition has been opposed since the Reformation era when sex was regarded as something essentially evil.” Protestants, he means, have less fun.

So far from writing a dirty book Lawrence had written a book that was simultaneously puritan and in the Catholic tradition. There is a sense that the intelligentsia were enjoying themselves in the limelight, making a fool of the establishment. They understood that Britain was changing and that this was a last action by the prigs, who couldn’t win. And, just in case you don’t know, they didn’t. The cultural door was “booted open” for writers like Henry Miller, Philip Roth, John Updike, and many more who made “sexual intercourse” central to their writing.

Mind you, despite my heroics with inserting a fuck into Synapse, I’ve inherited some of the thinking from before the trial. I never watch pornography, use the word “fuck” only rarely, and can never ring myself to use the C word.


One thought on “Lady Chatterley’s Lover was in both Catholic and puritanical traditions

  1. Pingback: Sex with vegetation | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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