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The Chatterley hat trick

Three books that give you the complete story behind D.H. Lawrence's notorious Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Not the most felicitous of metaphors to use when India has crashed to a humiliating defeat at Trent Bridge but in book-hunting, like in cricket, one can sometimes bag a hat trick. And so it was when I found, on the dollar shelf outside a second-hand bookshop, three books placed in a manner that would bring an approving smile on the face of the most fastidious librarian. An unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover was neatly sandwiched between The First Lady Chatterley and The Trial of Lady Chatterley. To pick them all up was a matter of moments; to read and discuss all three can take several days and much more space than this column.

But briefly, Lady Chatterley's Lover, read more than eight decades after it was written is hardly likely to shock. Constance, or Connie, is married to a Clifford, a minor baron in a fast industrialising England. The marriage is unhappy, incomplete and distant, not the least because Clifford is left paralysed below the waist in the War. Struggling with her sexual frustration and loneliness, Connie finds happiness, love and a child in the arms of Clifford's gamekeeper, Mellors. There are elaborate descriptions of the physical union, sympathy for the adulterous relationship, beautiful and sensual writing, some ridiculous passages and a generous sprinkling of well-known Anglo-Saxon four-letter words, not usually found in such novels. There is also some half-hearted polemic against a sick, industrialised society prostrating itself at the feet of the “bitch Goddess of Success” set against the ideal of world of nature and the soul in which human relationships are based on mutual respect, or reverence, as Lawrence would have it. And there is the India connection, where Mellors has served as an army officer. The rest is the baggage of this book's dramatic publishing history that has made it synonymous with teenage titillation, steamy writing, and the banning of books. But for this baggage, the book may not have attracted half the fame-or notoriety- that it did.

The second book, The First Lady Chatterley, was the first of the three drafts of the book that Lawrence wrote, between 1925 and 1928, in a pinewood in the Tuscan hills. He wrote sitting absolutely still on a stone slab in a cave with another stone slab as a table with a spring gurgling close by, not far from olive trees, mint and thyme, wild gladioli, violets and myrtle shrubs. This first draft was published in 1944 with a loving foreword by his wife Frieda, who regarded it as her favourite of the three versions. The story is the same but modern literature's most famous gamekeeper Mellors is known here as Parkin and the ‘purple passages' that were to so shock the keepers of the world's conscience are missing. The first version was too gentle, too mystic, too tender for a Lawrence wishing to revolt against the bounds of a genteel society and the demands of censor-morons, as he called them. He wanted to add punch and so he produced his “taboo-shattering bomb.”

But it is The Trial of Lady Chatterley that is the most engrossing. It is a sharply edited transcript of the case of Regina v. Penguin Books Limited, fought at the Old Bailey in October 1960. Penguin had advertised an unexpurgated publication of the book and obviously expecting quick sales had printed 200,000 copies. The Director of Public Prosecution, obtaining a copy from the notorious booksellers of Charing Cross, challenged the publication under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, which ironically had been brought in to prevent pornography but protect literature. Penguin then sent across 12 copies for the jurors, ordinary men and women, who read them comfortably ensconced in deep leather armchairs. The test was simple: the jurors were to decide if the book, read as a whole, was such that would ‘tend to deprave or corrupt persons” who were likely to read it; and if so, then was there sufficient public good in the interest of science, literature, art etc to still justify its publication?

Brilliant arguments were advanced from both sides. The Prosecution argued that the book put adultery and promiscuity on a pedestal, that the narrative described only a series of sexual encounters and the polemic against industrialisation was mere padding. There was unnecessary use of coarse language (there is something inherently amusing in a proper barrister at the Old Bailey toting up the number of times each of the famous four-letter words has been used) and, available widely for three and a half shillings, the book would “tend to deprave and corrupt” without any countering literary merit. The Defence was elaborately organized and brought forward 35 witnesses — men and women of letters including E.M. Forster, teachers, moral theologians — to expound on the literary merits of the book. Lawrence was portrayed as Britain's greatest novelist of the time since Hardy. One witness called the book ‘virtuous and puritanical'; another called it an argument in favour of marriage — but not just a legal marriage (!) — since Connie and Mellors want to marry; another an allegory in which all the sex is simply a ‘return to the soul' in a mechanised, sick world. Lawrence had wanted to show the importance of human relationships, and most importantly the man-woman relationship in its physical and emotional wholeness. As to his use of four letter words, he wanted to drag them out of their shameful connotations and thus purify them; only then could sex, which he called “valid and precious”, be spoken about as something pure and normal. After six days of hearings, the jury took only three hours to reach the unanimous verdict of “Not Guilty”. It was never clarified whether that meant “not obscene” or “obscene but justified.” The judge refused to pass an order regarding costs, which at £13000 probably made this the most expensive seminar on Lawrence's writing. Penguin was allowed to publish the unexpurgated version in the U.K., 32 years after the author's death and they chose to dedicate the publication to the 12 jurors who made it possible.

Four years later, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court of India in the case of Ranjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra held that the book met the test for obscenity and there was no social good arising out of it that would still justify its publication in India. Justice Hidyatullah's judgment, whether one agree with it or not, is worth reading for its coruscating brilliance and analysis of Lawrence's personality.


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