Published to celebrate Penguin’s 70th birthday, this collection has moved houses with us three times. Up until now, I’m ashamed to say it has remained largely unread. But now I’m going to be reviewing one a week, and I’m really looking forward to dipping into such a varied diet.
First up is a set of extracts from C.H. Rolph’s account of Penguin’s obscenity trial for its attempt to publish D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. I can see why Penguin have chosen this one as Book 1 in this boxset – Gerald Gardiner’s Opening Address for the Defence reminds us of Penguin’s origins, of Allen Lane’s desire to make good writing accessible to all. It’s a salutary reminder of the importance of books, and also of free speech.
The Opening address for the Prosecution from Mervyn Griffith-Jones, must have been, I would have thought, remarkably effective in ensuring many people dashed out to get their hands on this book as soon as it became available. Describing the novel’s thirteen sexual encounters, in which ‘the curtain is never drawn’, he goes on to tell us that ‘one follows them not only into the bedroom but into bed and one remains with them there.’ This would surely be regarded as an excellent marketing ploy today.
The list of witnesses is fascinating. Rebecca West damns with faint praise, but Richard Hoggart, Senior Lecturer at Leicester University, is more helpful to Penguin’s cause, describing Lady Chatterley’s Lover as ‘a book of quite exceptional literary merit.’ Mr Hoggart, ‘self-composed, determined, and unshakeable,’ emerges as something of a hero, particularly in his defence of Lawrence’s use of ‘four-letter words’.
Of course, we know the outcome. I suspect that, had the judgement gone the other way, it would have been challenged and overcome with time. But it struck a note of sense in 1960 and, fortunately for the reading public, we were deemed ready to be able to cope with such stuff. Personally, I’m not a massive Lawrence fan – I find him too heavily emotional (West’s assertion that Lawrence had ‘absolutely no sense of humour’ rings true) and besides, Stella Gibbons’ brilliant Cold Comfort Farm now means I can’t take many of his characters seriously. However, as West also says, ‘Lawrence was a very practical and realistic man and he did see that in every country in the world there were vast urban populations who had lost touch with the real world … he was governed by the fear that something would happen, and he did want to get us back to something that would save us.’ Perhaps it’s as relevant now as it was then – I should probably give him another go.