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3 November 2020

From the NS archive: View from the witness box

12 November 1960: Can the law really determine literary merit?

By Walter Allen

When DH Lawrence completed “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, he couldn’t get it published commercially in its “unexpurgated form”: the content was too explicit. He published it privately in 1928 with a print run of 1,000; plus a second edition of 200 copies. In 1932, two years after Lawrence’s death, British publisher Martin Secker and US publisher Alfred A. Knopf both published heavily censored editions of the novel. It wasn’t until 1960 that Penguin published the full version – and they were subsequently tried for breach of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Here, Walter Allen reports after he gave evidence at the trial as a literary critic and expert witness (and ten days after the “not guilty” verdict was delivered). He considers a meeting of two worlds – the legal system and literary criticism – and celebrates that a work of such significance had been set free.


I write as one of “those most eminent and academic ladies and gentlemen” about whom Mr Mervyn Griffith-Jones could not help feeling that, “sincerely and honestly as they feel, they feel in such a way that common sense perhaps has gone by the board”. As such, I never dared for a moment to hope that within a week of appearing in the box at Court No. 1 should be typing that title, that publisher and that price at the head of a review. No doubt the Archbishop is right when he says: “The law is a clumsy instrument for dealing with matters of moral discretion.” It is also, or so it seemed a week ago at the Old Bailey, a clumsy instrument for determining literary merit.

A journalist who was in court throughout told me that his impression of the case was of two worlds that existed side by side and did not meet at a single point. That was certainly how it seemed as one read the reports of the trial before going into the witness-box and as one watched the proceedings afterwards. I think the representatives of these two worlds were genuinely bewildered by each other. The failure to make contact was there from the start, when Mr Griffith-Jones asked Mr Graham Hough whether he did not find a certain passage shocking . “Shocking,” Mr Hough replied, was not a word used in literary criticism. Early on, Mr Griffith-Jones was lamenting that expert witnesses seemed incapable of answering simply yes or no to questions that doubtless appeared simple to him; while expert witnesses were invited to pronounce on the literary merit of passages or sentences wrenched out of context and no doubt ached to ask Mr Griffith-Jones to pronounce on the literary merit of such lines as “Never, never, never, never, never!” and “Pray, you, undo this button”. 

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To literary critics, in fact, the questions Mr Griffith-Jones put to witnesses could only suggest a man who had never read a work of imaginative writing in his life before and had found the experience most upsetting. Nor do I think Mr Justice Byrne showed up much better. He seemed to think Lady Chatterley’s Lover was about adultery: it is surely scarcely more about adultery than Macbeth is about witchcraft. In the end, the case became a case about the nature of the act of reading a work of imagination; and in its interpretation of a process that is really quite complex the prosecution was all too naive. To quote from the Times report:

“He [Mr Griffith-Jones] suggested that with the learning and reading that lay behind Miss Rebecca West, she was capable of reading what she said into the book, but was that typical of the effect the book would have on the average reader? ‘Are they really going to see any allegory within it? Is the baronet and his impotence going to be read by them as a symbol of the impotent culture of that time?'”

Mr Griffith-Jones went on to say: “One wonders…whether one is talking with the same language.” He needn’t have wondered; he wasn’t talking with the same language as Dame Rebecca. He was using a language too unsubtle, too imprecise, too poor in its vocabulary to make the serious discussion of a serious subject possible. Expert witnesses under cross-examination were in much the same situation as a lover of painting trying to discuss a picture with a colour-blind man or a musician attempting to convert the tone-deaf to an appreciation of a symphony.

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And of course Rebecca West was right. Sir Clifford Chatterley is an allegorical or symbolic figure. The average reader – whoever he may be – may not know the words “allegorical” or “symbolic”; it doesn’t matter in the least; he will certainly realise, such is the tone, quality and direction of Lawrence’s prose, that Sir Clifford has a meaning beyond the merely literal, stands for something more than himself. And this, of course, is the way good novels act upon readers and why outlines of plot, enumerations of “bouts” and totting-up of four-letter words are quite inadequate to sum up a novel like Lady Chatterley.

The point was made again and again from the witness-box that the novel is only partly, and perhaps not even fundamentally, about sex. In my view it is about what the Victorians called the Condition of England question. E. M. Forster, in court, placed Lawrence in the English Puritan tradition somewhere between Bunyan and Blake. That is generally true. But Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it seems to me, is even more directly in the line of descent from Carlyle and Ruskin. It is an attack on what Carlyle called “the cash-nexus”, which he saw as the only relationship between human beings in industrial society. In a sense, sex is Lawrence’s desperate solution of the problem. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, as most witnesses were at pains to point out, isn’t the best of Lawrence. It doesn’t compare with The Rainbow or Women in Love or Sons and Lovers, or with the best of the short stories, or with Etruscan Places. But it is one of the most powerful moral fables ever written, and only one man could have written it.

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The heartening thing is we were wrong about those two self-enclosed worlds. They did meet. They met in the 12 men and women in the jury-box. One knows nothing about them – and in a way that seems to me almost the rummest thing in a very rum business. Whether they needed it or not, they were subjected to the most intensive – and the most expensive – course in the principles of literary criticism known to history. They have, knowingly or not, affirmed what Lawrence described in the book that all the fuss was about, as “the vast importance of the novel”: that “it can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead”. 

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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