Johnny Come Lately
By BERNARD LEVIN
MR. JOHN SPARROW, Warden of All Souls, moved, as he says, by 'a liking for honesty and a loathing of humbug,' has recently been en- tertaining the readers of Encounter with his thoughts on Lady Chatterley's Lover and the un- successful prosecution of Penguin Books, under the Obscene Publications Act, for publishing it. Since the trial took place some sixteen months ago, it might be wondered why Mr. Sparrow is only just getting into the Act. Perhaps he felt (as well he might) that since virtually every literate person in the land, together with a num- ber of others, has given forth on the subject, it would look odd if he did not give tongue also. However, as the first person into considered print after the case, I feel no less impelled to examine Mr. Sparrow's raking-over of the cold old embers, if only in the laughable hope that this may really prove to be the last word.
Briefly, Mr. Sparrow argues that if the jury had known what he knows, they might have brought in a different verdict; and he implies, though he does not say, that they should have done so. What is this terrible discovery? Before coming to it, a word on the Warden's scholarship seems in order. I have had to rebuke Mr. Sparrow for its quality before (there was an unhappy mat- ter of a quotation he had re-written but forgotten to remove the quotation-marks from), and it does not seem to have improved since. It is, in this in- stance, third-hand—he was not at the trial, he has not looked at the transcript, and he relies solely on Mr. C. H. Ro1ph's account of the case pub- lished later as a Penguin. The importance of primary sources in academic circles could not, I should have thought, be over-emphasised; par- ticularly since in this instance first-hand, or even second-hand, work would have enabled him to avoid the pitfall' into which he has fallen.
Mr. Sparrow argues that in one of the sexual encounters of the book, the seventh of the eight between Constance and Mellors, Mellors is the instigator, and Constance the half-reluctant partner, of an act of intercourse per anum. This episode, the 'night of sensual passion,' is at the most cursory glance (all, I suspect, that Mr. Sparrow has given it) clearly about what he claims it is, There was no doubt in my mind when I first read the book that this is what it meant, nor have I yet come across anybody, apart from Mr. Sparrow, who failed at first reading to under- stand it in this sense. Indeed, it becomes difficult to understand why Mr. Sparrow wrote his article at all, for although it is true that he does draw certain conclusions from the fact, the article is largely concerned with its demonstration; rather as if somebody should take 8,000 words to show that Euclid's Elements contain an argument that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
I may in passing (in view of Mr. Sparrow's notorious loathing of humbug) look at some of the methods he uses to argue his case. He is at pains, for instance, to denigrate the defence wit- nesses ('the defence reeked of humbug'). He calls them 'experts,' in inverted commas, throughout, suggesting that they 'put themselves forward as "experts" at the trial,' which is of course untrue. They did not 'put themselves forward' as any- thing, but were invited to give evidence, and were put forward, by the defendants and their lawyers; and in any case they were not described, nor did they describe themselves, as 'experts,' nor does the Act anywhere refer to 'experts;' nor was it necessary for them to have any qualifications to give evidence, though Mr. Sparrow not only sug- gests it was, but singles out two of them to sneer at for lacking literary qualifications, ignoring the fact that evidence of merit other than literary is permissible under the Act, and also ignoring, in this connection, the very existence of the thirty- odd other witnesses—professors, priests, authors, lecturers, psychologists—who were emphatically well qualified, but who would do harm to his subtle hint that the defence not only reeked of humbug but lacked authority. Even for third- hand scholarship I should have thought this was impermissibly second-rate.
Nor will another aspect of Mr. Sparrow's argument quite do; his elevation of Lawrence's attitude to the practice in question into one of the most important elements, if not the most important, in his sexual philosophy, is most ques- tionable; so is his argument that Lawrence was at pains to conceal his true meaning at this point, though doubtless such an argument serves to throw into brighter relief Mr. Sparrow's perspi- cacity in seeing it. And his charming suggestion, first mooted (to nobody's surprise) by Mr. John Gordon, that the thing Penguins were most inter- ested in was the money they could make out of the book seems an odd way for one who presum- ably wants to be accorded the respect of sincerity in his own motives ('a loathing of humbug') to question those of other people; it was, after all, the prosecution that sold the book in such vast numbers.
Still, Mr. Sparrow's embroidery does not con- cern me as much as the stuff of his argument. For his whole case seems to me to rest on a fallacy—that the jury were unaware, when they retired, what the passage in question meant. Now I was in court throughout the trial (as Mr. Sparrow was not), and I heard the whole of Mr. Griffith-Jones's closing address (in which the key passage was quoted for the first time), and here, too, I have the advantage of Mr. Sparrow, who has only read Mr. Ro1ph's cut version of the speech. And to me, and to everybody else I have spoken to who was present at the time, it was not only obvious that Mr. Griffith-Jones knew what it was about, and was—by means of repeated, heavily emphasised innuendoes, only some of which Mr. Sparrow knows of, not having heard or read the original—trying to implant an extra horror in the jury's mind at the last minute; but, most of all, it was obvious that the jury had taken his point. The atmosphere in court as Mr. Griffith-Jones read perceptibly changed; the hush deepened, broken only by a healthy snort of derision from Mr. Kenneth Tynan, and all eyes turned to the jury to see how they were taking this last-minute assault. Their verdict showed that they took it well; but their demeanour showed beyond reasonable doubt that they were taking it. They paid much closer attention; their faces changed; their bodies became more rigid; they became quite still, including the very fidgety one. As certainly as can be said without asking them, it can be said that the jury knew what Mr. Griffith-Jones was talking about.
What is more, virtually everybody else in court knew it. I have since been told that Mr. Jeremy Hutchinson, the junior defence counsel, has said that be did not understand the passage in the obvious, Sparrovian sense. This, in a sense, weakens my argument if it is true, but it rather charmingly weakens Mr. Sparrow's also, for he unluckily suggests that Mr. Hutchinson at one point deliberately steered a witness away from mentioning it, for fear of its possible effect!
What is Mr. Sparrow up to? Is he not up to what the prosecution was up to, and what the judge was at one point up to? That is the sugges- tion that there are things which it is all right for him, with his knowledge, his moral stability, and his wisdom, to read and know about, but not all right for shop-girls, factory-workers, wives or servants. This is, indeed, the fundamental attitude of the Establishment of which Mr. Sparrow has for so long been the tireless and excellent Secretary-General. But it is, I think, an attitude of which the rest of us are becoming increasingly tired, and which the Penguin case did much to knock on the head. Which is probably why Mr. Sparrow has thought to reopen the case now.
PS. Now I have a discovery to report—a real one. Having reread the passage in question, I have come for the first time to the conclusion that Lawrence may not have been describing intercourse per anion at all, but intercourse 'normal' except in the matter of posture. Perhaps Mr. Sparrow might like to study it in this light, and report on his conclusions. In which case, of course, we will not have heard the last word on the subject after all, Not that I thought we had.