Sunday, August 2, 2015

Was The Trial More Exciting Than the Book?

During a week when many people were trying to come to terms with two different fictional lawyers, both named Atticus Finch, I was reading the true story of a British barrister who was the pre-eminent defense attorney of his generation. The title, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories, does not come trippingly off the tongue, but Thomas Grant, also a barrister, has written a hugely entertaining book. Baron Hutchinson is still alive, at 100, and provides the postscript to this volume. Mr Grant insists he is as sharp as ever though a little wobbly on his pins.

Hutchinson’s mother was the inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway and Jeremy is said to be one of the models for John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey, though no one would ever accuse him of being a Old Bailey hack and I doubt he’s imbibed much Chateau Thames Embankment.

Hutchinson defended several spies, an art forger and Christine Keeler. He is best known for his role in R v Penguin Books, the most famous obscenity trial of the 1960s (there were quite a few). Penguin wished to publish an unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover to mark the thirtieth anniversary of D. H. Lawrence’s death. All prior editions in Great Britain had been pirated. The government believed that LCL was obscene and felt “if no action is taken in respect of this publication it will make proceedings against any other publication difficult.”

The prosecution contended that the book was obscene because “it sets upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse. It commends … sensuality almost as a virtue. It encourages, and indeed even advocates, coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language.” The prosecution even went so far as to let the jury know how many times certain four letter words appeared. Whatever literary merit the book might have was outweighed by its obscenity.

The defense had numerous academics and writers ready to testify that such was not the case. They settled on, among others, Roy Jenkins, Richard Hoggart and E.M. Forster. T.S. Eliot was prepared to follow Forster but his testimony was not needed.

The most effective witness was Richard Hoggart, a university lecturer little known here but famous in England for his book, The Uses of Literacy. In the book Hoggart talks about popular culture (self-created) v. mass culture (imposed from above).

Hoggart, a child of the working classes, comments on the passages that Hutchinson reads aloud in court. He talks about how often four letter words are used in everyday life. He contends that the descriptions of sex are all carefully woven into the psychological portrait of the characters. He calls the book “virtuous and puritanical.”

When the prosecution objects to the word "puritanical," he explains that the distinguishing feature of Puritanism “is an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience. In this sense the book is puritanical.”

The prosecuting barrister makes many missteps. He feels compelled to explain to the jury what a phallus is (“for those of you who have forgotten your Greek”) and calls not a single witness or expert. The prosecution had considered calling Rudyard Kipling. Alas, at the time of the trial, Kipling had been dead for over 20 years.

Despite the poor performance by the prosecution, a not guilty verdict was not a foregone conclusion. The judge was very clearly on the side of the prosecution and the verdict needed to be unanimous. When it was delivered the judged neither agreed to pay Penguin’ s legal costs nor did he thank the jury.

I’ve not ever finished Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Almost all of Lawrence’s other novels are much more interesting. Then in graduate school I was subjected to a Lawrence seminar. There’s nothing like attending graduate school in English to kill one’s love of reading.

As Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect.”

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

1 comment:

  1. Re your comment on grad school English etc... I took one English course in undergrad school, was bored stiff by the books the boring prof assigned... But have have spent a lot of my life since ... reading or writing fiction...Go figure! tjs