Reading Note:
Court Reporter
27 March 2019

Sybille Bedford’s wonderful writing falls into two categories. The more familiar is probably most simply labeled “autobiographical,” but only on the understanding that in Bedford’s hands the subject may range from an instant friendship with Martha Gellhorn to the harrowing descent of the author’s mother into morphine addiction. In this group, too, we ought to include the three novels and the “semiautobiographical memoir,” Jigsaw, the book that I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with this extraordinarily humane woman’s compelling style. 

In the other group fall the reports of trials, most notably that of John Bodkin Adams, that were Bedford’s bread and butter. Adams was a doctor from Eastbourne who was charged, ludicrously as it turned out, with murder, in 1957. Bedford entitled her account of the doctor’s eventual acquittal, with justifiable civic pride, The Best We Can Do. The comprehensive reader of Bedford will learn that she developed a passion for attending trials as a teenager in London. Although formally untrained (so far as I know), she learned not only the nuts and bolts but also the underlying philosophy — not that anything so English could possibly be rational enough to warrant that term — of criminal procedure. She also became a connoisseur of the professional performances of judges and barristers. I wonder if The Best We Can Do has ever been adapted for the stage? 

I have just got my hands on the recent republication of an article that first appeared in Esquire in 1959-60, The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Regina v. Penguin Books Ltd. Daunt Books, the publisher, has plastered a telling quote from the trial, made by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, counsel for the prosecution, on the book’s cover, as if it were the title: “Would YOU let your WIFE read this BOOK?” The misguided tone of the prosecution is even more glaringly revealed by what counsel said next: “Or your servant?”

I have never read D H Lawrence’s notoriously explicit love story, although I recall giving it a try once. I haven’t read any Lawrence, really, probably because, as one of the many expert witnesses at the trial pointed out, Lawrence has absolutely no sense of humor. I seem to have picked that up from the novella that we had to read in school, “The Fox.” I’m not complaining that Lawrence doesn’t crack jokes. But his prose never twinkles with the irony that makes me smile, and thereby keeps me going. Had I sat on the jury, nothing in the experts’ testimony would have inspired me to give Lady Chatterley another chance — although I too would have voted for acquittal. 

Experts take up most of Bedford’s report, just as they did the trial itself. Penguin had printed 200,000 copies of the unexpurgated text but not offered them for sale; instead, a few copies were given to a policeman who called at the office. Thus carefully, Penguin violated the letter but not the spirit of the law. Only the firm was charged; no individual stood in the dock. The prosecution declined to call any witnesses, relying instead on counsel’s determination to keep his own feet firmly “planted on the ground,” and to call spades spades. His prurient, unimaginative reductionism — shared by the judge — was rejected by the jury, which apparently found a way to be adult about adult literature. The principle interest of Bedford’s book, in my view, is the picture of Griffith-Jones’s failure to see that his conception of decency is nothing more than an undigested and already outdated regard for the hypocrisies of respectability — not a lifesaver but a lump of lead. Bedford also makes the important point that an obscenity trial, insofar as it calls for mature judgment, is incompatible with the machinery of Anglophone criminal justice.

Now, if Lady Chatterley had been a Netflix series

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