Emily Books

BOOKS: Lady Chatterley’s Lover – 50 Years On

BOOKS: Lady Chatterley’s Lover – 50 Years On
Text settings
Comments

 

This week sees Penguin publish a 50th anniversary edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Trussed up in striped orange livery, with a central image that’s a somewhat raunchy pun on the original, this classic is being re-released with new bonus material from Geoffrey Robertson QC and Steve Hare. The Lady Chatterley Trial is one of the most infamous trials in literary history and perhaps it is apt to mark its 50-year anniversary with a new edition of the novel, complete with added bumpf about the court case.

When, in 1960, the Crown levelled the charge of obscenity against Penguin for wanting to publish an unedited version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (as was already available in France and Italy), the publishing house made use of a loophole in Roy Jenkins’s Obscene Publications Act of 1959. This Act stated that a work could be of sufficient literary merit to counterbalance its obscenity – books must be ‘taken as a whole’ rather than judged on individual passages. Penguin’s lawyer, Michael Rubenstein, asked over 300 literati of the day if they would be expert witnesses for the case. Some agreed – like E.M. Forster and T.S. Eliot (although rumour has it that the latter spent the whole trial waiting in a taxi outside, meter ticking) – and some refused – like Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, and a rather bemused Enid Blyton.

When Penguin eventually got away with it – the publishing house was acquitted on 2nd November 1960 – it printed 200 000 copies, and sold over 3 million over the next three months. What a sensation! After all the fuss, everyone wanted to see exactly where all those four-letter words lay, and just what Lady C was up to with her gamekeeper.

All this can be gleaned from the two essays in the new edition, together with other juicy details about the case. Most of these are at the expense of the prosecuting counsel, such as his infamous gaff in saying ‘girls can read as well as boys’, and his opening speech, in which he listed exactly how many times each obscene four-letter word appeared in the book.

But does Penguin really just want to inform the reading public about this nugget of 20th Century literary-legal history? Or is there an ulterior motive behind publication of this snazzy new edition? I’m afraid, rather cynically, that new editions are almost invariably produced to boost backlist sales.

Publishing houses tend to think about their books in terms of frontlist and backlist. Most effort tends to go into the frontlist – new books, new talent, hot topics, and all those celeb biographies. The frontlist is the destination of the six-figure advances and so this is where there is tremendous pressure to shift books and make money. The art department is briefed to create a commercial cover; marketing and publicity machines are jolted into motion; sales reps pitch their hardest … everything is put into place to give the book a chance at bestsellerhood.

(Of course, the lesson one should learn from Lady Chatterley’s Lover is that what a book really needs to do well is a high-profile court case.)

 

But alongside the frontlist, there exists a backlist – trusty old paperbacks that are no longer topical or fresh, no longer the subject of reviews or news … but they still get read. A backlist title will never have the obscene spike in sales enjoyed by a frontlist title, like Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey (which sold nearly 100 000 copies in its first week), but the sales keep ticking over. Something like the Penguin Classics edition of Oliver Twist, for instance, sells around 70 copies every week at £6.99 a pop. It sounds like a measly figure, but the cost of making the book is so minimal that, over time, it makes far more than peanuts.

The thing about classics is that they are virtually free to produce. If a work is out of copyright – if it’s been more than 70 years since the author died – then there is no need to pay the author any advance at all. Yes, there’s a small fee for the academic who writes the introduction and notes; the art department gets a bit of money for the cover; and there’s the cost of typesetting and proof-reading on top. But I bet they could do the whole thing for under a couple of thousand pounds.

Inevitably, some publishing houses have better backlists than others. Penguin is particularly canny at maximising its backlist. Rather than merely slipping a frontlist title into paperback format after a year or so and then letting it gather dust in hidden nooks of bookshops, Penguin is always coming up with new packages for its titles. Oliver Twist, for instance, also exists as a colourful Puffin Classic at £7.99, a Hardcover Classic for £12.99, and – at the top end of the scale – as a new Deluxe Puffin Classic with a cover design by Peter Blake for £100.

In our bookshop, we sell hundreds of Penguin’s Great Ideas series – mini paperbacks, mostly extracted from books already published by Penguin. Customers are charmed by their prettiness, and buy clumps of them as presents, or just the one to read quickly on the Tube. I once found myself buying one of Penguin’s Great Loves when I was caught without a book and an hour to kill before meeting a friend. Instead of idly thumb-twiddling, I zipped through Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata. And, true to Allen Lane’s original aim when he started Penguin in the 1930s, at £4.99, it cost less than a packet of cigarettes.

In addition to these various trussings, there are the anniversary editions – like this one of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The old Penguin Classics edition sells around 80 copies per week. All this publicity over the new edition means that sales will leap up quite impressively. (I’m rather surprised Penguin didn’t hoik the price up too.)

But, though I try to be cynical about new editions, I think this anniversary edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover has integrity. It genuinely does offer something new – two essays from the esteemed Geoffery Robertson QC and Steve Hare. It’s not like the 50th anniversary edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, published earlier this year by Random House, with nothing new about it other than a pretty front cover.

Perhaps it’s good to bring the reader’s attention to the circumstances surrounding the book’s publication. Robertson sees it as a seminal moment in British culture. ‘No other jury verdict in British history has had such a deep social impact,’ he writes. And soon afterwards, alongside the diminishing of theatre censorship and the new grittiness of British cinema, the first ‘fuck’ was said on the BBC. Obscenity was indeed ushered through the gates.

The two essays help one reread Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the way that one should read something 50 years after first publication – with hindsight. It is hard to believe that all those four-letter words caused such a stir, a mere 50 years ago. Now adultery is one of the most popular subjects of chick lit; how bizarre to think that, back in 1960, the prosecution was especially concerned about women reading the book, in case foul adulterous thoughts insinuated themselves into their pure minds. That books used to be censored at all seems like something from a different country, or perhaps, as L.P. Hartley would have pointed out, just a different age.

Finally, what really matters about this re-issue of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is that it’s a good book. It’s a classic. It has literary merit (enough to outweigh its obscenity, as they thought even back in 1960). And it’s worth remembering that classics don’t come around all that often.

Customers often hover around the bookshop’s table of new paperback fiction, unhappily peering at blurbs, complaining that they haven’t read anything truly wonderful for ages … I try to point them in the direction of something new that I’ve found really brilliant, but these books are rare – there are only a very few every year that I find absolutely extraordinary.

It’s exciting to read the frontlist – new books, new ideas, new stories. The frontlist is about as zeitgeisty as the musty old book world gets. But classics are reliably brilliant. They offer a panorama of the finest literature, spanning hundreds of years.

How lucky that every now and then an anniversary pops up and shines a spotlight on a particular classic. And perhaps, with all the thoughts freshly provoked by this splendid new edition, reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover today can be almost as thrilling as it must have been back in 1960.

Read Emily’s excellent book blog HERE.