Lady Chatterley's heroine

In 1960, Bernadine Bishop was witness in a trial that changed the course of British history. Here, she gives Lisa Sewards a riveting account of the proceedings, and reveals how her new novel is set to be equally challenging
When 21-year-old Cambridge graduate Bernardine Wall took the stand at the Old Bailey in 1960, no one could have predicted that she would become the star witness in the Lady Chatterley trial – lighting the touchpaper for a revolution in sexual morality and censorship.

In a landmark trial that gripped the world, Crown prosecutors tried for two weeks to convince a jury that DH Lawrence’s graphic novel about a sexually consuming affair between Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, was obscene.

But dewy-faced Bernardine was testimony that not even a demure and clever student could be depraved by the novel that had been banned in In 1960, Bernardine Bishop was a witness in a trial that changed the course of British history. Here, she gives Lisa Sewards a riveting account of the proceedings, and reveals how her new novel is set to be equally challenging Britain ever since its publication in 1928. As such, she became the defence’s trump card in the historic Regina v Penguin Books Ltd confrontation over the novel’s 30 pages of rapturous, explicit sex.

‘My father, the writer Bernard Wall, put me forward. His friend, Michael Rubinstein, was the solicitor for Penguin and said to Papa: “We’re looking for someone young, uncorrupted and who has read the book, to be our final witness”,’ recalls Bernardine, 73, whose surname is now Bishop. ‘Papa said: “That sounds very like my daughter.” I was conventeducated and did look bedewed, even though I secretly wasn’t.’

An expurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, minus sexual references and four-letter words, was printed in Britain but the uncut version was readily available in Europe after its publication in Florence in 1928. But smuggling it into Britain had resulted in the destruction of 17 private printings by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew, between 1950 and 1960.

‘However, it was a myth that many people hadn’t read it,’ smiles Bernardine, who is one of the only two surviving witnesses from the Lady Chatterley trial. ‘I first read the clean version at the age of 17 but then in my final year at Cambridge, where I was reading English and studying Lawrence, I read the version with the rude bits after my boyfriend procured a copy in France. I admit that it was a tad titillating.’

But the 1959 Obscene Publications Act changed the rules by allowing the publication of any work of literary merit if it was for the public good. Books now had to be considered as a whole, not just with the risqué passages removed.

As a result, in August 1960, Allen Lane, the founder and chairman of Penguin, not only published 200,000 copies of the uncensored version, but he also brazenly presented 12 copies to Scotland Yard, risking going to jail if it went belly up.

Meanwhile, the Director of Public Prosecutions and his deputy, Maurice Crump – who couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more description of Lady Chatterley’s background, such as ‘whether she rode, hunted, played tennis or golf’ – decided to prosecute.

The trial began on 20 October. The lead prosecutor was Mervyn Griffith-Jones, a pompous and priggish QC, who described how he decided if a book was obscene: ‘I put my feet up on the desk and start reading. If I get an erection, we prosecute.’

He smugly invited the jury to condemn the book for encouraging ‘coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language’, pointing out that the word f**k or f***ing occurs no less than 30 times. But he quickly set himself up for lampooning for his snobbery and chauvinism by asking the jury: ‘Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’

Bernardine was the last witness in Court 1 and was well briefed by the defence. ‘I had to meet Michael Rubinstein and his wife for lunch. Even though I had quickly skimmed over the rude bits, because I knew I was going to be questioned on those and not on the plot, Michael had to tell me what the c-word meant,’ she says.

‘Then, with his wife still in the room, Michael gingerly explained the novel’s subtle references to anal sex, to which I’d been oblivious, as had many others.

‘He said: “Have you heard of something called the Italian way?”

‘I thought: “Golly, I think I have and now realise what these references in the book mean”.’

Luckily, until the night before her appearance in the witness box, Griffith- Jones had also failed to spot Lawrence’s oblique descriptions of anal sex. Had he done so earlier in the trial, it might have won the case for him.

‘I was absolutely terrified about being questioned on these parts of the book because it would have lost the case and it would have certainly been deemed obscene,’ says Bernardine. ‘I couldn’t eat on the day of the trial, nor the night before.’

Bernardine was the odd one out from the 35 or so expert witnesses they called from a stellar cast, including the novelist EM Forster, the historian Noel Annan, the critic Richard Hoggart and the Bishop of Woolwich.
BernadineBishop-01-590The first day the book went on sale, in 1960

‘As the last witness and a non-expert, I knew it depended on me looking innocent and expressing a morally unscathed attitude,’ she explains.

‘I owned barely any clothes so I borrowed my sister’s tartan skirt. I wore a black sweater, no jewellery and looked angelic with dark, shoulder- length hair and a fringe.

‘But my heart sank when Griffith- Jones said: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there are some parts of the book we have not studied enough together.” I knew what was coming.

‘But the judge refused to let him continue and to bring something new into the trial at that stage, so it was buried and Griffith-Jones sank like a stone.

‘Instead I was able tell the court that the book doesn’t put promiscuity on a pedestal, but that Lawrence just wanted us to be instinctive about sex. It was his way of preaching to us to find a balance between nature and our increasingly industrialised lives.

‘There was something about my solemnity and innocence that was getting to people’s hearts and even the judge recognised this.’

As a result, the prosecution declined to cross-examine Bernardine, realising that they had nothing to gain but plenty to lose after seeing an uncorrupted woman talking candidly and intelligently about sex, without a trace of prudishness.

Two days later, the jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was no longer deemed obscene by law, and there was a rush to the bookshops, which saw Penguin sell two million copies of it in the ensuing year.

Still as poised and elegant as she was in 1960, Bernardine remains modest about her key role in history, but admits: ‘Allen Lane said to me afterwards: “My dear, you’ve won it for us.” We had an amazing victory party and many people thanked me.’

In the words of one commentator, Bernardine’s chaste but erudite testimony marked ‘the moment the British decided they were no longer susceptible to depravity and corruption’.

Penguin described the trial as ‘not just a legal tussle, but a conflict of generation and class’. It was a watershed, heralding a new age of sexual expression and freedom, including the modernisation of divorce law and decriminalisation of homosexuality.

After the trial, Bernardine wrote two novels before becoming a teacher and then a distinguished psychotherapist. Cancer forced her into retirement in 2008 when she returned to her first love, writing, and has since completed three more novels, the first of which, Unexpected Lessons In Love, is published this month.

‘The Lady C trial was a breakthrough for sexual taboos. In a different way, Unexpected Lessons In Love also breaks boundaries in that it talks openly and honesty about colostomies,’ she explains gently. ‘I had a colostomy myself – it is a humiliation, there’s no getting away from it. On the other hand, it’s perfectly manageable.

‘It inspired me to write a novel about two woman diagnosed with cancer who undergo colostomies. Friends who have read it said it’s not for the squeamish and 50 years ago it wouldn’t have been published, as it’s too much of a taboo topic. But I hope this helps those who are afraid or perhaps ashamed to talk about it.’

Bernardine never sought credit for her part in the Lady Chatterley trial but is proud, if wistful, about her landmark role. ‘It changed the course of history; whether or not it was for the better we’ll never know. I felt sorry for Griffith-Jones being ridiculed for being out of touch, as he really believed Lady Chatterley heralded the end of the civilisation.

‘I read Lady Chatterley again recently on my Kindle and I couldn’t believe how tame it was. I was 60 per cent through the book before any rampant sex came up and I thought: “Golly, there’s not much sex in this book.” How times and censorship have changed.

‘I didn’t plan it this way, but now I hope I’m making history again, talking about medical, not sexual, taboos. So in both senses I hope I have done a bit of pioneering.’

Unexpected Lessons In Love by Bernardine Bishop is published by John Murray, priced £16.99.