Prosecuting ‘The Rainbow’

Or ‘… one hand always in the slime.’

While at the National Archives in Kew yesterday, I took a look at the file (HO 45/13944) about the prosecution of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow in 1915.
I was hoping to find some indication whether Lawrence’s attitude towards the War had been a contributing factor in the decision to prosecute. There were no clues about that, but the contents of the file were still interesting.
The papers at Kew are not about the initial prosecution, but about the need to answer questions posed afterwards by Philip Morrell M.P., in the House of Commons.
Morrell asked why proceedings were undertaken, and claimed that the prosecution was unfair to Lawrence, who was given no chance to defend himself.
He asked whether the Secretary of State was aware:

that no direct evidence was given by the prosecution in support of the charge, but that the counsel employed by the police, who was the only counsel present, confined himself to reading the unfavourable comments of two journalists. who were not called on to give evidence, and had apparently not read the book; and whether he will see that no further proceedings of this kind are taken by the police in respect of any work produced by an author of good standing and reputation, except after due notice being given to him, so that he may have at least as good an opportunity as any other accused man of replying to the charges made against him.

[The real problem was that Lawrence’s publishers, Methuen, had caved in immediately there was a whiff of danger; they pleaded guilty and withdrew the book, leaving Lawrence isolated and his reputation badly damaged.]
Sir John Simon replied, pointing out that prosecution was of the publisher not of the author, and saying that

it was not correct to say that [the magistrate’s] decision was arrived at without the book or the material passages therein being read.

(A slightly evasive answer; that reference to material passages hints that the magistrate may have read the hot bits, without looking at them in the context of the whole novel.)
Sir W. Byles asked a supplementary question, hinting at the issue I am most interested in: ‘Were these proceedings taken under the Defence of the Realm Act?’ and was told that they were not.
All these parliamentary quotations are taken from pages of Hansard that are stuck into the file. (In them ‘Lawrence’ is spelled ‘Laurence’ throughout, by the way, which maybe says something about the limits of his literary fame at the time.) Handwritten notes justify Simon’s answer: ‘The offence in respect of which proceedings were taken was not the writing but the publishing of the book referred to [….] The author not being a party to the proceedings could only be produced as a witness for the defence.’ Methuen, of course, chose not to call him.
So far, so legalistic. More revealing is the treatment of a Times report of the court case pasted into the file. These words reporting part of the prosecutor’s speech are underlined:

The book in question was a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action throughout, wrapped up in language which he supposed would be regarded in some quarters as an artistic and intellectual effort.

In the margin, some ministerial hand has added:

The author dwells on the sexual feelings of a number of people in a way which suggests a diseased mind.
See e.g.: pp 317-8, 448-9.

Official feeling about Lawrence is shown in some pages added to the file in 1930. After Lawrence’s death, one S. Witt (who was he?) noticed an advertisement in the TLS for the publisher Secker, announcing a new edition of Lawrence’s novels, including The Rainbow.
He asked whether action should be taken, obviously feeling that it should be. One J.B responded:

Although the 1915 proceedings were taken in the Commisioner’s name, they were practically initiated by the late Sir Charles Matthews [DPP in 1917].
I have gone through the book again. There are a few passages that would I think still be adjudged obscene by some Courts; but I feel quite clear that proceedings would be unwise.

S. Witt had to agree:

It would certainly be unwise to give the works of Lawrence any further advertisement or to appear to be attacking a writer after his death. If all the critics were to write as plainly and boldly as the author of the paragraph in the Daily Telegraph of the 4th March (see within) we should have no further cause for anxiety.

So in 1930 The Rainbow was published with impunity.
That Daily Telegraph article, though, gives an idea of how he and his work were regarded by the respectable in 1930. It really is quite a nasty piece of writing.


  1. Posted January 15, 2012 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    That telegraph “review” is a polemic in all but name. I wonder who write it?

    • Posted January 19, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      I’ve just finished Aldington’s Portrait of a Genius, But…, one of Lawrence’s first biographies. Its title was inspiredbyremarkslike the Telegraph’s. It’s a good book, by the way.

      • Posted January 19, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        That one has been on my to-read list for a while. I must get round to it.
        The only Aldington biography I’ve read is his hatchet job on Lawrence of Arabia. Utterly relentless in its intention to show Lawrence as without a single redeeming feature. The excess of vituperation puts one off, but I suspect there’s much truth in it.

  2. Posted January 20, 2012 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Aldington is fair to Lawrence, acknowledging his genius and sensitivity while showing his egotism and insensitivity to other people. I’d guess with TEL his animosity is connected with his own war experiences. Aldington didn’t think TEL was in a ‘proper’ war at all. Add telling lies about it…The only novel of Aldington’s i’ve read that was worth reading was Death of a Hero, again with hatred and self-hatred behind it.
    Definitely a long-term war casualty.

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