A fragment of legal history may soon be passing out of the country: the judge’s copy of the book at the centre of one of Britain’s most infamous trials – annotated by his wife – who deserves her own footnote in legal history
Sir Laurence Byrne, who presided over R v Penguin Books, the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in October 1960, preserved his modesty as one of the novel’s most attentive but more improbable readers by carrying his copy to and from court each day in a blue-grey damask bag with a blue ribbon tie, made for him by his wife, Lady Byrne. As an object – the sort of thing a young woman of the early 20th century would have made to conceal an embarrassing purchase of ‘sanitary napkins’ – its girlish design does no justice to Penguin’s trademark orange paperback or its bold cover showing a phoenix rising from the flames.
Dorothy Byrne, following the now obsolete custom of sitting on the Bench beside her husband, was the most visible woman in court during the trial; Jeremy Hutchinson, then junior counsel for Penguin (his own landmark role in defending an artwork, in The Romans in Britain trial, many years ahead of him) described her:
‘…with her arms crossed, glaring down…, a grim and disapproving spectator’.
She had read the novel and made annotations for her husband on the Central Criminal Court’s headed stationery: a list of page numbers and summaries of significant passages, highlighting the presence or absence of what was ‘vulgar’ or ‘coarse’ – unsurprisingly refraining from transcribing the insistent ‘fuck’ and similar simple English words which the prosecution counted up to build their case on obscenity.
The jury’s verdict that Penguin was not guilty of publishing an obscene book was a turning-point towards the more permissive age of the 1960s. Like the prosecutor’s notorious question ‘Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’ much of the trial now seems absurdly anachronistic, including the presence of Lady Byrne sitting beside her husband on the Bench. She, however, would have found the court’s surroundings familiar, as the Old Bailey was a place with which she had a deep family connection.
Born in 1894, the same year as D H Lawrence’s fictional Constance Reid, and, like her, a daughter of the ‘well-to-do intelligentsia’, Dorothy Tickell had grown up in London, in a mansion flat by Battersea Park. Her father, Joseph Tickell QC, was a successful criminal silk, described in one obituary as:
‘one of the most familiar officers of justice to Londoners… He looked like a bit of old English oak, gnarled and sturdy, but he had a kind heart and was a wag of no uncommon order. For the good things of this world, which he had countless opportunities of cultivating during his long service, he had a rare and immense taste.’
Dorothy’s brother, later deputy clerk at the Old Bailey, was Joseph Avory Tickell, whose middle name hinted at another Old Bailey connection: the fearsome Avory J, himself the son of an Old Bailey clerk. Horace Avory was a contemporary of Joseph Tickell and the old Old Bailey, as these men first knew it in the mid-1870s, was a theatre of crime and punishment, where the only fabric accessory a judge carried was a black cap for passing sentence on those condemned to hang.
Dorothy was educated first in Chelsea, and then, like D H Lawrence’s fictional heroine, abroad, before returning to London, where she lived independently after her parents’ deaths. In the decade between the end of the First World War and her marriage, her home was in York Street in Marylebone, in ‘ladies’ residential chambers’ purpose-built for educated working women to live a kind of collegiate life, with their own private rooms and a shared dining room.
The Marylebone electoral register for 1920 records Dorothy’s residence, together with all the Agneses and Phyllises and other young, unmarried, middle-class women who had come of age during the First World War and had lost brothers, sweethearts, fiancés and husbands in the slaughter of a generation of young men. Many would never marry, such was the shortage of men in the post-war years. In the borough of Marylebone alone, there were over 20,000 more women than men in 1921, and half of the women in the borough were unmarried.
Dorothy Tickell might well have been one of those who wondered if she would ever marry, for she was in her early 30s when she married Laurence Byrne in 1928, the year in which Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published. As she read the novel and made notes for her husband, Lady Byrne may have been the only woman present at the trial who knew and recalled the life of a young woman with little or no hope of any sort of sex life after the First World War. She deserves her own footnote in the trial’s history, both for her personal connection with the Old Bailey, and the coincidental parallels between her own early life and that of D H Lawrence’s fictional Lady Chatterley.
The judge’s copy of the book, his own notes as well as Dorothy’s and the damask bag were sold at auction earlier this year for £56,250 and are now the subject of a campaign to keep them in the United Kingdom. A temporary export bar expires on 12 August (subject to an extension to 12 October).
The influence Dorothy’s notes may have had on her husband’s conduct of the trial and summing-up at trial is a matter of speculation, although the picture of the items on the website of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest website tantalisingly shows her description of the first meeting between Lady Caroline and Mellors: ‘meets gamekeeper but not vulgar’.
Barbara Rich is a barrister at 5 Stone Buildings, Lincoln’s Inn.