In the days when touring Europe meant boarding an Italian ocean liner wearing a proper young lady’s suit, hat, high-heeled pumps and gloves, my college roommate joined a group of college students who would be properly chaperoned as they walked through the great cathedrals in England and heard lectures on art in the Vatican.
Meanwhile, I packed my trusty two-tone Plymouth to drive home, headed for a summer vacation teaching swimming lessons and arts and crafts to children who could not afford a sleep-away camp.
I left my roommate in tears. She did not relish two months of trailing behind a chaperone and listening to on-loan professors quote Shakespeare and Robert Browning. She bent the trip to her liking by promising she would buy two copies of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” a book banned in this country and considered “shockingly graphic.”
She also promised postcards in the mail describing her progress as she wandered down side streets in Paris in search of back alley bookstores, where, in her halting French, she would offer American dollars for literary contraband.
In case my mother chose to read the cards, the code for finding the book was settled as: “Having LOVELY time in Paris! Wish we could CHAT!” I made four or five mail checks a day, looking for word from Europe. Finally as July settled into heat and mosquitoes and children who wrapped their legs around mine to keep from treading water, a picture postcard filled the mailbox.
“Ah, Paris,” it read. “Having a LOVELY time! Wish we could CHAT!” I carried the card to my bedroom and unfolded my water-logged self in the closet. My heartbeat felt like a drum! I reread the postcard aloud in my fractured French, as excited as a child.
Marking off the days until classes started, the card was shopworn by the time my roommate and I fell on each other in the dormitory hall. Once our parents were spirited away, she put a chair under the doorknob and handed me, (wrapped in brown paper, tied with white string,) a gift from her trip. It was THE BOOK!
After lights out, we settled under a quilt and read by flashlight. Each time we heard a sound from the hall, we froze! Lovers’ trysts between an aristocratic woman and her gamekeeper were so far from our college lives we giggled, but were too embarrassed to discuss a single chapter.
We graduated, taking our worn copies of the novel home, stashing them under mattresses. Meanwhile, in London, a trial began giving voice to both the publisher of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and those who found the novel “obscene.”
The publisher of the book won the court case, and the judge’s copy, (steamy parts underlined by his wife so he could determine wayward phrases), found its way, chipped spine and all, to an American buyer.
Half a century passed before the American found himself up against a crowdfunding campaign and a government ban on exporting the book. Finally, in a well-publicized deal, the buyer was paid $69,000. In American dollars and the original edition of the book now belongs to England’s Bristol University.
The author, D.H. Lawrence, died before “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was no longer seen as “taboo in English culture.” Two million copies were sold within the two years following the court case.
At the trial, the lead prosecutor asked the questions of the day: “Would you approve of your young sons or your young daughters, (because girls can read as well as boys,) reading this book? Is it a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read?”
The jury took three hours to decide in favor of the publisher. My copy, its cover stained, was lost in a grown-up move to Alabama. For memory’s sake, I ordered another copy from Amazon. It took two days to arrive and had a sleazy cover. The book’s Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper looked like Marvel Comics figures.
The European traveler became the book editor of a big city newspaper. She sent one more brown paper parcel my way. Five years had passed and I opened it to find a book she had written.
The inscription read: “We need to CHAT. Enclosed find flashlight and quilt. XOXO, Ann.” I unfolded the quilt, and, though the sun was high in the sky, turned on the flashlight, settling into a porch rocking chair, never moving until I finished the book.
Then I wiped away tears and read it again, remembering two friends who read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” undercover. They were only girls, knowing so little of life, they looked for its pulse on the pages of a book.