Few aspects of life in 1920s Britain depressed the novelist D H Lawrence more than the nation's impoverished and tawdry outlook on matters of the flesh. Sex had been "reduced to lady's underclothing and the fumbling therewith," Lawrence wrote in his 1929 essay A Propos of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Men were excited by nothing more than "meaningless young women in expensive underclothes".
This year is the 75th anniversary of the author's death, and it is reasonable to assume that the latest appropriation of the writer's most famous and once notorious novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, would have had him spinning in his grave.
The Ann Summers sex-shop chain has taken the title of the 1928 novel for its latest erotic range of underwear, meaning that for a new generation it may always be associated with frilly knickers, bras, basques and suspenders all available up to size 40DD with a mauve, pink-ribboned blindfold to match.
The firm's catalogue proclaims the products are for "you and your lover" and, in a surprisingly literary reference to the 1960 obscenity trial which finally saw the novel published in unexpurgated form, it claims that this is a range "not to be banned".
Some may feel the products have a certain appeal and they certainly bear no comparison with other Lady Chatterley merchandise over the years, which has included a number of hardcore videos. Hardly what the miner's son from Nottinghamshire had in mind. But the trustees of the Lawrence estate consider the new lingerie range to be distinctly unsavoury.
"In the United States, we could probably sue under moral rights infringement," said Lesley Pollinger, literary executor and trustee of the estate. "We can't do that here, but we shall certainly be writing to Ann Summers and asking them to explain themselves. Lawrence would have been appalled by this."
Ms Pollinger's colleague, Tim Bates, the grandson of H E Bates, was equally dismayed. "The range is very purple and I think [it] has whalebone in it," he said. "When we tried to look at the website from our computers, our in-built 'filth-filter' blocked access to it. Ann Summers is a mischievous company and quite enjoys the controversy."
If the firm had wanted to evade the scrutiny of Lawrence's executors, who are the gatekeepers of literary integrity for the writer's elderly beneficiaries, they could have done better than invite Ms Pollinger's daughter to one of its parties. She returned with the catalogue, alerted her mother and prompted this intervention.
Since Lady Chatterley is not a trademark and her creator is dead, there are no realistic grounds for a legal suit over the new use of Lawrence's title. But the executors still want to preserve the reputation of the novel, in which wealthy, married Constance Chatterley embarks on a relationship with a man who works on her husband's estate.
The work was one of the purest manifestations of Lawrence's belief that sex was the key to an undistorted perception of reality. "What the blood feels, and believes, and says, is always true," he wrote.
The executors' intervention contributes to a backlash against the misappropriation of works of art for new commercial purposes. The use of Gene Kelly's celebrated dance sequence from Singin' in the Rain to advertise a Volkswagen this year was denounced by Kelly's first wife as "sleazy" and a "travesty", which stripped a "much-loved dance ... of humanity and joy". It employed digital technology to turn Kelly into a hip-hop dancer.
The company's chief executive, Jacqueline Gold, said: "We have not received any letter yet, but we look forward to hearing from them. It sounds like they are getting their knickers in a twist."
77 years of controversy
* Written by D H Lawrence in 1928
* No publisher in England would print the contents, but Lawrence refused to bow to "censor morons" and had the book published privately with his own funds in Florence.
* The 1,000 copies of this first edition printed in July 1928 were sold through personal friends due to the expectation of trouble from the police.
* Because the novel was printed privately, it had no copyright. Pirate editions were sold in New York, London and across Europe.
* Lawrence printed 3,000 copies in Paris in 1929.
* Lawrence's intentions were misunderstood and the book received scathing criticism. An anonymous author in John Bull said it "reeked with obscenity and lewdness".
* Lawrence died in 1930.
* By 1932, two "abridged" versions had been published. His widow, Frieda, endorsed one expurgated version on the sleeve.
* In 1959, Grove Press in America published the novel in full, leading to a trial at the US District Court. President Eisenhower opposed the book, saying: "Dreadful ... We can't have it." Aldous Huxley defended it. The judge ruled it "an honest and sincere novel of literary merit".
* In the UK, the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, allowed publishers to escape conviction if they could show a work was of literary merit. Penguin printed 200,000 copies and challenged the Director of Public Prosecutions to take them to court.
* A highly publicised court case followed and, eventually, Penguin won the right to publish.
* On 10 November 1960, bookshops across the country sold out of Penguin's first run of the novel. A total of 200,000 copies were sold on this first day of publication.
* Within a year two million copies had been sold.
Geneviève RobertsReuse content