Back in 1928, D. H. Lawrence published a book that rocked Britain. It appeared first in France. When he tried to get it released in Britain, it was banned. Lady Chatterley’s Lover finally appeared in expurgated form, both in Britain and the United States. But when Penguin tried to publish it, uncensored, in 1960, they were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act 1959.
It was publicity that could not be bought: and the story of Lady Connie Chatterley – a married woman – and her intimacies with someone not her husband, became inextricably entwined with scandalous but must-be-read literature. Did I say ‘inextricably entwined’? I did, didn’t I.
The odd thing was that early twentieth century British high society – of which Lawrence had been a part – was no stranger to sexual pecadilloes, drugs and a rather bohemian lifestyle. Their numbers included the ‘Bloomsbury’ set: writers and artists who routinely used drugs and slept with each other. Others included the Prime Minister’s mistress, Venetia Stanley, whose circle of friends included groups who often used chloroform – bought over the counter – to get high and, of course, eventually knock themselves out.
There was a lot of speculation as to whether Lawrence had based Lady Chatterley on anybody: and, of course, he had. One of the building blocks was Lady Cynthia Asquith, nee Charteris, who Lawrence knew. She had spent the First World War flitting around London society in what she called her ‘cuckooning’ phase, staying with friends while she rented out a flat she owned, for income. She knew Stanley, though she had never been quite part of the bohemian scene. However, while her husband Herbert (‘Beb’) Asquith was serving in France, Cynthia was associated with a string of often high-profile men in London, all of whom – according to Randolph Churchill – were in love with her.
One of them was a young New Zealander, Bernard Freyberg – a swimming champion who had signed up with the Royal Naval Division at the beginning of the war, and who Cynthia met while he was in hospital in 1916-17, recovering from wounds suffered during action that won him the Victoria Cross. Freyberg was good friends with Cynthia’s brother-in-law, Oc Asquith, and quite ‘proper’ in his own conduct. And it seems that Cynthia rather fell for him – this to the point where, according to her diary, she was anguishing over the nature of the relationship. Freyberg made his own feelings quite clear; he was madly in love with her. It had every potential to be scandalous, and while Cynthia compared him to a moth circling around a flame, the question was who – in fact – was the moth.
I looked into what happened in a good deal of detail for my biography of Freyberg – and what a story there was. Of course there’s too much to tell here. For more, check out Freyberg: a life’s journey – click to buy from the publisher, or go to any good New Zealand bookshop.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020