When is a dog-eared three shilling and sixpenny Penguin paperback worth £56,250?
When it’s Sir Laurence Byrne’s annotated copy of D. H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was part of the collection of the late Stanley J Seeger, and it has recently been sold to an overseas buyer. But its export abroad has been halted by the government, to see if somebody can match the price and keep the volume in the country. It is said to be “a witness to history.”
I was a bit snooty when I heard about the £56,250 price tag. “A collector,” I remarked, “with more money than sense.” But we all have our weaknesses. Mine is for first edition Ian Fleming books. I haven’t looked at the collection for a while so let me take an inventory. It gets better as it goes along:
Casino Royale: one pan paperback and one hardback Penguin Vintage Classics.
Live and Let Die: hardback Cape 2nd impression 1954 – no dust jacket.
Moonraker: Pan paperback.
Diamonds are Forever: Thriller Book Club first edition with dust jacket, good condition.
From Russia with Love: Jonathan Cape, first edition, no dust jacket.
Dr. No: first Book Club edition with dust jacket.
Goldfinger: Jonathan Cape reprint with dust jacket.
For Your Eyes Only: Jonathan Cape first edition, no dust jacket.
Thunderball: Cape, first edition with dust jacket.
The Spy Who Loved Me: Cape, second impression with dust jacket.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: two Cape copies, one first edition and one second impression, both with dust jacket.
You Only Live twice: Cape, first, with D.J.
The Man with the Golden Gun, two Cape copies, both first, both with DJ. And a first American edition (the American Library) in perfect condition.
Octopussy and the Living Daylights: two Cape copies, both first, one with dust jacket.
In addition, I have a Cape first edition Thrilling Cities with dust jacket, in perfect condition, and first Cape editions of John Pearson’s Life of Ian Fleming and Kingsley Amis’ James Bond Dossier. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Diamond Smugglers are paperbacks. In Moonraker, when Bond takes on Drax who cheats at cards, by cheating at cards, he first consults Scarne on Cards. I have a beautiful hardback edition, with dust jacket… So it goes on.
So, strictly speaking, I’ve got half the Bond canon in first edition. Any time I go into a second hand bookshop I have a look for one, but they are getting rarer, and I don’t expect to come across a Casino Royale or a Moonraker. I picked up most of my first editions for a song, at a time before they really became collectors’ items. I often wonder, if I did come across a first edition Casino Royale, immaculate in its dust jacket, retailing for £10, would I snap it up, or would I say to the vendor, “Do you realise this is worth £10,000?”
Which brings us back to Lady C. Why is Laurence Byrne’s besmirched copy so valuable? The value of an antique often resides in its pristine state. Hornby Dublo train sets are sought after, and if they are in fine condition within a well-preserved box, the value skyrockets. But Sir Laurence’s copy of Lady C isn’t even a hardback, let alone a first edition. Why is it so valuable? I can answer in one word.
The Crown prosecuted Penguin Books over Lady C in 1960, under the Obscene Publications Act, and lost. It was a pivotal moment not just in English Law, but in English History. It was the end of an era, ushering in the Swinging Sixties. The case against Penguin now seems rather quaint. Mervyn Griffith-Jones for the prosecution made his famous remark about wives and servants. Perhaps Sir Laurence scribbled it down on the dog-eared margin. Even then, it must have sounded to those in the public gallery absurdly patrician and hopelessly out of touch. Bernard Levin sat through the entire trial. It gradually became apparent to him that it wasn’t really the book at all that was on trial, nor the publisher Penguin, nor the author D. H. Lawrence. It was Connie Chatterley herself who was in the dock.
But it’s funny to find Lady C, in a sense, back on trial. Is that paperback worth all the fuss and the money? In the world of Lit Crit, F. R. Leavis was and perhaps remains Lawrence’s most avid champion. When, in his 1962 Richmond Lecture, Leavis carried out his hatchet job on C. P. Snow, saying that, far from being a novelist, Snow didn’t begin to know what a novel was, Leavis chose, by way of example of a great novelist, D. H. Lawrence. But in his book D. H. Lawrence, Novelist (Chatto and Windus, 1955), Leavis considers Lady C to be a minor work. He called it a worthy “hygienic undertaking” to redeem physical sex from the charge of obscenity. But he thought that such an enterprise could not be anything other than an offence against taste.
Just as Leavis did a hatchet job on Snow, so did Bertrand Russell attack D. H. Lawrence. In the second volume of his autobiography, Russell rejected vehemently Lawrence’s mystic “blood” philosophy, which he later came to consider led straight to Auschwitz.
I’m not impressed by the provenance motive. A Fender bass guitar is a Fender bass guitar. But if it was owned by Elvis, it becomes a relic. How much can it be worth? In one sense it is worth whatever somebody is prepared to pay for it. Yet in another sense it doesn’t matter how much it goes for, it’s still a Fender bass guitar. There is nothing in the provenance that stops it being just a bass guitar. You could call it “priceless” but you might as well call it “worthless”. We often use the word “priceless” in a hyperbolic way to mean that some commodity is, or would be, extremely expensive. Similarly, we might call a piece of intellectual property, like wisdom, “invaluable”. So, paradoxically, “invaluable” means “valuable” and “priceless” means “pricey”. Even a programme as venal as the Antiques Road Show sometimes recognises that, in respect of good taste, some items ought not to be priced. With respect to an heirloom of personal significance to a family, the expert says, “You’d never sell it.” The owner looks a little taken aback; this is news to him!
Sometimes when I flick on the telly at lunchtime for the one o’clock news I catch the end of Bargain Hunt, in which two teams of two, each with the aid of an expert, compete to buy and sell three ancient items of dubious value, plus or minus “the bonus buy”. The losses seem generally to outweigh the profits, which in either case are pretty modest, and nobody, least of all the BBC, gets hurt. “Join us for some more bargain hunting, yes?” They link arms and kick an imaginary football. I worry at this point that somebody is going to do their back in.
This I feel should be the spirit in which “provenance” is viewed. I like to think that if my second impression copy of John Lennon In his own Write (Jonathan Cape, 1964) happened to bear the draft lyrics of No Reply, in the author’s hand, on the inside cover, I’d say to any prospective buyer, “It’s beyond price. You can’t afford it.”
We also sometimes use the word “priceless” to mean “hysterically funny”. Somebody says to you, “That Penguin paperback went for £56,250”, and you reply, “That’s priceless.”