The Dean's Diaries: Novels as textbooks?

The Dean's Diaries: Novels as textbooks?

by Prof D.W. Purdie
article from Friday 28, July, 2017

 Office of the Dean,                                                                                                                                     St Andrew's College,                                                                                                                                  King George IV Bridge,                                                                                                                      Edinburgh EH1 3TD

   I was arrested last night at a Lecture here in College by dear old Prof. Herbert McCracken describing Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick as ‘the ultimate treatise on angling.’ It had never occurred to me that the quiet swish of an evening rod on the Derwent might extend to harpoon hurling at furious cetaceans in the Pacific, but apparently so.

   The notion that works of fiction might double as instructional monographs is intriguing. Indeed, I used to recommend Richard Hooker’s novel MASH to my medical students as a first-class text on the treatment of blast and high-velocity missile injuries. Dr Hooker had been an Army surgeon in Korea and knew his stuff. At one point, the two heroes Captains Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John MacIntyre, get a bollocking from a medical Brigadier for playing cards while a wounded soldier lies nearby on a surgical trolley. Says Pierce,
    “Brigadier, he’s in shock; but he’s getting plasma right now, then he’ll get a blood transfusion plus a loading-dose of terramycin. In an hour he’ll be stable, fit for surgery and he’ll probably make it. But you go right ahead Sir, operate now. I’ll countersign the death certificate.”

   Other novel possibilities for instruction come to mind: War & Peace for winter orienteering in eastern Europe perhaps, or Jake LaMotta’s Raging Bull for anger management. One famous example emerged 50 years ago from the American humorist [sic] Ed Zern, whose brief, single-paragraph review of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover appeared in a US hunting & fishing magazine. Despite the book’s obvious literary merits, Ed concluded that on balance it would never replace J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping as the definitive textbook of game management on English estates.

   Ed Zern was right. I went back to Lawrence’s original text to see if the book would indeed serve a practical guide to gamekeeping. I also went back to the transcript of the famous trial of Regina v Penguin Books Ltd in 1960 before Mr Justice Byrne at the Old Bailey.
Leading for the Crown, Mr Griffiths-Jones QC alleged that ‘the Plot’, presumably the Sir Clifford Chatterley’s estate, was simply ‘padding’ between thirteen bouts of ‘interaction’ between Lady C and her priapic inamoratus. The latter’s monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon, boomed the learned Counsel, was disgracefully replete with effing and blinding. Was this, he asked the Jury, the dialogue expected between a servant and the wife of a Baronet?  Furthermore, was this the sort of stuff they would permit their servants, let alone their wives to read?

   Not one single mention of the variegated work of Mellors on the Wragby estate appears in the transcript, nothing on gamebirds, deer or indeed any creature worth raising, stalking or shooting. The entire case kept rigidly to the well-trodden path from Wragby Hall to the gamekeeper’s cottage, followed by wild excursions to certain well-flattened herbaceous borders and flowerbeds. Despite that, some 3 million copies were rapidly sold to customers keen to learn the finer points of game conservation and estate management. Let me set the record straight.

   Lady Chatterley’s Lover was originally published privately in 1928 by Lawrence in Italy. Despite its unusual title for a work on gamekeeping, it remains an instructive book detailing the day-to-day duties of a professional head keeper on a medium-sized shooting estate in the English midlands. There are sections of real practical utility on game conservation, rodent control, the rearing of pheasant chicks and measures to combat poaching.

   That said, both these and other useful observations on game management, are interspersed with extraordinarily lurid descriptions of the relationship between Mr Mellors the head keeper, and Lady Constance, the wife of the estate owner. For example, scarcely has the reader finished the interesting section on coppicing and thorn-hedge maintenance when the scene shifts to a frantic grappling and then coupling of the pair on the floor of the estate cottage.
The book recovers, however, and proceeds to a valuable account of arrangements for driving game, particularly red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) including the direction of beaters, the provision of hides and the spacing of the guns.
Readers may then savour the practical advice received, only to be plunged back into yet another graphic description of frenzied intercourse between the keeper and his titled mistress, this time amid the useful long-stem rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) in the kitchen-garden.

   In summary, this is a work of genuine utility in terms of estate supervision, but as originally pointed out by Ed Zern in Field & Stream, but is flawed like Lady Chatterley herself by the repeated insertion of extraneous material. I concur with Zern that, as a practical textbook, Lady Chatterley’s Lover cannot be recommended to keepers and certainly not to estate proprietors. J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping remains unchallenged as the epitome of the genre.   

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