When Penguin Books were taken to court after publishing D.H. Lawrence’s allegedly “obscene” novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the trial that ensued over six days in 1960 became a watershed moment in British legal, literary, and cultural history. Not only did it overturn the ban on Lawrence’s final novel and lead to a more general liberalization of the publishing industry within the United Kingdom, but it also heralded a shift in society’s sexual mores from past prudishness to a more liberal attitude.
The Literary Background: Why Was Lady Chatterley’s Lover So Controversial?
Published privately in Italy in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the last novel by D.H. Lawrence, who died in 1930. Having been unable to publish it commercially in Britain, Lawrence had 2,000 copies privately printed and circulated in the United Kingdom, the United States, and France. Two years after his death, Martin Secker published an expurgated version in Britain, and a similarly abridged version was published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. that same year in the US.
The story focuses on the eponymous Lady Constance “Connie” Chatterley. Her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, is paralyzed from the waist down due to an injury sustained during the First World War. As he is now sexually impotent, Connie embarks on an affair with gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. This affair leads Connie to realize the importance of physical and sensual experiences. Thus one of the themes of the novel (as argued by Richard Hoggart) is the need for greater cohesion between the mind and the body.
Another theme explored in the novel is social class. Having married into wealth and aristocracy, the social divide between herself and the inhabitants of Tevershall leaves Connie feeling ill at ease, and she herself challenges this divide when she begins her affair with Mellors. There are also simmering tensions between the Tevershall colliers and Sir Clifford, the mine owner.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Although it was his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not the first novel by Lawrence to be banned. Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, and Women in Love were all also subject to censorship trials. What made Lady Chatterley’s Lover so especially controversial, however, was its explicit depiction of sexual acts between an upper-class woman and a lower-class man, as well as its explicit language, most notably its use of certain choice four-letter words.
The Legal Background: R v Penguin Books Ltd
When a full, unexpurgated version of the novel was published in the UK by Penguin Books in November 1960, 200,000 copies were printed, all of which sold out on its first day of publication. It was not all good news for Penguin, however, as the publishers were promptly taken to court on the charge of obscenity under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Having only been passed as law in the previous year, not only was Lady Chatterley’s Lover being put on trial but the legislation itself was being tested.
What is often overlooked about the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 is that it was itself an attempt to liberalize (within limits) UK publishing. The Obscene Publications Bill put before the UK Parliament in 1955 was sponsored by Roy Jenkins (then a Labour MP), who found that the current law (the Hicklin Test) was unevenly and uncertainly enforced and even amounted to a strict form of literary censorship on UK publishers.
Unlike previous legislation against ostensibly obscene published works, under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, publishers could evade conviction if it proved that the work bore intellectual, scientific, or literary merit in the interests of what was referred to as the “public good.” The burden of proof, in other words, lay with the defense. Graham Greene, who did not believe that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was obscene but who also did not believe that the novel was an unmitigated aesthetic success, requested not to be called as a witness on this basis, lest he should be “forced into any admission harmful to the Penguin case.”
The trial took place over six days at the Old Bailey from 20th October to 2nd November. The verdict was to be determined by a jury of twelve, comprised of three women and nine men.
Mervyn Griffith-Jones led the prosecution. In an attempt to dismantle the argument that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was of sufficient literary merit to be exempt from obscenity legislation, Griffith-Jones argued that the linguistic obscenity of the novel (that is, its preference for certain four-letter words) precluded its literary merit.
He also cited the relationship between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, arguing that the novel thus advocated for extra-marital promiscuity. In his closing statements, Mervyn Griffith-Jones begged the question:
“What is there in the book to suggest that if the sexual intercourse between Lady Chatterley and Mellors had not eventually turned out to be successful she would not have gone on and on and on elsewhere until she did find it?”
As is clear from this line of argument, the emphasis is on Lady Chatterley’s promiscuity – and not Mellors’ – as a dangerous and potentially corrupting force contrary to the “public good.”
It was in this vein that he asked the members of the jury:
“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because girls can read as well as boys—reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
This last reference to “your wife or your servants” provoked some amusement in the court. Not only did this line of argument seem behind the times in its prudish moralism, it also demonstrated just how divorced the establishment was from the real lives of the majority of people in 1960s Britain.
Gerald Gardiner led the counsel for the defense. As the burden to prove Lady Chatterley’s Lover’s literary merits lay with the defense, Gardiner marshaled a number of academics, literary critics, and writers (including E.M. Forster, Raymond Williams, Helen Gardner, and the aforementioned Richard Hoggart) as witnesses for the defense.
Richard Hoggart argued that Lawrence’s use of certain four-letter words had the effect of purifying them of their “shock value” and that they often provided Lawrence with the purest, simplest way of conveying what he wanted to convey. Or, as Hoggart himself put it, Lawrence “wanted to say, ‘This is what one does. In a simple, ordinary way, one fucks,’ with no sniggering or dirt.” It was also on the basis of Hoggart’s aforementioned argument that the novel calls for a greater cohesion of mind and body that Gardiner was able to make the case that sex was key to Lawrence’s exploration of broader thematic and philosophical preoccupations:
“Lawrence’s message, as you have heard, was that the society of his day in England was sick, he thought, and the sickness from which it was suffering was the result of the machine age, […] the importance that everybody attached to money, and the degree to which the mind had been stressed at the expense of the body; and that what we ought to do was to re-establish personal relationships, the greatest of which was the relationship between a man and a woman in love, in which there was no shame and nothing wrong, nothing unclean, nothing which anybody was not entitled to discuss.”
E.M. Forster had already shown his support for Lawrence when he hailed him as “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation” in an obituary he wrote for Lawrence after his death in 1930. He again expressed his support of Lawrence’s work in the lead-up to the trial, observing that while obscenity laws purported to protect the public from works that might deprave or corrupt, they neglected to offer their own definition for depravity and corruption. It should be noted that Lawrence had read the manuscript of Forster’s novel Maurice, which remained unpublished until 1971, one year after Forster’s death, as homosexual acts between men were still illegal in the UK when Forster wrote the novel. While Maurice focuses on a homosexual love affair, this affair is also between a gamekeeper and an upper-class man.
Perhaps the most surprising witness to be called by the defense was John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich. He argued that Lawrence saw sex as a sacred act and that his treatment of it in Lady Chatterley’s Lover could not properly be deemed obscene. While he conceded that Lawrence’s view of sex was not that espoused by the Church, he argued that there was no reason why Christians should not read his final novel.
The Outcome of the Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover
After three hours of deliberation, a unanimous verdict of not guilty was delivered on November 2nd, 1960. By way of thanks, Penguin dedicated the second printed edition – published the following year in 1961 – to the jury.
Upon his death from complications of tuberculosis in 1930, D.H. Lawrence was widely viewed within literary circles as little more than a pornographer who had squandered his natural flair for writing. As so many of his books were barred from commercial publication, the rehabilitation of his reputation as a writer seemed impossible.
However, when Penguin published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it sold three million copies within three months of the trial’s not-guilty verdict. This was possible only by the jury’s watershed verdict, which overturned the restrictions placed on British publishing houses and led to the liberalization of UK publishing. More broadly, the verdict is often credited with ushering in the so-called permissive society in the UK. In the cultural imagination, at least, it certainly does mark the beginning of the sixties as a time of countercultural revolution and (relative) sexual freedom and experimentation. Though it could not be commercially published until thirty years after his death, Lady Chatterley’s Lover certainly struck a chord with 1960s Britain.