Lady Chatterley’s Lover Found Not Obscene, 1960

Up until 1960, if you lived in Britain, you couldn’t buy a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That is, you could buy one, but only if you were willing to travel to France or Italy. Even then, there was a good chance that the book would be confiscated at the border when you returned home.

All that changed when Penguin Books decided that, in honor of the 30th anniversary of D. H. Lawrence’s death, they wanted to print a complete collection of his works. That included Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the book that had been banned in England ever since it had first been written in 1928.

Penguin also wanted to test the Obscene Publications Act that had been passed the previous year. According to the new law, a publisher could escape conviction if it could be demonstrated that a work had literary merit that outweighed its obscenity. Lady C was considered objectionable both in subject matter — it dealt with an adulterous relationship, and one between people of different classes, no less — and in language. Lawrence had written very vernacularly about the sex act, and that seemed to be the particular issue.

Penguin went ahead and printed 200,000 copies of a new Lady Chatterley . It was a paperback edition, and was going to be available at 3 shillings 6 pence — an insignificant amount of money. This meant that it was going to be available to practically everyone, another strike against it as far as the pro-censorship people felt. The publishers bundled up 12 copies and sent them to the Director of Public Prosecutions, challenging him to prosecute. He did.

The Prosecution may have been feeling a little over-confident; after all, the book had been considered obscene for over 30 years. Penguin’s lawyers, however got right to work. They compiled a list of 300 potential witnesses for the defense, including authors, teachers, academics, booksellers, and even clerics. They were looking for “experts” to testify that the book had literary merit.

And they found them. Eight weeks later, when the trial took place, there were 35 expert witnesses to testify that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a work of art. They included E. M. Forster, Dame Rebecca West, C. Day Lewis, Richard Hoggart, and the Bishop of Woolrich. They had an additional 35 witnesses waiting in the wings in case they were needed.

The Prosecution produced no witnesses to refute them. It’s not that they didn’t try (although they did try to claim later that they hadn’t.) They just couldn’t find any. They had combed through reviews and critical literature looking for anyone who seemed to dislike the book. They considered Edith Sitwell, whose brother, it was believed, had been the model for the cuckolded Sir Clifford Chatterley, but she wasn’t willing. They considered T. S. Eliot, who had once published a negative review of the book. Eliot had already agreed to testify for the Defense.

The issue, as far as many authors was concerned, was that the trial wasn’t just about this particular book, it was about literary censorship in general. They weren’t willing to accede to that. In addition, many authors and critics who had written negatively about the book were comparing it to Lawrence’s other works. They didn’t think it was bad — they just thought it wasn’t as good as the rest.

At the beginning of the trial, the Defense had to option to empanel an all-male jury, an option in cases of obscenity trials. They declined, and, in fact, used their challenges to get a third woman on the jury. They believed that an all-male jury would be more protective in their attitudes toward women than a mixed one. Additionally, they believed that any attempted paternalism on the part of the male jurors would just infuriate the women.

Mervyn Griffith-Jones, of the Prosecution, pretty much doomed his case the moment he got up to speak. In his opening statement, he said to the jury, “Ask yourselves the question: would you approve of your young sons, young daughters — because girls can read as well as boys — reading this book. Is it a book that you would have lying around the house? Is it a book you would wish your wife or even your servants to read?”

Since most of the jury members undoubtedly didn’t have servants, this just underscored the class conflict that was at the heart of the trial. The objectionable matter of the book was probably predicated as much upon the unacceptable intermingling of the classes as it was on the theme of adultery or on the coarseness of the language. In addition, a very real reason that this particular book had come to trial was because it was going to be offered in an inexpensive paperback edition — something even the lower classes could afford.

On November 2, 1960 the jury found Penguin Books “Not Guilty” of obscenity charges. The verdict took less than three hours. A few days later, on November 10th, the 200,000 copies printed were released to bookstores throughout Great Britain. The run sold out the first day. Within a year, the book had sold two million copies — more even, that year, than the Bible.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months , Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; ; ; ; Steve Hare, “The Tumultuous Trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover ,” The Telegraph; ; ; “Cock Up and Cover-Up, ” The Guardian; Geoffrey Robertson, “The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover ,” The Guardian; .

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