The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and How It Changed Obscenity Laws | History Hit

The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and How It Changed Obscenity Laws

Image Credit: Published by Grove Press Inc. (New York City), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On 2 November 1960, the publishing house Penguin Books was found not guilty of charges of obscenity following their publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The charge was brought under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, which made it illegal to publish anything thought capable of corrupting those who might see, read or hear it.

Heavily censored and abridged versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been published previously in Britain and the United States. However, on 16 August 1960, Penguin Books published the first entirely uncensored and complete English edition, seeking to exploit a loophole in the act that excluded works deemed to be of ‘literary merit’ from prosecution.

So why was Lady Chatterley’s Lover put on trial, and how the resulting court case change obscenity laws?

The novel was under scrutiny for its sex scenes, depiction of class relations and language

Originally published privately in Italy in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover revolves around the relationship between upper-class Lady Constance Chatterley and her working class gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. Exploring themes relating to class divide, industrialisation and the mind vs. body, the novel drew ire for its explicit sexual content and language, and for so brazenly depicting a lustful inter-class relationship.

David Herbert Lawrence, author of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The jury were asked to read the book in the jury room

A summons was issued for Penguin Books on 25 August 1960, and the court case began at the Old Bailey on 20th October. The jury, made up of nine men and three women, were each given a copy of the book and asked to read it. However, they weren’t permitted to leave the jury room as that would constitute distribution of the book.

The jury was then asked to answer two questions. Firstly, was the book obscene and liable to deprave or corrupt? And secondly, if so, did the book’s literary merit justify its publication?

The prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked them:

‘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?’

The mention of servants in the last statement drew laughter from the court and demonstrated how detached Griffith-Jones and the establishment at large had become from public opinion of the time. As for its artistic merit, Griffith-Jones dismissed the book’s plot as nothing more than padding for the explicit sexual content.

The defence called figures such as E M Forster

The defence was led by Gerald Gardiner. He called thirty-five witnesses to testify in support of the book’s literary merit. Among them were the writer E M Forster, Richard Hoggart, an academic, and the Bishop of Woolwich, who praised Lawrence’s ‘astonishing sensitivity to the beauty and value of all organic relationships’ and argued that he portrayed sex as ‘an act of holy communion.’

In his closing statement, Gardiner concluded:

“All you can do is to judge it as a whole in the existing climate of literature and with your own knowledge of human life.”

After three hours of deliberation, the jury unanimously returned a not guilty verdict.

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The book quickly sold out afterwards

With distribution of the book now legal, the book was published a month later. Within hours it had sold out in shops across the country, and all 200,000 of the first print were sold on the first day. London’s largest bookshop, W&G Foyle Ltd, said that its 300 copies sold out in just 15 minutes. In all, Penguin recorded that they sold more than 3 million copies.

Nonetheless, concerns did remain, and not all members of society were pleased by the publication of the book. The Home Office was inundated with complaints. Nevertheless, the trial of Penguin Books was an important milestone in the journey toward a more permissive society in which morality would be regulated by the individual and not the state.

However, the war against indecency wasn’t entirely quashed: in 1988, The Broadcasting Standards Council was set up to better regulate published material and levels of decency.

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Lucy Davidson