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

History Hit

2 mins

02 Nov 2015

In a landmark ruling, 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.

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 of “literary merit” from prosecution.

The court case begins

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. They weren’t permitted to leave the jury room however, as this would constitute distribution of the book.

The jury was then asked to answer two questions: Was the book obscene and liable to deprave or corrupt? And 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.

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The defence

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.

With distribution of the book now legal, within hours it had sold out in shops across the country. 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, not the state.

Header image credit: Christo Drummkopf / Commons.

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