Almost 60 years ago, Lady Chatterley’s lover brought sex and lust into the courtroom, changing literature forever.
What is it about literature and censorship? Some of the most influential books ever written have been censored because someone thought they were an affront to common decency, whatever that means. John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) was banned for “political reasons”; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was banned for being racially insensitive; JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) apparently “undermined morality”. Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), all banned. As recently as 1987, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) were banned in some countries. In 2015 copies of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) were confiscated from Australian bookshops because they weren’t shrink-wrapped. One book had a massive impact on the public perception of censorship: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence’s most famous – or perhaps infamous – work, which was finally published in Britain in 1960, thirty-two years after he’d finished it and thirty years after Lawrence himself died from tuberculosis at the age of 44.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in Italy back in 1928, but its sexual explicitness was quickly labelled unmitigated smut; the book was declared obscene and banned in Britain and the United States.
It wasn’t Lawrence’s first brush with the censors. The Rainbow (1915), the novel that followed his remarkable 1913 work Sons and Lovers was also judged obscene and banned after publication. Copies of The Rainbow were unceremoniously seized and burned, the authorities outraged at Lawrence’s candour regarding sexual attraction and yearning. Such notoriety made it difficult for him to find a publisher for Women in Love, published in 1920, three years after he’d written it. Next came Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The story revolves around Connie, the free-thinking wife of an aristocrat whose wartime injuries have left him paralysed from the waist down. She has a few flings, but when the new gamekeeper Oliver arrives on the estate, Connie is instantly aroused. Just the sight of him – sensuous, muscular, masculine – is enough. Oliver exudes the vitality her husband lacks.
At first, he rejects her advances, mindful of the social divide that separates them, but before long their encounters are pretty torrid, Lawrence describing fiery loins, “helplessly desiring hands” and orgasms. It was all a little too much for the establishment.
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The novel is about sex and sexual desire, but it’s also about class and social divides and the very real search for intimacy. And importantly, it’s also about the aftermath of World War I, which left so many men crippled either physically, emotionally or both. As well, it’s said to reflect elements of Lawrence’s own situation with his wife Freida, a complicated relationship to say the least. Freida had affairs, claiming Lawrence was impotent; they fought, they made up. But we’re not going into that here.
For a week during late 1960, publishers Penguin Books had to fight at the Old Bailey for the right to publish Lawrence’s novel – banned under the Obscene Publications Act – as a cheap paperback, which would make it affordable for most people. The prosecution maintained the ban should stay, that its “pornographic” elements far outweighed any consideration of literary merit, and that the liberal use of certain Anglo-Saxon four-letter words was disgusting. They felt it was far too raunchy for the masses to read.
Naturally, the defence argued that the book’s literary qualities and the novelist’s status as an author of significance should take precedence over prudish notions of what constituted obscenity. The defence called some 35 witnesses, among them academics and writers (including noted authors EM Forster, Cecil Day-Lewis and Rebecca West) to attest to the literary and inherently moral value of the controversial book. An eminent bishop testified that Lawrence’s depictions of sex were the equivalent of “an act of holy communion”.
The prosecuting lawyer was a pillar of the priggish upper class, which was in many ways far more horrified by the notion of inter-class adultery than by the use of obscene language. Generally speaking, the legal profession at that time was overly concerned with public morality; lawyers felt they had a duty to protect the public from perceived filth. He read out many descriptions of lovemaking from the book clearly meant to shock listeners, but was informed by witnesses that such descriptions, including the use of the words “fuck”, “shit”, “arse” etc were entirely appropriate in the circumstances. His next question was met with absolute hilarity in the court: “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?”
Not many people had servants in 1960; juries were made up of ordinary working people (this particular jury included a butcher, a labourer and a machinist), and how out of touch was this man who had seemingly only recently discovered that girls could read “as well as boys”? He misjudged that one; the jury took a mere three hours to determine that Lady Chatterley’s Lover did not contravene the Obscene Publications Act.
The beginning of the 1960s saw conservative attitudes beginning to take a back seat. Young people were moving away from the staid and proper behaviour of their parents and grandparents. Outlooks were changing. Even attitudes towards the trial were liberal, some newspaper editorials suggesting the money spent on prosecuting a work of literature would have been better spent in the investigation of actual exploitative pornography.
But social change is slow and there were many who were thoroughly outraged by the decision. They lodged official complaints and there were incidents of book burning. Some worried their children would be corrupted by the book.
Reports say that three million copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were sold in the few months following the trial, people keen to see what all the fuss was about and no doubt looking forward to some titillation. Over the years, Lawrence’s lurid descriptions of sex have lost some impact – we’re almost bombarded with sex these days – but as already touched upon, the novel isn’t just about a blistering liaison. Lawrence examines the impact of industry in post-war England and has much to say on the apparent differences between the aristocracy and the working class. It’s this, as much as his characterisations and explorations of what makes people tick that make him an author of renown.
Looking at the case now, it’s clear that Penguin’s victory had a lasting impact. For one thing, the government’s jurisdiction over personal morality had weakened. Censorship was now being seen as an infringement of individual judgement and private ethics. Interestingly, in 1971 when the Australian-born editors of Oz magazine were tried and convicted under the Obscene Publications Act, their conviction was quickly overturned.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was in a way a victory for liberalism, the notion that a book could lead people to live a debauched lifestyle dismissed out of hand.
Can certain literature truly corrupt us? Or does it just make for expensive court cases?