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The prosecution of Lady Chatterley

Summary:
On November 10th, 1960, the book, "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D H Lawrence, went on sale in Britain. This was after a sensational trial at the Old Bailey that took six days between October 20th and November 2nd, 1960, when the publishers, Penguin Books, were prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. That Act, introduced by Roy Jenkins, had introduced a defence of 'literary merit' that would allow publishers to escape conviction for works that might otherwise have been deemed obscene. The public good section of the Act allowed a work that was "in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern."The book, first published privately in Italy in 1928, had only been published in expurgated versions since it told the story of an intense

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On November 10th, 1960, the book, "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D H Lawrence, went on sale in Britain. This was after a sensational trial at the Old Bailey that took six days between October 20th and November 2nd, 1960, when the publishers, Penguin Books, were prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. That Act, introduced by Roy Jenkins, had introduced a defence of 'literary merit' that would allow publishers to escape conviction for works that might otherwise have been deemed obscene. The public good section of the Act allowed a work that was "in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern."

The book, first published privately in Italy in 1928, had only been published in expurgated versions since it told the story of an intense (and sexual (relationship between an aristocratic lady and a working class man, with explicit descriptions of sex, sprinkled with four-letter words that were until then regarded as unprintable. The trial, making front-page stories in newspapers was followed avidly by the general public.

The defence mustered various people of repute to testify as witnesses to the book's worthiness, including E. M. Forster, Helen Gardner, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Norman St John-Stevas, and the Bishop of Woolwich, Dr John Robinson. The latter was asked if Lady Chatterley's Lover was a book that Christians ought to read. He replied "yes," despite the prosecution's objection that the ethical merits of the book were a matter for the jury. The newspapers went to town on this, with one headlining, "A Book All Christians Should Read."

The evidence of Richard Hoggart, senior lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, was reckoned to be crucial. He described the book as "highly virtuous if not puritanical," and was asked by an incredulous defence counsel to help him by defining the word 'puritanical.' Hoggart replied that although it was often used to mean someone opposed to pleasure, to a literary man or a linguist it meant "someone with an intense sense of responsibility for one's conscience," its original meaning.

At the end of the trial the jury took only three hours to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty. The result not only vindicated the book, it also ushered in a wave of liberalization of what were then quite struct censorship laws. At that time the Lord Chamberlain censored the scripts of stage plays, and the British Board of Film Censors sometimes insisted on scenes being changed or cut. When I was a student at Edinburgh, the local Watch Committee would occasionally ban movies they thought had too-explicit sex scenes.

Some attributed the rise of what was later called "The Permissive Society" to the Lady Chatterley verdict that acquitted Penguin and allowed the book to go on sale. It certainly sold, rapidly selling over 3 million copies. It was a watershed moment, and heralded the gradual ending of the paternalistic censorship that had been a hallmark of British culture. People were in future to be allowed to make their own minds up about what to read and watch.

The poet and librarian, Philip Larkin, now commemorated in Westminster Abbey, referred to the trial in his 1974 poem, Annus Mirabilis:

 "Sexual intercourse began  In nineteen sixty-three  (Which was rather late for me)— Between the end of the Chatterley ban  And the Beatles’ first LP."

 

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