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Did Lady Chatterley liberate us, or lead us into temptation?


SIXTY years ago, it was a verdict seen by many as the dawn of a new age of freedom, and by others as a sorry step on the road to perdition.

On November 2, 1960, Penguin Books was found not guilty of obscenity after publishing D H Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Following a six-day trial at the Old Bailey, the jury took just three hours to reach its verdict, which was greeted by cheering and applause in the courtroom. 

A delighted Sir Allen Lane, head of Penguin, ran outside to tell reporters: ‘It is a big landmark in the literary education of this country.’

When Barbara Barr, Lawrence’s stepdaughter, learned of the verdict, she said: ‘I feel as if a window has opened and fresh air has blown right through England.’

The tale of a torrid affair between the liberated, frustrated Connie, Lady Chatterley, and her impotent husband’s hunky gamekeeper Oliver Mellors – replete with four-letter words and explicit sex scenes – immediately became a blockbuster, selling out of its initial print run of 200,000 copies on the first day of publication. 

At Foyle’s bookstore in London, a queue of 400 – mostly men – formed to snap up the 3s 6d paperback, with 300 copies bought in 15 minutes. Within 12 months, two million had been sold – more than the Bible that year. 

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was first published privately in Italy in 1929, but subsequently censored or banned in many countries. 

By 1960, Penguin was determined to print an unexpurgated version and deliberately prompted a prosecution by handing a copy of the novel to a Scotland Yard detective. That meant it had officially been published, but avoided any charges being brought against booksellers.

It was a test case of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, which said that instead of a book being judged just on supposedly sordid words and scenes, its content had to be considered as a whole. Thus it was a defence under the Act – which had been introduced in the Commons by Labour’s Roy Jenkins – if a work was deemed to have ‘redeeming social merit’.

Once the trial opened, 35 defence witnesses – including many eminent writers, editors, publishers, critics, clergymen, sociologists, academics and professors – told the Old Bailey that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was certainly not just a dirty book. 

Among the most influential contributions was that of Richard Hoggart, senior lecturer in English at Leicester University, who said it was essentially a moral and Puritan work, in which the purportedly offensive words ‘were being progressively purified as they were used’.

The evidence of the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, famously helped knock the Crown’s case for six. Asked by defence counsel Gerald Gardiner whether it was ‘a book which, in your view, Christians ought to read’, he replied: ‘Yes, I think it is.’

Prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones struggled to make any headway. Because Mellors and Lady Chatterley had each had several lovers before their steamy sessions in the gamekeeper’s hut, the QC argued that the storyline would deprave and corrupt readers and encourage promiscuity. 

But, in one of the most ill-judged utterances ever made in a courtroom, he asked the jury: ‘Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’

Your wife or your servants! What age was this man living in?

For many, Griffith-Jones’s much-mocked phrase summed up what they saw as the essence of the trial – the class divide. The toffs were dictating to the lower orders what they might or might not read.

It didn’t help the prosecution case when in his summing-up, the judge, Mr Justice Byrne, told the jury the low price of the book meant it would ‘be available for all and sundry to read. You have to think of people with no literary background, with little or no learning.’ 

So the book was cleared and overnight became a mega-seller. But did Lady Chatterley’s Lover kick-start the cultural revolution of the Sixties and spearhead the Permissive Society? In his 1967 poem Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin wrote: 

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.

The truth is that the trial verdict probably marginally helped the tide of liberalisation. But it didn’t happen overnight. In 1960, much of Britain was still a rather staid, drab place, not fully over the austerity of the war years, still stuck in many of its old familiar ways.

Notions of duty, discipline and patriotism generally held good, churches were well-attended, sex outside marriage was frowned upon, single motherhood a stigma.

Entertainment was the pub, the coffee bar, the dance hall and the cinema. Here, there were signs of a social shift when the gritty ‘new wave’ film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – about a working-class hero having an affair with a married woman (but not a Lady Chatterley type) – was a big hit. 

Auntie BBC’s concession to pop music was Saturday Club on the Light Programme, with stars such as Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and Tommy Steele. 

Burnley won the football league title, duffel-coated nuclear disarmament marchers trudged to Aldermaston, children still played on bomb sites, supermarkets were a novelty – as were TVs in many homes – and youths still had to do National Service when they reached 18.

It was only a few years later that the Sixties started to get sexy, with the Beatles, the Pill, pop art, pirate radio, drugs, Swinging London, Twiggy, the mini-skirt, the Mini car and … well, you get the picture. 

But even then, it was probably only a small coterie of pop stars and other showbusiness types who got all the ‘free love’.  In general, life for most in the Sixties was still more Coronation Street than Carnaby Street.

The Lady Chatterley trial and its aftermath has been admirably summed up by historian Dominic Sandbrook. Although it was a victory for literary free expression, he believes the legacy of the case is more ambiguous than the conventional wisdom often suggests.

‘It was a Britain with many evils and injustices, certainly,’ Sandbrook says of 1960. ‘But one from which we could still learn something about the virtue of self-restraint.’

Or, to put it another way – back then, Lady Chatterley’s supporters were seeking a more liberalised society. Looking around today at a Britain that in many respects has become tawdry and degraded, they perhaps should have been careful what they wished for.

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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