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Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: Lady Chatterley's Lover


Many celebrated works of fiction during the twentieth century were put on trial or subjected to censorship and suppression. Literature’s role in society, namely its moral and political obligations, has often been debated. Scandal and provocation have proved inseparable from the notion of modern literature and writers often choose to position themselves against the moral values of society. Literature has historically been regulated to deter the circulation of obscenity, although the concept of obscenity changed according to the regulatory context. In the West, the censorship of literature evolved in the environment of social and cultural transformations such as the Industrial and French revolutions, secularization, urbanization, class formation, nationalism, and women’s emancipation. During this period, the most characteristic examples of controversial literature contained explicit sex, violence, or ‘offensive’ language, whilst others have met with resistance for their superficial politics or representations of race and sexuality that strayed from the normative values of society.

Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101 will be divided into five chapters:

  1. Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

  2. Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: The Well of Loneliness

  3. Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: The Group

  4. Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: Giovanni’s Room

  5. Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: Lolita

  6. Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: Oleanna

Controversial Literature of the 20th Century 101: Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was put on trial in 1960 as Regina v. Penguin Books Limited — one of the most publicized cases in British legal history. Although written by D.H. Lawrence in 1928, it was only following Lawrence’s death that Lady Chatterley’s Lover would become the principal text around which the legal definition of obscenity was challenged. The book became a target of legal obscenity because of Lawrence’s explicit descriptions and crude language, and so the novel’s defense would considerably stress the book’s overall literary and social value in accordance with the Obscene Publications Act of 1959.

Fearing the reception the book would garner in Britain and America, Lawrence had the book printed and published privately in Florence through a Florentine bookseller, Giuseppe Orioli, in 1928. Booksellers in Britain had refused to accept the copies they had ordered, whilst those mailed to American booksellers were confiscated by customs officers. Although Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not banned by any ruling in any British court, the novel nonetheless faced a level of suppression and copies imported into England were regularly seized and destroyed by order of the Home Secretary (Geoffrey, 2005, p.285). The critical responses to the novel were universally hostile — one review in the John Bull magazine (October 20, 1928) denounced the book as “the most evil outpouring that has ever besmirched the literature of our country. The sewers of French pornography would be dragged in vain to find a parallel in beastliness. The creations of muddy-minded perverts, peddled in back-street bookstalls in Paris, are prudish by comparison” (Hughes, 2006, p.285).

Figure 1: James Norton and Holliday Grainger in the BBC’s "Lady Chatterley’s Lover"

Lawrence’s novel was read as denigrating marriage and glorifying the promiscuity of adultery. His protagonist Constance Chatterley found satisfaction outside her marriage, and in doing so, she contradicted the literary tradition which held that “wives may not with impunity betray or leave even the most repellently inappropriate or abusive husbands, but must suffer either definitively or until the latter conveniently die” (Ladenson, 2007, p.134). Although literature of the previous century had featured adulterous women, they tended to remain in secondary roles or commit suicide as retribution, as was the case for the notable examples of Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina (Ladenson, 2007, p.134). However, it was not only Lawrence’s depiction of adultery that made Lady Chatterley’s Lover such an unprecedentedly problematic work, but its obscenity in the explicit representation of the mechanics of sex, and its use of vulgar language in the description thereof (Ladenson, 2007, p.139).

The vocabulary employed by Lawrence had existed in print for many centuries, but not in a legally sanctioned form. As Elisabeth Ladenson clarifies in Dirt for Art’s Sake, “The language Lawrence introduced into the ‘serious’ novel with Lady Chatterley in 1928 was ‘pornographic’ language and had for centuries been confined to that genre” (Ladenson, 2007 p.140). As a result, the novel was deemed pornographic and thus obscene libel. Another “linguistic transgression” evident in Lawrence’s novel is that the crude language is not confined to the working class or even solely men (Ladenson, 2007, p.140). On the contrary, Mellors, Lord Chatterley's gamekeeper and Lady Chatterley's lover, makes use of such words when speaking to Connie (as Constance Chatterley is nicknamed through the novel) and encourages her to use them —in one instance Mellors makes a point of explaining to Connie the distinction between “cunt” and “fuck” (Lawrence, p.189).

Figure 2: Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell in "Lady Chatterley’s Lover"

Although the novel was initially published in 1928, it is only when Penguin released an edition of the book in Britain in 1960 that the publishing company and therefore, the novel, was taken to trial. Penguin’s decision to release the novel and the subsequent 1960 trial surrounding Lady Chatterley’s Lover were a direct responses to the Obscene Publications Act that had been replaced the preceding year. The original 1857 Obscene Publications Act incorporated ‘obscene libel’ into statutory law, thereby criminalizing what had until then been a common law misdemeanor (Erlanson, 2020, p.48). The 1857 Act, however, failed to define ‘obscenity’, and a definition was only provided in 1968 by Regina v. Hicklin, in which Justice Cockburn formulated the so-called Hicklin Test: “The test of obscenity is this, whether the tendency of the matter […] is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall” (Erlanson, 2020, p.49). Cockburn’s ruling provided a definition of obscenity and so the Hicklin Test became the standard approach to literary obscenity cases in Britain and America well into the mid-twentieth century.

The decade following the end of the Second World War saw a “massive last-ditch effort” in Britain to suppress novels on grounds of obscenity (Erlanson, 2020, p.49). David Bradshaw characterizes the trials of 1954 as an “orgy of banning and burning” which saw the prosecution of, among others, Secker & Warburg for the publication of Stanley Kaufmann’s novel The Philanderer (Bradshaw, 2013, p.156). The purge of mainstream writers and publishers was largely unsuccessful, although it did have the effect of outraging the cultural elite into campaigning for a reform of the obscenity law, led by The Society of Authors. This proved to be a five-year struggle for better legal protection for the freedom of literary expression, and the resulting bill came into force as the 1959 Obscene Publications Act (Erlanson, 2020, p.50).

Figure 3: Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ruled not obscene by a jury at the Old Bailey, 2 November 1960

The revised Act attempted to make a legal distinction between pornography and serious literature ,and in doing so, it aimed to provide protection for the latter against charges of obscenity (Erlanson, 2020, p.51). Section One of the Act specified that “an article shall be deemed to be obscene if its effect … is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons” (Erlanson, 2020, p.51). Juries could no longer class a work as obscene based on a few isolated passages chosen by the prosecution. The notion of analysing the work as a whole would be invaluable to Penguin Books’ defense of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Section 4(1) of the Act specified that a person shall not be convicted of an offense “if it is proved that publication of the article in question is justified as being for the public good on the ground that it is in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or other objects of general concern” (Erlanson, 2020, p.52). Section 4(2) added that “the opinion of experts as to the literary, artistic, scientific or other merits of an article may be admitted … to establish or to negative the said ground” (Erlanson, 2020, p.52). These two subsections would form the foundations of the 1960 trial by allowing experts into the witness stand in order to testify the literary merits of Lawrence’s novel. As Erik Erlanson explains in Forbidden Literature; “Section 4 was thus a decisive factor in both proceedings in court and the not guilty verdict, and indeed for all later legislation concerning obscenity and literary censorship in Britain. Its significance is hard to overestimate” (Erlanson, 2020, p.52).

Erlanson adds that, if not for the revisions of the new act, Penguin would not have considered publishing an uncensored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Anticipating protection under the revised act, Penguin chose to release Lady Chatterley’s Lover because its infamy as a banned book seemed capable of being exonerated under the Act’s revisions (Ladenson, 2007, p.152). Nonetheless, legal action was taken: the trial, Regina v. Penguin Books Limited, lasted from 20 October to 2 November 1960, and would be of paramount importance for later trials concerning literary censorship (Erlanson, 2020, p.52).

Figure 4: The trial judge’s personal version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on view in Sotheby’s auction house in London

The prosecution devoted its efforts to proving obscenity, while the defense aimed to show the literary and public value of the novel. The result was a trial that, according to Rod Mengham, Professor of English and Modern Literature at the University of Cambridge, “seemed to be conducted in two parallel universes” (Mengham, 2013, p.160). Whilst the defense gathered evidence for the literary, social, and ethical value of the book, the prosecution continued to expound the shocking nature of the language and content, disregarding the testimony of the defense witnesses (Mengham, 2013, p.160).

The prosecution called no witnesses, whilst the defense called thirty-five experts to testify to the literary virtues of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This included high-profile literary scholars, such as Vivian de Sola Pinto, Graham Hough, Helen Gardner, Richard Hoggart, and Raymond William, notable men and women of letters, such as E.M. Forster, C. Day-Lewis, Rebecca West, publishers, clerics, and politicians who all gave evidence of the novel’s supreme literary merit and high moral seriousness when read as a whole (Erlanson, 2020, p.54).

Figure 5: Evening Standard Newspaper Reporting the Trial

The prosecution, on the other hand, attempted to sway the jury to indict on multiple levels of obscenity. The first was the excessive use of vulgar four-letter words by Lawrence. The second was the promiscuous and frequent adultery committed by Constance Chatterley, that led to the prosecution’s depiction of her in court as a “sex-addict” (Mengham, 2013, p.160). Mengham discloses the inadequacy of the prosecution’s arguments in Prudes on the Prowl : Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day: “The obsessive emphasis on Constance Chatterley’s nymphomania meant that a considerable proportion of the time used up by the prosecution was expended on treating this fictional character as if she were the accused, an actual person who might be brought into the dock to answer charges that were technically being directed at publisher and author” (Mengham, 2013, p.160). Witnesses for the defense countered and spoke of the frequent sex-acts between Constance and Mellors as necessary to make the development of their relationship clear, and “its growth in moral, and even spiritual” terms as each act showed a progression of greater intimacy and understanding (Mengham, 2013, p.161).

The testimony of the thirty-five witnesses ultimately led to the judgement that Lawrence’s book was morally improving, and that the use of the four-letter words was justified when this helped to “undo the associations of shame and depravity that had corrupted the most common words in use to describe sexual activity” (Mengham, 2023, p.163). The jury took less than three hours to reach the decision that Penguin Books was not guilty of publishing an obscene article. The significant repercussions of the Lady Chatterley trial included the democratisation and full accessibility of literature. “In giving a verdict of not guilty on 2 November 1960, they allowed Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other novels of an equally challenging moral nature to be made known and available to all, read in private homes and academic institutions across the nation, so that its reading skills and cultural capital would in time be collectively expanded” (Erlanson, 2020, p.60). Clearing the novel from the verdict of obscenity marked a new advent of literary autonomy in England, enabling literature to explore sexuality as readily as any other aspects of social reality (Kirchofer, 2017, p.49).

Figure 6: A commuter reads 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' on the London Underground on November 3, 1960 - the day the book went on sale to the general public

Both the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the 1959 Obscene Publications Act are characteristic of literature’s changing role in the emerging welfare state of Britain. The revised sections of the Obscene Publications Act that allowed works to be judged in their entirety and to have their moral and literary value testified by witnesses allowed Penguin Books to be found not guilty and allow the sale of the novel in Britain. The verdict ultimately made Lady Chatterley’s Lover a publishing success and rehabilitated Lawrence from the status of disgrace in which he had died.

Bibliographic References

Forbidden Literature: Case Studies on Censorship. (2020). Edited by Erlanson, E. et al. Sweden: Nordic Academic Press.

Hughes, G. (2006). An Encyclopaedia Of Swearing: The Social History Of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, And Ethnic Slurs In The English-Speaking World. Oxford: Taylor & Francis Group.

Kirchhofer, A. (2017). “The Making of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act Trials and Debates on Literary Obscenity in Britain Before the Case of Lady Chatterley”. Literary Trials: Exceptio Artis and Theories of Literature in Court. Ed. by Gruttemeier, R. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Ladenson, E. (2007). Dirt for Art’s Sake : Books on Trial From “Madame Bovary” to “Lolita.” New York: Cornell University Press.

Mengham, R. (2013). “Bollocks to Respectability: British Fiction after the Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover”. Prudes on the Prowl : Fiction and Obscenity in England, 1850 to the Present Day. Ed. by Bradshaw, D. & Potter, R. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rolph, C. (1961). The Trial of Lady Chatterley: Regina v. Penguin Books Limited. London: Penguin Books.

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