Book Essay - Autumn 2010

Trial and Eros

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When Lady Chatterley's Lover ran afoul of Britain's 1959 obscenity law, the resulting case had a cast worthy of P.G. Wodehouse

By Ben Yagoda

September 1, 2010


The court usher’s voice rang out in the courtroom at the Old Bailey: “Call Kingsley Amis!” Amis, the well-known British comic novelist, was nowhere to be seen. The defense, in the case of Regina v. Penguin Books Limited, moved on to its next witness. Later, Amis would apologize to Penguin’s solicitor, Michael Rubinstein, writing that he had left his house in Swansea “just in time to miss” Rubinstein’s letter specifying the time he was expected to testify, “and got back six hours or so after I should have been available in court.”

A week later, one of Amis’s buddies, Robert Conquest, explained to another, Philip Larkin, just why the witness was absent: “He was at the time participating in an adulterous rendezvous. Pity he didn’t just make it, breathing heavily, smeared with lipstick and fly-buttons mostly undone, to testify that Lady C was a sacred monogamous work.”

Amis’s escapade might have served as a motivation for Lar­kin to kick his own personal life up several notches. That, in any event, is an inference one might take from the reference to the trial in the most famous lines of one of his most famous poems “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.

The result of Regina v. Penguin was, indeed, the end of the Chatterley ban. Exactly 50 years ago, for six days in late October and early November of 1960, Penguin Books was tried in the Old Bailey for having attempted to bring out a paperback edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been banned since its 1928 publication. It was not only the most sexually explicit novel Lawrence ever wrote, it is probably the most sexually explicit novel ever by a canonical author. Although his stated theme was a portrayal of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, a part of his goal was a more honest description, or at least acknowledgment, of this area of life. He wrote to his agent, “I always labour at the same thing, to make the sex relation valid and precious, instead of shameful. And this novel is the furthest I’ve gone.”

And pretty further he went. In charting the love affair between Constance Chatterley and Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper on her (wheelchair-bound) husband’s estate, the book describes their 13 sexual encounters in meticulous and unflinching detail. Arguably even more transgressive was the language that Lawrence, in his quest for realism, allowed his characters to employ. As the prosecutor in the 1960 trial, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, was to note in court: “The word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ occurs no less than 30 times. . . . ‘Cunt’ 14 times; ‘balls’ 13 times; ‘shit’ and ‘arse’ six times apiece; ‘cock’ four times; ‘piss’ three times, and so on.”

Lawrence, who spent the last years of his life in Italy and died in France in 1930, was aware that the book could not be published in England, at least not in the form he intended. Since 1868, obscenity had been a common-law offense, (unhelpfully) defined as any material whose tendency “is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” No one seemed to have any doubt that Chatterley would fall in the dead center of that definition. Lawrence acted as his own publisher and had the book composed, printed, and bound in Florence. Britain’s intrepid John Bull magazine, a venerable repository of conventional wisdom, got hold of a copy and characterized it 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.” Britons smuggled the book past customs inspectors for decades, and from time to time copies were seized and burned.

Remarkably, this was the way matters stood until 1959, when liberal members of Parliament, under the leadership of Roy Jenkins, passed a new Obscene Publications Act. It kept the “deprave and corrupt” language for defining obscenity, but characterized the potential objects of corruption more generally, as “persons who are likely . . . to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.” Crucially, the act provided that the work in question be “taken as a whole”—that is, merely reading out the naughty bits would not suffice—and held that a defendant “shall not be convicted . . . 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 of other objects of general concern.” Moreover: “the opinion of experts as to the literary, artistic, scientific or other merits of an article may be admitted . . . either to establish or to negative [sic] the said ground.”

These developments—along with a 1959 U.S. trial legalizing publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—led Sir Allen Lane, the founder and chairman of Penguin Books, to write a memo to his colleagues in November 1959:

When in America I saw an Anchor or Vintage edition of Conrad which struck me as being a very good way of tying up the works of an author in such a way that these editions are readily identifiable.

I wonder whether we might not consider doing this with D. H. Lawrence and include the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover as one of the group?

(The Chatterley acquittal elicited a droll book review in the outdoorsman’s magazine Field and Stream:

This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the occasional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeper.)

The certain controversy over Chatterley would offer the kind of publicity that cannot be bought. Penguin envisioned a 200,000 first printing.

But the government, as it turned out, was not greatly impressed with the new law and was not inclined to give Penguin a free pass. Treasury Counsel Griffith-Jones wrote in a memo that in his opinion, the book was “obscene and a prosecution for publishing an obscene libel would be justified. Indeed if no action is taken in respect of this publication it will make proceedings against any other novel very difficult.” Members of the Director of Public Prosecution’s (DPP) office put on their literary critics’ hats and had a go at the book. An official with the Dickensian name Maurice Crump called it a “trashy novelette” and said of Lawrence, “Not only is his characterization poor, but it is in places also inaccurate or ungrammatical.” He went on to criticize the author for not saying whether Connie Chatterley “rode, hunted, played tennis or golf. . . . She is little more than a female body into whose acts of love-making we are invited to pry.”

The attorney general, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, dipped into the book himself on the train from Southampton to London and scribbled a note to DPP Sir Tobias Mathew: “I have read up to Chapter IV and if the remainder of the work is of the same character I have no doubt that you were right to start proceedings.”

Penguin didn’t expect such an aggressive response. By the second week of August, 165,000 copies had come off the presses, of which 55,000 had been delivered to bookstores. After an August 12 meeting in which solicitors made clear the certainty of prosecution, distribution was immediately halted. There remained the issue of how the police would take action. On August 15, Rubinstein wrote to a Detective-Inspector Monahan of Scotland Yard,

Our Clients have . . . instructed us to inform you that, as from noon today, 12 copies of the book will be available to be handed to you at their offices. . . . Please let us know at what time you propose to call on our Clients at their London office when one of their Directors would make himself or herself available at an hour’s notice to hand the copies to you.

Penguin’s chief designer, Hans Schmoller, helpfully put together a handwritten timeline of the events of August, in which he noted that the books were collected and the summons served at noon the following day. “Extraordinary atmosphere of false bonhomie,” he noted.

The Crown was meanwhile finding out that prosecution would not be easy. Under the new act, testimony was allowed on the literary or other merits of a text. However, as a May 1960 article in The Modern Law Review noted, “ex­pert evidence is not available for any other pur­pose, for example, the prosecution could not call expert evidence to show the tendency to deprave and corrupt. This is a matter on which the jury or bench must execute their own judgment.”

Even if a jury found the book to be obscene, this would not be sufficient grounds for conviction under the new law. The prosecution would also have to demonstrate that publication was not “in the public good,” and in order to show that, expert testimony was required. Consequently, Mathew wrote to potential witnesses that he would be “grateful for your opinion as to the literary structure” of the novel. It is hard to know what kind of answer he was looking for. The mere fact that he found himself asking about so innocuous a matter suggests the depth of the water he was in.

Nor were the responses propitious. Two noted critics, Noel Annan and Helen Gardner, both replied that they were strongly in favor of publication. Annan helpfully added, “I would of course be happy to receive your representative, but you may feel, in view of this statement, that it would not be a profitable journey.” He and Gardner both ultimately testified for the defense.

Equally unsuccessful was the approach to John Holroyd-Reece, the founder of the Paris-based Pegasus press, who had at one time declined to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and who reportedly had once described it as a “bad book.” By this date, however, he fancied himself a sort of mole for the defense, and in a letter to Lane duly reported back on his interview with the government. He described the DPP’s representative, a Mr. Leaf, as “an elderly young man, tall, slim, and more highly educated than I had assumed from my previous telephone discussion. Intellectually no giant. But rather pathetically well meaning.”

Holroyd-Reece went on: “He explained that the famous four-letter word occurs in Lady Chatterly [sic] 44 times;—that he was pleased that you had elected to go to trial by jury, apparently because he thinks that the use of this word, particularly in that frequency, would horrify the jury and condemn the book.”

Holroyd-Reece told Lane he was confident Leaf “would come back and try again” to persuade him to be a witness. He raised the “painful” possibility of consenting, for strategic reasons: “circumstances could arise in which . . . your leading counsel might find it most convenient to be able to cross examine a witness who, from his point of view, is obviously the Trojan Horse in the enemy’s camp.”

But an invitation was not forthcoming. In his own report, Leaf opined that the publisher would be wanting as a witness: “While Holroyd-Reece is an extremely interesting and knowledgeable person to talk to, he makes it almost impossible to get a word in edgeways, and as a result it was impossible to keep him to the points on which we require information.”

Eventually, Mathew gave up hope of finding authorities willing to testify. He wrote to Griffith-Jones, “There is a general feeling in the literary world that this prosecution is in principle repressive and unwarranted and in these circumstances people, whatever their views on the book may be, are not prepared to assist.” The defense, for its part, had to contend with refusals as well. Rubinstein approached everybody who was anybody in the world of letters and culture: some 300 people in all. Quite a few demurred, notably Oxbridge-educated members of the generation after Lawrence, literary lions now in their 50s or early 60s, to whom the older author was an antique, slightly embarrassing figure, with his earnest commitment to High Principles. The novelist Anthony Powell said of Lawrence, with characteristic understatement, “I do not find myself tremendously in sympathy with his personality.” Graham Greene wrote that it was “absurd” for the novel to be classified as obscene but noted, “I am myself dubious how far Lawrence was successful in his intention. I find some parts of the book rather absurd and for that reason I would prefer not to be called as a witness in case I was forced into any admission harmful to the Penguin case.”

Evelyn Waugh’s reply was characteristically etched in acid:

I have not read Lady Chatterley’s Lover since it first came out. My memory of it was that it was dull, absurd in places & pretentious. I am sure that some of its readers would be attracted by its eroticism. Whether it can ‘corrupt’ them, I can’t tell, but I am quite certain that no public or private ‘good’ would be served by its publication. Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts.

But there was no shortage of eminences that were enthusiastic about the possibility of appearing in the Old Bailey to stand up for Lawrence, modernity, sexual liberation, and good sense. Among those who responded affirmatively to Rubinstein were Harold Nicolson, Aldous Huxley, Stephen Spender, Peter Opie, John Lehmann, John Wain, David Daiches, John Betjeman, A. J. Ayer, Philip Toynbee, J. I. M. Stewart, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, and Laurence Durrell. As it happened, none of these was called as a witness. The reason, in at least some of the cases, can be inferred from an observation by one man who did testify, the young lecturer and critic Richard Hoggart. He described his fellow witnesses as “so un-Bohemian that we felt like a stage army of earnest Guardianreaders. There were eminent and elderly men of letters, none of whom would frighten a jury with farouche manners and beliefs; no Kenneth Tynans.”

The final roster included professors of literature (Raymond Williams and Vivian De Sola Pinto), bellelettrists (Rebecca West, Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Potter), novelist E. M. Forster, men of the cloth, journalists and editors, a schoolmistress, and a 21-year-old recent Cambridge graduate, Bernardine Wall. Hoggart observed, “The whole thing was very well stage-managed with a splendid cast.”

Literally waiting in the wings for Penguin was 72-year-old T. S. Eliot, the most distinguished man of letters of all. In the early 1930s, in his book After Strange Gods, Eliot had offered a devastating critique of Lawrence and especially Lady Chatterley’s Lover. His string of dashes made him seem to sputter with fury: “The social obsession which makes his well-born—or almost well-born—ladies offer themselves to—or make use of—plebeians springs from the same morbidity which makes other of his female characters bestow their favors upon savages. The author of that book [Chatterley] seems to me to have been a very sick man indeed.”

But Eliot had changed his mind since then. He told Rubinstein he would be willing to testify for the defense and sent a statement in which he took back his earlier criticisms of Lawrence, calling them “too violent.” He typed, but then crossed out, two paragraphs: “I should mention that there were circumstances in my private life which I can see in retrospect, affected my critical judgment and made me more sweeping and violent in my assertions than I now feel.

“One of these particularly unhappy periods was from about 1929–1934 and during this period when I lectured about Lawrence and prepared After Strange Gods for publication in 1933, I should have realised that I as well as he, should have been described as ‘a sick soul.’” (During that period, Eliot contemplated and then em­barked on a separation from his wife Vivienne.)

Wisely, Rubinstein decided to hold Eliot “in reserve” as a witness (he would confide to Forster), “in case the Prosecution cross-examined any of our other witnesses upon After Strange Gods or any other of Mr. Eliot’s writings about D. H. Lawrence or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, critical of him or of it.”

Rubinstein, a master strategist, set about preparing his witnesses for Griffith-Jones’s parries. He warned Rebecca West that she would likely be asked, “What ‘loss to literature’ is occasioned by the absence of this fuck or that drooping john thomas?’” Absent the quaint slang, this would be precisely the prosecutor’s tack.

On October 20, the London Evening Standard reported, “The queue for the public gallery began at 7:45 a.m.” The press has always loved, and always will love, an excuse to devote many column inches to scandalous matters, and the trial—being an event of actual cultural importance, involving eminent authorities testifying in a court of law—was a tailor-made spectacle. The trial was covered in great detail by all the national dailies and weeklies, as well as by such foreign periodicals as Esquire and The New Yorker. To help reporters with their work, Rubinstein provided all of them with copies of Chatterley under covers that said Sons and Lovers.

The New Yorker’s correspondent, Mollie Panter-Downes, described the No. 1 Court, where the trial would take place, as

an unexpectedly small chamber, full of light woodwork, at one end of which the judge sits in a high-backed chair with a sword in a velvet scabbard hanging on the wall behind him. The general public sits in a gallery that looks like a shallow cupboard and is so close to the ceiling that, glancing up from below, one feels that at any moment the people perched on its shelves may come toppling down on the learned counsels’ wigs.

Griffith-Jones, she wrote, had “the sort of well-boned good looks—full-chinned and brought into period by his wig—that you often see in English eighteenth-century family portraits of country squires and their spaniels regarding each other with mutual satisfaction.” In his opening statement, he tried to defuse the antiquated impression he must have realized he made, assuring the jury they were not being asked to “approach this matter in any priggish, high-minded, super-correct, mid-Victorian manner.”

He went on to pose a series of rhetorical questions, the last of which, in the judgment of many commentators, doomed his case. Supporting this judgment is a document the defense had prepared, now in the Penguin archives. It is a list of the members of the jury and alternates, including their occupations. Among them were driver, cabinet fitter, dock laborer, teacher, dress machinist, none, housewife, butcher, and timber salesman. It is amusing to imagine the reaction of, say, Robert F. Bowman, the driver, as Griffith-Jones asked his questions:

“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 in your own house? Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

There was a titter in the courtroom, immediately silenced by the judge. To Panter-Downes, it was as if

the 18th-century portrait stretched to include not only a spaniel but a wife and a row of blooming, mobcapped maid­servants, all literate but needing to be sheltered, and in slight bemusement we stared at Mr. Griffith-Jones, who could thus make the centuries roll back from the Old Bailey and leave us with Sir Clifford Chatterley at unchanging Wragby, dressing to go down to dinner.

At the end of his statement, Griffith-Jones called Detective Inspector Monahan, who testified that 12 copies of Lady Chatterley were delivered to him. Then he said, “My Lord, that is the case for the prosecution.” There would be no additional witnesses.

For the defense, the lead barrister was 60-year-old Gerald Gardiner, known as an opponent of the death penalty and for his recent unsuccessful defense of the Daily Mirror in the American entertainer Liberace’s libel suit against the newspaper. (The Mirror’s article had described Liberace as a “deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavored, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” The case hinged on the term “fruit-flavored,” which was held to impute homosexuality. Liberace was awarded a settlement of 8,000 pounds, leading him to comment, “I cried all the way to the bank.”) In his opening statement, Gardiner presented his various arguments, but the nub of his case came at the end. It was relatively simple and hard to dispute:

While parts of the book may, and I do not doubt will, shock you, there is in my submission nothing in it the reading of which could in fact do anyone any harm.

In a case like this one it is perhaps permitted to reflect that nobody suggests that the Director of Public Prosecutions becomes depraved or corrupted; counsel read the book; they do not become depraved or corrupted; witnesses read the book; they do not become depraved or corrupted. It is always somebody else; it is never ourselves.

The defense’s first witness was Graham Hough, a Lawrence scholar, who made a case for the artistic purpose of Lawrence’s explicitness in sexuality and language. As soon as Griffith-Jones began his cross-examination, it became clear that his strategy would consist, as Rubinstein had predicted to Rebecca West, of presenting a defense witness with especially dirty and/or inept bits from the book and demanding that he or she defend them. After apologizing for his “miserable attempt to pronounce the local dialect,” Griffith-Jones read aloud, to Hough and the jury, a passage in which Mellors, the gamekeeper, is talking to Connie Chatterley:

“‘Th’art good cunt, though, aren’t ter? Best bit of cunt left on earth. When ter likes! When th’art willin’!’
“‘What is cunt?’ she said.
“‘An doesn’t ter know? Cunt!’”

“I need not go on reading,” said counsel. “Just glance down. ‘Cunt’ appears again. ‘Fuck’ appears . . . all in the space of about 12 lines. Is that a realistic conversation, even between the gamekeeper and the baronet’s wife?”

Hough averred that it was not. Griffith-Jones pressed on, reading aloud what Malcolm Muggeridge had recently deemed “the most hilariously fatuous dialogue ever to be written in the English language,” contained in a scene in which Lady Chatterley’s father, Sir Malcolm, is buying Mellors lunch at his club:

Sir Malcolm gave a little squirting laugh, and became Scotch and lewd. . . . “How was the going, eh? Good, my boy, what?”

“Good!”

“I’ll bet it was! Ha-ha! My daughter, chip of the old block, what! I never went back on a good bit of fucking, myself. Though her mother, oh, holy saints!” He rolled his eyes to heaven. “But you warmed her up, oh, you warmed her up, I can see that. Ha-ha! My blood in her! You set fire to her haystack all right.”

Griffith-Jones set the book down. “Do you think future generations reading that conversation would get anything approaching the kind of way in which Royal Academicians conducted their conversations?”

Some defense witnesses, unwittingly or not, transferred their zeal for publication to zeal for the novel, and consequently overstated the case for Chatterley. The Bishop of Woolwich, Dr. John Arthur Thomas Robinson, testified that Lawrence was trying “to portray the sex relationship as something essentially sacred.”

On reexamination, he was asked by defense counsel, “Is this a book which in your view Christians ought to read?
“Yes, I think it is,” the Bishop replies.

The front page of one of the evening papers carried the banner headline: A BOOK ALL CHRISTIANS SHOULD READ.

By consensus, Hoggart was the most effective witness, in part because of his northern accent and unpretentious demeanor; as a young lecturer at the University of Leicester, he couldn’t very well put on airs. “I was the rugged provincial, a bit like Lawrence himself,” he would later write. He also had a sense that his testimony was critical. The book still had the capacity to shock; it was possible, the defense felt, that Griffith-Jones’s salacious quotations were hitting home.

As Hoggart approached the entrance to the court, he recalled later, a defense lawyer whispered, “Things are not going well. Do dig in hard.”

Dig in he did. Asked by Jeremy Hutchinson, for the defense, about Griffith-Jones’s characterization of the novel as “little more than vicious indulgence in sex and sensuality,” Hoggart begged to differ: “It is not in any sense vicious; it is highly virtuous and, if anything, puritanical.”

“I thought I had lived my life under a misapprehension as to the meaning of the word ‘puritanical,’” Griffith-Jones said, playing into Hoggart’s hands. “Will you help me?”

Indeed the witness would. “In England today and for a long time the word ‘puritanical’ has been extended to mean someone who is against anything which is pleasurable, particularly sex,” he explained. “The proper meaning of it, to a literary man or to a linguist, is somebody who belongs to the tradition of British Puritanism, generally, and the distinguishing feature of that is an intense sense of responsibility for one’s conscience. In that sense, the book is puritanical.”

Griffith-Jones retreated to sarcastic condescension: “I am obliged for that lecture upon it.” He proceeded to recite to Hoggart a series of sexually explicit passages from the novel, each time asking if it was “puritanical.” Each time Hoggart answered in the affirmative, and the lecturer’s calm and unshakeable assuredness effectively defused the ironic bombshells the prosecutor was trying to hurl.

Later that day, the usher called on “Edward Morgan Forster.” It took some of the jury a few minutes to realize that this was the famous novelist E. M. Forster, 81 years old, the author of A Passage to India and A Room with a View. “One felt like standing up in respect,” Hoggart would write, “as that small bent figure in an old-style, but certainly clean, mackintosh walked slowly to the witness-box.” Hutchinson said to him: “I think you knew D. H. Lawrence quite well?”

“Yes, I saw a good deal of him in 1915,” Forster replied. “That was the time when I saw him most, but we kept in touch.”

It was a remarkable sweeping away of the literary sands of time to reveal a moment when the century was young. Of the trial’s many striking scenes, perhaps the most touching was that of Forster, the only witness who knew Lawrence well, six years his senior, and in nearly every respect his opposite, standing up to speak for him. Lawrence had written fiction almost until the moment of death; after Forster published A Passage to India in 1924, he gave up on novels and confined himself to occasional articles and reviews, every word of which exuded the sort of gentility and propriety Lawrence went into exile to escape. And where Lawrence was avidly heterosexual, Forster was gay and closeted. His one novel with homosexual themes (also featuring a gamekeeper, as it happens), Maurice, was written in 1913 but would remain unpublished until after his death in 1970.

One can only imagine what was going through Forster’s mind as Hutchinson reminded him, “When he died I think you described Lawrence as the greatest imaginative novelist of your generation.” The quote came from an obituary notice, one of the very few sympathetic ones.

“Yes, I would still hold to that,” Forster said.

Forster went on to testify that Lady Chatterley’s Lover “had very high literary merit. It is, perhaps I might add, not the novel of Lawrence which I most admire. That would be Sons and Lovers, I think.”

In their closing statements, on the trial’s fifth day, Gardiner and Griffith-Jones rehearsed their familiar arguments. Then came the judge’s charge to the jury. After he made it, anyone who had assumed this would be an open-and-shut case, in Penguin’s favor, stood corrected. In truth, throughout the trial, Byrne had given the impression (in Hoggart’s words) “of being truly and deeply shocked by the book.”

Now he asked the jury, “Reading the book, do you find it is a book in which the author is trying to portray sex in a real sense as something sacred, as an act of holy communion? . . . Well, is adultery an immoral relationship? It is a matter for you to consider.”

“Don’t think for one moment I am asking you to take any particular view,” he added, protesting too much. “It is entirely your province.”

The summing up, according to Panter-Downes, “cast gloom on everyone from Penguin.” In the lobby as well, “the general opinion . . . seemed to be that the jurors would not take long to come up with a verdict against Penguin.” However, after just under three hours, the dock worker, the installation inspector, and the others filed back in and the foreman announced a unanimous verdict of not guilty. “There was an outburst of clapping,” noted The Times, “instantly silenced by the usher.”

Penguin was off to the races. It printed 50,000 additional copies of the novel in seven days, then two million over the next six months. By the following year, Chatterley had brought it a profit of 112,000 pounds, the equivalent at that time of $310,000.

The end of the Chatterley ban did not mark an immediate end of literary censorship in Britain. Within a few years of the trial there were successful obscenity prosecutions of Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (also known as Fanny Hill), banned since John Cleland wrote it in 1748 and brought to market by a publisher emboldened by the Chatterley ruling. But both rulings were overturned on appeal, and in fairly short order the practice, in both Britain and the United States, became the present one, where the publication of more or less everything (child pornography excepted) is more or less permitted.

It all started with the Chatterley case. In the flush of victory, exhilaration prevailed among the enlightened, simply to no longer be under the thumb of Mervyn Griffith-Jones and all that he represented. Barbara Barr, Lawrence’s stepdaughter, told a journalist, “I feel as if a window has been opened and fresh air has blown right through England.” Wayland Young, in The Guardian wrote grandly, “Time will show, but I think it is possible future generations may say that on November 2, 1960, a giant who had laid in chains, the English imagination, was at last unshackled.”

In fact, time has shown that in the 50 years since the Chatterley trial, the English imagination has proved roughly equivalent to its state in the centuries before, certainly no more vigorous, probably not much worse. The verdict and the new expectations, standards of taste, and level of artistic license it engendered appear inevitable in hindsight; going back to the restrictions of yore would be unthinkable. But sometimes inevitable changes don’t come easily.

In this case they required a literary show trial, with a comic-opera Podsnap forcing literary scholars to overpraise a deeply flawed if not actually bad novel, and blunt the intricate and subtle distinctions by which they had become used to defining themselves. They can be thankful there hasn’t been another such spectacle since. Their profession would probably not be able to survive it.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and the author of many books, including an e-book titled You Need to Read This: The Death of the Imperative Mode, the Rise of the American Glottal Stop, the Bizarre Populatiry of ‘Amongst,’ and Other Cuckoo Things That Have Happened to the English Language. Visit him at benyagoda.com.


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