Lady Chatterley triumphant

Fifty-two years ago Lady Chatterley's Lover beat the obscenity trial against it. Here's what the NS had to say.

Fifty-two years ago today a unanimous jury at the Old Bailey affirmed that the book Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene. The six-day trial followed confiscations, rejections and convictions in Britain, Australia, Canada and the US which had continued since 1928. The defendant, Allen Lane’s Penguin Books, brought 35 witnesses to the stand to speak to the moral, literary and social character of the book. Witnesses included E. M. Forster (“I knew Lawrence well in his day – he was the greatest imaginative novelist of his own generation”), Raymond Williams (“It’s the one insane taboo left – sex as a natural and vital thing”) and the Bishop of Woolwich (“His descriptions of sexual relationships cannot be taken out of the context of his whole, to me, quite astonishing sensitivity to the beauty and value of all organic relationships.”)

Writer and police officer Cecil Rolph Hewitt (writing under his pen name C. H. Rolph), wrote the following report for the New Statesman, on the outcome of the trial. The article was uncovered this morning from the NS’s archives, which are being explored in order to uncover the best of the magazine’s history for next year’s centenary book.

Lady Chatterley’s Triumph

Number One Court at the Old Bailey perfectly fulfilled what must have been its designer’s dearest wish, i.e. that the business of the court should not be overheard. The huge dock in the centre, so carefully sited as an obstacle to vision and hearing, proclaimed its anachronistic uselessness by the fact that it was empty. Sir Allen Lane sat with his solicitors at the table: he was not a defendant – the charge was against Penguin Books Ltd. A lonely officer from Brixton prison sat in the dock with not even a symbolic stuffed Penguin to guard. (Mr Gerald gardiner QC remarked – and the Director of Public Prosecutions was cross about it – that whatever the motive of the Crown in not summoning individual directors at Penguin Books, the fact remained that an empty dock might make it easier for a jury to return a verdict of guilty.

The canopy over the witness box, reputed to have been meant as a sounding board before the adjustable microphone usurped its function, hid in deep shadow the faces of more distinguished writers, moralists, theologians, and Eng. Lits. than any jury in this country has ever seen in one week. And as for the sounding boards, the jury itself, the first control group ever to be subjected under scrutiny to the four-letter words, showed how quickly familiarity can breed content.

Lawrence’s wish, said Mr Stephen Potter in the witness box, was to take those words from the context of the lavatory wall and give them back dignity and meaning, away from the context of obscenity and swear-words. And for the court officials, for the policemen on duty, for some of the newspaper men, and (I should guess) for about seven-twelfths of the jury though not at all for Mr Griffith-Jones, this is what the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was doing.

"There is a great gulf between this book and similar literature," said Miss Janet Adam Smith in her evidence, "because of the sensitiveness and humanity with which Lawrence explores the situation." The odd state of the law, which the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 has not changed, permits a witness to say that the gulf exists, but not that any particular book from the other side of the gulf would prove its existence; though they do, in fact, slip in a title every now and again while the judge is writing something. Even wider is the gulf that separates really literary persons, as represented by Mr Gardiner’s 35 witnesses, from the mass of plain men and women.

The post-war novel of the man-woman relationship is said to have nourished the realisation, to which Canon Milford referred, that its readers "are being invited to identify themselves with it, and not to be a third in the party – the scenes would be offensive if there had been an observer". So the plain men and women can not take, and have for some time been allowed to take, the frankest of love scenes; but the prosecution in the Lady Chatterley case felt that they must not be allowed to take, in paper and print, the four-letter words in which those scenes may nevertheless be described through the corners of their mouths.

"If this book is acquitted," I was told by a police officer who had certainly heard most of the evidence about Lawrence’s literary stature and moral purpose, "there’ll be a real flood of this stuff. What are we to do then? Where are we to draw the line?" He meant that the good old test of the four-letter words, the last line of defence, would have gone. He had not then heard Mr Gerald Gardiner say that "if the use of the four-letter words in this particular book is legitimate, it does not follow that they can be used by any scribbler writing any kind of novel."

The failure of the 1954 prosecutions had established that you could put frank sexuality into a novel without (unless you pleaded guilty) going to prison. The policeman wondered whether it was now to be said that you could describe it in the part of the English language that is confined to the streets (or, as they used to say, to the gutter). In a trial which must hold the record for the amount of time spent in reading aloud (while, now and then, one or two jurors drowsed), the most telling quotation concerned the gamekeeper’s views on "the one insane taboo left", and it was used in the witness box by Mr Raymond Williams:

It’s one thing they won’t let you be, straight and open in your sex. You can be as dirty as you like. In fact the more dirt you do on sex the better they like it. But if you believe in your own sex, and won’t have it done dirt to, they’ll down you. It’s the one insane taboo left – sex as a natural and vital thing.

If ever "dirt was done" in that sense, it happened at this extraordinary and expensively unnecessary trial. It wasn’t the reiteration of the staccato monosyllables for which, we are told, we have to thank or blame our Anglo-Saxon forebears: this had the distinctly perceptible effect of making them sound less cloacal, as biological verbs and nouns, and accordingly less useful for the future as pejoratives and outlets of release. It was the reading aloud, in such circumstances, of some of the tenderest passages in modern English literature (with the occasional insertion of "members of the jury") – it was this that did the dirt.

For those who were there, I should suppose that the highlights of the trial were Mr Richard Hoggart’s passionate defence, speaking himself as a son of the working classes, of Lawrence as the one writer whose work might one day bridge the gulf between the cultural extremes in this country, and Mr E. M. Forster’s "I knew Lawrence well in his day – he was the greatest imaginative novelist of his own generation". But that evening I asked 12 ordinary people who E. M. Forster was; and only one of them, an old lady, had ever heard of him. This is the problem. This and the judge’s inevitable (and, of course, proper) advice to the jury that "our criminal law is based upon the view that a jury takes note of the facts, and not upon the view that experts might have".

The promoters of the Obscene Publications Bill, which became law, after a five-year campaign, in 1959, had the greatest difficulty in achieving the admissibility of expert evidence, and once or twice nearly gave it up: the government lawyers were uncompromisingly against it. You could not, they say, require a judge to listen to evidence about anything but facts – it must always be a matter for his discretion to admit or exclude evidence of opinion. The reformers pressed on, holding firmly that Parliament could, if it saw fit, require the judge to listen to Kipling’s If.

The acquittal of Lady Chatterley shows what the admission of expert literary evidence would have done for some of the pilloried masterpieces of the past. It begins a long process which you might call the education of qualified jurors. Of these, there are about nine millions; and for a week they have been taking, through their daily paper, what amounts to the most expensively-mounted and high-powered course on D.H. Lawrence that money has ever been unable to buy. They probably thought it was going to be a trial about "degrees of dirt". The defence triumphantly proved that an author with a conscience can deal with sex honestly and seriously – and still be published.

Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, following the obscenity trial. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Deborah Levy: “Literature is very dusty compared to the visual arts”

Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk is shortlisted for both the Man Booker and the Goldsmiths Prize. She talks Brexit, family politics and why publishers are insulting readers.

Deborah Levy is a poet, playwright, short story writer and novelist. Hot Milk, her second novel to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize (after Swimming Home, in 2012), is set in Andalusia in southern Spain, where a mother, Rose, and a daughter, Sofia, have come to seek specialist treatment for Rose’s mysterious medical problems. Reviewing Hot Milk for the New Statesman earlier this year, Eimear McBride praised Levy’s “great lush writing” and the book’s treatment of “the exploration of the nature of hypochondria, the boundaries of parental responsibility and the cynicism of pharmaceutical giants thwarting practitioners who refuse the doctrine of ‘A pill for every ill’.”

Hot Milk has been shortlisted for the Booker and the Goldsmiths Prize. Do you think we need both prizes?

Yes, we need both prizes. Why not?  I would say we definitely need the Bailey’s too, and I have never been nominated for that prize. I might disagree with the literary values that are often garlanded, but a lively, fierce, public debate about literature is always a good thing. Generally, literary culture is very dusty compared to the visual arts. For example, if you are a contemporary visual artist and have no creative daring, you are nothing. You might as well chalk up imitations of old masters on the pavement. Contemporary visual art pulls in huge audiences, as we know. I believe we can learn from its confidence.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”. What can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not?

The nasty truth is that so called innovative fiction is perceived to be a commercial risk. This is insulting to readers, but it’s a hard perception to shift. Anything that is innovative is always going to be trashed and triumphed in equal measure. Freud sold six copies of the Interpretation of Dreams when it was first published. When Matisse first exhibited in Paris, punters actually tried to scratch off the paint with their fingernails. So it is a tremendously good idea to reward creative daring rather than punish it. As far as I’m concerned, fiction that extends the possibilities of the novel form, is what a writing life is all about. Every skilled writer knows there is no such thing as a generic innovative approach to a stretch of writing. We dismantle literary conventions and we borrow from literary conventions, but in the end, innovative writing always makes a language that can speak most eloquently for the book. On this subject, Marguerite Duras nailed it for me; I quote her here:

“I think what I blame books for, in general, is that they are not free. One can see it in the writing; they are fabricated, organised, regulated; one could say they conform. There are still dead generations that produce prim books. Even young people: charming books, without extension, without darkness. Without silence. In other words, without a true author.”

Sofia is 25 and drifting. Do you see her in the context of the “millennial” generation – the first to be worse off than their parents? What was life like for you when you were that age?

I want to give value to the action of drifting. It’s a necessary part of life. Sofia fears she’s a failure, but drifting, like walking, is conducive to thinking. It is not a passive action to drift or to think. When I was 25, I was writing plays and I was very broke. I rented a room in a house in East London, which was affordable in those days, and I wrote in the boiler room because it was the warmest place in the house. One of the tenants was a canoe maker. After he had varnished parts of the paddles he had carved from wood, he needed them to dry in the boiler room. So we had a system where he would lay the unvarnished parts of the oars across my feet, and this was how all my early plays were written.

Sofia has studied anthropology and is interested in “kinship structures”. Do you think the family unit is a particularly rich subject for the writer?

The family, as Aristotle told us, is a political subject. All Greek myths are about unhappy families. Did you know that Virginia Woolf’s, To The Lighthouse, was reviewed as “domestic psychology”-  despite the middle section being the most devastating critique of the first world war? If we are lucky, the family is where we learn to love and be loved – if we are unlucky, it’s where we learn to be unloved and have difficulties with love as a result. The family is always a site of conflict, rage, compromise, turbulent emotions. Hot Milk, in part, pays homage to the way a single mother has kept the wolf from the door and raised an argumentative, thoughtful daughter.

Sofia’s mother Rose is frustratingly delusional about her supposed illness but her strength of character and self-belief is remarkable. What was it about the character of the hypochondriac that interested you?

Lacan reckoned the hypochondriac is asking a question she does not want answered. So what is the question?  Sofia is trying to figure out what kind of conversation her mother’s lame legs are having with the world.

Hot Milk is set in 2015 and touches on current preoccupations from austerity to immigration to artisan coffee. Could you describe it as a political novel?

The challenge in my fiction is to embody political arguments. By the way, the language that was used in the media at the time of the Greek economic crisis, spoke to the themes of illness in my novel. Debt was described as contagious and contaminating, an epidemic raging through Europe, an outbreak that was infectious. The bitter pill prescribed was the disastrous ideology of austerity. Hot Milk also offers a critique of big pharma, channelled through the character called Dr. Gomez.   

The landscape of southern Spain, where most of the novel is set, seems particularly unforgiving: jellyfish and oil in the sea, horseflies on the beach, furnace-like greenhouses marking the plains and valleys. How important is the idea of place to your writing?

Yes, place always gives the key mood to my writing. My next novel opens in Berlin 1989, a few days after the wall comes down. I have recently spent a lot of time in various DDR museums, and my favourite exhibit is a stuffed badger shot by the head of the Stasi. Its eyes seem to have been stuck in the wrong place. Given the Stasi were supposed to have eyes on everyone, this object might feature in the first draft of my book. 

The novel, which references Yorkshire, London, Andalusia and Greece, was written before Britain voted to leave the European Union. How do you feel about the prospect of Brexit.

I am heartbroken about Brexit. What is there to look forward to in the UK if you are young? Student debt, unaffordable housing, unaffordable public transport, unpaid internships, zero hour contracts, no freedom of movement to work and travel in Europe. Thank you Sir, thank you Ma’am, that’s your legend. I have come to believe the voting age must be lowered to 16.

You recently said, referring to the book’s brevity, that “You can pack a lot into a sentence”. Are your sentences the product of much re-writing and editing?


Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of this book.

I looked at Lowry paintings. Partly because Lowry’s mother used her illness to control her son and keep him at her side, which is Sofia’s plight, too. Lowry cared for his depressed mother in the day and painted at night. His tutor was the French impressionist painter, Valette. Lowry turned up to his life classes at the Manchester School of Art. It was Valette who suggested to him, the possibility of using the urban landscape as a subject. Lowry was influenced by Valette’s aesthetic enthusiasm for Monet and Degas when he painted industrial North West England. I really like the way Lowry talks about his work – I can relate to it – such as, "I wanted to paint myself into what absorbed me ...” and, in relation to Hot Milk, this in particular: “Most of my land and townscape is composite. Made up; part real and part imaginary ... bits and pieces of my home locality. I don't even know I'm putting them in. They just crop up on their own, like things do in dreams."

Hot Milk is published by Hamish Hamilton.

The winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced on 25 October. The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize is announced on 9 November.

Deborah Levy appears at Goldsmiths, London, for the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist readings, on 26 October.

Deborah Levy is in conversation with Erica Wagner at the Cambridge Literary Festival in association with the New Statesman on 26 November


Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.