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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.