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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.

Allen Lane holding a copy of Lady Chattlerley's Lover
Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, following the obscenity trial. Photo: Getty Images.

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.

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