One day in November 1960, a man sat down and wrote a letter to the prime minister. “England needs your help,” he began, imploring Harold Macmillan to intervene in what he saw as the most flagrant miscarriage of justice in living memory – the acquittal of Penguin Books in the celebrated case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And contrary to what we might assume today, Macmillan’s correspondent was far from alone. Sexual intercourse, Philip Larkin once claimed, began “between the end of the Chatterley ban/ and the Beatles’ first LP” – but if it did, many people were dead set against it.
Even as thousands of copies of D H Lawrence’s explicit tale of forbidden love were flying off the shelves, there were reports of deep popular
dissatisfaction with the verdict. In Edinburgh, one woman bought a copy only to set it on fire on the pavement outside the bookshop; in South Wales, female library assistants demanded their employers’ permission to refuse to handle the book. Writing to the Home Office, a “family man and grammar schoolmaster” claimed that his Essex pupils were finding it “impossible to buy ‘proper comics’ in local shops, their place being taken by sex-filled trash”. And from Surrey, a distressed woman wrote to the wife of the home secretary, Rab Butler, explaining that she had a 13-year-old daughter at boarding school and was afraid that “day girls there may introduce this filthy book at only three and sixpence . . . If a mistress protests, girls can reply that a clergyman has said: ‘Every Christian should read it.'”
Few accounts of the Chatterley case – which has become a familiar symbol of the social and cultural changes sweeping over Britain half a century ago – find much room for such protests. Even at the time, most opinion-formers saw Penguin’s acquittal on charges of breaching the Obscene Publications Act as a victory of freedom over repression. Penguin added a caption on new editions of the novel, proclaiming that the trial at the Old Bailey had been “not just a legal tussle but a conflict of generation and class”. Kenneth Tynan claimed that it had been a struggle “between Lawrence’s England and Sir Clifford Chatterley’s England; between contact and separation; between freedom and control; between love and death”. “I feel as if a window has been opened,” said Lawrence’s stepdaughter Barbara, “and fresh air has blown right through England.”
A half-century later, it is hard to recapture the moral climate of a society that still saw fit to ban books and magazines because they were considered likely to “deprave and corrupt” their readers. In fact, the law under which Penguin was prosecuted, the Obscene Publications Act 1959, was itself a symbol of change, introduced by the young Labour MP Roy Jenkins precisely because its crucial loophole, the question of literary merit, would clear the way for books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But what seems most obvious, looking back, is how much this was a change driven from the top – or by those on their way there – rather than from the bottom.
Jenkins, though the son of a miner, later became a kind of William Gladstone tribute act. Meanwhile, Gerald Gardiner, who was widely praised for leading Penguin’s defence, was the Harrow-educated son of a mining executive and one of the leading lights of what Michael Frayn memorably called the “herbivore” establishment. A pacifist and founder member of CND, Gardiner became Harold Wilson’s lord chancellor four years later.
In a sense, therefore, the Chatterley case was less a clash of ideals or classes than one between two different wings of a political and cultural elite: one rooted in old ideas of decency and decorum, the other in latitude and self-expression. And as in the drugs trial of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, which followed in 1967, most of the press supported the forces of liberation. Yet, thanks to Jenkins’s legislation, the Crown had little choice but to prosecute. As the prosecuting counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, told the director of public prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew: “If no action is taken in respect of this publication, it will make proceedings against any other novel very difficult.”
Even at the time, Griffith-Jones’s handling of the prosecution attracted outright mockery. Although the prosecution drew up a long list of potential witnesses who might condemn the novel as obscene, none of them agreed to testify. At one point, it even considered bringing over an American literary critic who had once described the book as “a dreary, sad performance with some passages of unintentional, hilarious low comedy”, although it eventually abandoned the idea. Instead, the prosecution team wasted its time before the trial going through the book line by line, noting down obscenities: on page 204, for example, one “bitch goddess of Success”, one “fucking”, one “shit”, one “best bit o’ cunt left on earth” and three mentions of “balls”.
But Griffith-Jones was not the man to fight this battle. A war hero who was awarded the Military Cross after serving in North Africa and Italy, he had been left high and dry by the tides of cultural change. When he asked what is perhaps the best-known rhetorical question in legal history – “Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” – he guaranteed his own defeat.
By contrast, Gardiner had lined up 35 distinguished witnesses convinced of the novel’s literary merit, including Cecil Day-Lewis, E M Forster, Richard Hoggart and Rebecca West. The most widely reported exchange came when the bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, appeared in the witness box. “What I think is clear,” he told the court, “is that what Lawrence is trying to do is to portray the sex relationship as something essentially sacred . . . as in a real sense an act of holy communion.” Asked whether it was “a book which, in your view, Christians ought to read”, he replied confidently: “Yes, I think it is.”
Fifty years later, I doubt there are many readers who wish the verdict had gone the other way. By and large, the days when the state controlled literary publications and private morality are long gone; few of us, barring the most backward-looking, would want things to be different. And predictions that the Chatterley verdict would open the floodgates to a tide of promiscuity proved, in the short term at least, very wide of the mark. Despite the extraordinary sales of Lawrence’s novel after the publishers were acquitted – Foyles bookshop sold its first 300 copies in 15 minutes on 10 November, and took orders for 3,000 more – Britain in the 1960s remained a remarkably conservative society. Whatever Larkin may have thought, it was not Lawrence’s prose that transformed sex in Britain. It was rising prosperity, individualism and reliable birth control.
But you do not, I think, have to be an arch-reactionary to see that the legacy of the Chatterley case was more ambiguous than the conventional wisdom often suggests. In one sense, Penguin’s acquittal was a victory for the free market – a market not just of books, but of words and ideas – over state regulation. Kicking against their elders, the reformers of the 1960s worshipped freedom and self-expression; as they saw it, the old values of collective morality and individual restraint were inappropriate in an age of affluence and mass education.
Perhaps they were. But only a thin line divides self-expression from self-indulgence, and the freedom to flout social convention can easily curdle into the freedom to ignore the rest of society altogether. Sometimes, reading accounts of the case, I even wonder whether somebody ought to speak up for poor old Griffith-Jones. His remark about wives and servants was absurd, but surely, as a war hero who gave sterling service at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, he deserves a better reputation. In his own way, he made a fine representative of a Britain soon to be swept away. It was a Britain with many evils and injustices, certainly, but one from which we could still learn something about the virtue of self-restraint.
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover – 50th Anniversary Edition” is published in the Penguin Classics series (£8.99)