Last month Kilburn Library had a display with the theme ‘Banned Books’, some of the books were really surprising such as Black Beauty (banned in South Africa during apartheid because of the world ‘black’ in the title) and Harry Potter (banned in parts of the USA as it was believe to promote witchcraft and ‘satanic practice’). Other books you would expect to see there such as the notoriously saucy Lady Chatterley’s Lover – the unedited edition was banned in the UK until 1960 because of it’s sexual content and the copious use of swear words. In 1960 the publishers, Penguin, took a big risk in breaking the law and publishing the full edition (over 30 years after it was written), they were duly prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act and the case went to trial. The trial was a huge event attracting lots of media attention.
At the trial, which took place at the Old Bailey, the prosecution argued that the books was immoral, was an insult to lawful marriage, was a danger to the social order and could corrupt those reading it. As well as the sex they cited the amount of swearing as a key reason for it to be banned, the prosecution carefully counted all swearwords and gave the results in the opening speech (if you’re interested – 7 different swear words used between 3 and 30 times each!) Interestingly the Department of Public Persecutions’ files revealed that the relatively cheap price of the book was another reason why a prosecution was sought, the price of 3/6 put the book within the reach of women and the working classes, unlike some weightier tomes which escaped censorship despite racy content because only wealthy or professional men would have access to them. Another reason the book was targeted for prosecution was that DH Lawrence had a history of controversy, in 1915 copies of The Rainbow had been seized and burnt by the police because of it’s anti-war message and Lawrence’s poetry and art work had also been targeted in the past because of sexual content.
The argument of ‘literary merit’ was used to defend Penguin’s decision to publish the work unedited. The 1959 Act the case was being answered against did say that works had to be “taken as a whole” – i.e. not judged only on the rude bits! The work was already allowed to be published unedited in parts of Europe and the New York court of appeal had overturned the ban on the book giving the reason that it was written with “a power and tenderness which was compelling”. So the quality of the work was used as the main defence with journalists, psychologists, clerics and famous authors called to bear witness to its great merit. The strategy worked, when the prosecution attempted to try the same tactic they struggled to find high profile people willing to condemn the novel.
The defence were also successful in appealing to the jury directly rather than hoping the judge would make recommendations on their side as the prosecution seemed to do. The prosecution’s case seemed more aimed as the upper class, middle aged, male judge that the mixed members of the jury – with their arguments about the proper role of wives and servants sounding very out of step with much of Britain in 1960. The defence correctly judged that the prosecution’s paternalistic stance of protecting women and the young from obscenity would come across as patronising – the defence rejected the offer of an all male jury (a horribly sexist law which covered obscenity trials) as they believed women in particular were likely to find the prosecution’s arguments old fashioned. With hindsight it is unsurprising Penguin were victorious and sold 3 million copies of the novel in the 3 months after the trial (being front page news was great publicity!)
Penguins victory had a profound effect in establishing the ideal of freedom of the written word – perhaps explaining why so few of the books on the Kilburn display were banned in Britain. It is also seen to have had a wider effect, paving the way for a relaxation in rules surrounding theatre and cinema – maybe without the Lady Chatterley trial the 1960’s more gritty and realistic style drama would never have occurred. Wider still Lady Chatterley has been named as an influence in changes to the laws around homosexuality and divorce.
An extremely interesting case and one that really demonstrates the power books can have and controversy they can cause. I’d love to hear any opinions on this case (especially as I haven’t read Lady Chatterley’s Lover myself).