The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: how the ‘obscene’ book caused a moral storm

When Penguin Books announced it intended to publish the steamy Lady Chatterley's Lover uncensored in 1960, it fell to the courts to decide is Britain was ready for naughty words and inter-class relationships...

Two women outside a book shop in Leicester Square, London, with paperback copies of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by D H Lawrence, after a jury at the Old Bailey decided that it was not obscene. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

On 2 November 1960, after a six-day trial, British publishing house Penguin Books was found ‘not guilty’ under the Obscene Publications Act for its printing of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The landmark ruling had a significant impact on the publishing world, paving the way for greater freedom of the written word.

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Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written by DH Lawrence, was first published privately in Florence in 1928, with a censored version following in Britain in 1932. The novel depicts an upper-class woman who embarks on an affair with her working-class gamekeeper. Her husband had been paralysed during World War I, which had created emotional and physical distance in the relationship.

As well as dealing with the controversial subjects of adultery and inter-class relationships, the novel was extremely sexually explicit and contained words that were considered unprintable at the time. Lawrence did not live to see the uproar his novel caused as he died in 1930.

It wasn’t until August 1960 that Penguin dared to attempt publishing the novel in its entirety – it sent copies to the Director of Public Prosecutions with a challenge to prosecute, which he promptly did. The previous year, the Obscene Publications Act had come into force, which prevented the publication or broadcast of material considered to be obscene: likely to deprave or corrupt.

Why was Lady Chatterley’s Lover censored?

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was seen by many as an affront to the morality of society and a danger to readers. Penguin, however, believed it had a case, as the Obscene Publications Act provided a defence against prosecution if a book considered obscene could be proved to have redeeming social merit.

The prosecution’s opening speech of the trial contained a tally of the number of ‘obscene’ or swear words that could be found within the book – more than 80 in total. The prosecution called no witnesses, but its arguments (such as the quote opposite) were a cause of amusement in the courtroom – perhaps a sign of changing moral attitudes in Britain. The proposed price of the novel was also raised by the prosecution as a cause for concern – at just 3s 6d, it was deemed cheap enough for almost anyone to read.

Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?
Prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones during the trial

The defence called 35 witnesses to testify to the book’s literary value – these comprised leading literary and religious figures, such as the novelist EM Forster. The Bishop of Woolwich’s testimony led to a national newspaper running a story with the headline “A book all Christians should read”. The unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict highlighted how detached the establishment was becoming from popular opinion, as well as rapidly changing attitudes towards sexuality and the class system.

On the first day that the book went on sale after the trial, bookshops across Britain sold out; Selfridges claimed to have sold 250 copies in minutes, though young female shop assistants were allowed to refuse to handle it. Over the next year, more than two million copies were sold, and publishing enjoyed a new-found freedom as it became harder for material to be banned on the grounds of obscenity. Many have since seen the trial as the beginning of the sexual and social revolution that took place in the 1960s across the Western world.

Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer.

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This content first appeared in the November 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed