D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is often viewed as the prime example of risqué literature that was once banned. Part of that is due to Lawrence’s word selection and sexual descriptions throughout the book, which caused many at the time of publication in 1928, and for a long time afterward, to call it filthy and obscene. Sentences such as as the following:
“We fucked a flame into being.”
“I don’t over-eat myself and I don’t over-fuck myself.”
“He too had bared the front part of his body and she felt his naked flesh against her as he came into her. For a moment he was still inside her, turgid there and quivering. Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her.”
“That thrust of the buttocks, surely it was a little ridiculous. If you were a woman, and a part in all the business, surely that thrusting of the man’s buttocks was supremely ridiculous.”
“So I love chastity now, because it is the peace that comes of fucking. I love being chaste now. I love it as snowdrops love the snow. I love this chastity, which is the pause of peace of our fucking, between us now like a snowdrop of forked white fire.”
It doesn’t strain the imagination to understand how this would cause an uproar in the first half of the last century. Hell, if released today it would probably still cause an uproar in many circles.
Even more than the controversial literary choices made by Lawrence, however, Lady Chatterley’s Lover became the touchstone novel for free speech and authorial liberation because of the litigation that ensued 32 years after it was first published.
56 years ago today, on November 2, 1960, the United Kingdom handed down a decision that has long been considered as the watershed moment again banned books and obscenity in literature. The trial of Regina v Penguin Books Ltd. was described by eyewitnesses at the time as a “circus so hilarious, fascinating, tense and satisfying that none who sat through all its six days will ever forget them.”
With dignified and respected British men presenting their case for obscenity at the Old Bailey by showing the court use of such phrases as “bitch goddess of Success” and “he got his pecker up,” it makes me giggle thinking about the debacle of it all. (If you can hear the British accents in your head, it becomes all the more fun to picture. I love you British friends.)
Lead counsel for the prosecution, British war hero Mervyn Griffith-Jones, even had the gall to say the delightfully appalling statement: “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book?”
I can’t help but picture a Family Guy cut-in of a wig-wearing old man donning a black robe: “Whaaa?!? Girls can read?!???”
Maybe you don’t find it as enjoyable as me, but the entire trial feels so archaic, patriarchal, and 1981-ish.
The prosecution even got it wrong at the outset. Before the case against Penguin was even brought, the director of public prosecutions was advised, “If no action is taken in respect of this publication, it will make proceedings against any other novel very difficult.” In fact, the ruling itself is what has made proceedings against any other novel very difficult. It has absolutely made future proceedings against the perceived obscenity in art of any form more difficult. Some even argue that there is an “unmistakeable link” from Lawrence’s novel and the trial directly to the current multi-billion dollar pornography industry.
Regardless of how you feel about the book itself, though, 56 years after the court handed down its ruling, you should be pleased the court ruled the way it did. Decisions of worthiness should be left in the hands of intelligent, free-choosing people. They shouldn’t be made by a government or ruling power. I for one support any decision that offers more freedom to individuals—particularly freedoms of opinion, preference, and speech. In the words of John Oliver, “And for that, we thank you.”
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