It is surprising to think that fifty years ago today, D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published and sold legally in British bookshops for the very first time.
The initial print run of 200,000 sold out, and within a year a total of 2m copies were sold, outselling the Bible. As was reported by the BBC at the time:
London’s largest bookstore, W&G Foyle Ltd, said its 300 copies had gone in just 15 minutes and it had taken orders for 3,000 more copies. When the shop opened this morning there were 400 people - mostly men - waiting to buy the unexpurgated version of the book.
Hatchards in Piccadilly sold out in 40 minutes and also had hundreds of orders pending.
Selfridges sold 250 copies in minutes. A spokesman told the Times newspaper, “It’s bedlam here. We could have sold 10,000 copies if we had had them.”
Lady C, as it has become known, has also become a bestseller in the Midlands and the North where demand has been described as “terrific”.
Originally published in Italy in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been banned in the UK on grounds of obscenity, though a limited, expurgated and heavily censored imported version had been available, where words, such as ‘penis’ were replaced by ‘liver’, and sections of sexually explicit “purple prose” removed.
All this was to change, when in 1959, the Obscene Publications Act stated that any book considered obscene by some but could be shown to have “redeeming social merit” might still published. This encouraged Penguin Books to prepare 200,000 unexpurgated copies of Lady C for release in 1960 (to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of Lawrence’s death), in a bid to test the novel’s merit against the Act. This led to a now infamous trial in October 1960, where a host of established authors lined-up to give evidence in defense of the Lawrence’s novel, including T. S. Eliot, Doris Lessing, Aldous Huxley, Dame Rebecca West. Defense lawyer, Michael Rubinstein had cleverly contacted over 300 potential witnesses, ranging from writers, journalists, teachers, politicians, academics, TV celebrities and theologians. Many writers wrote letters in support to Rubinstein including:
E. M. Forster wrote:
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a literary work of importance, written by a leading 20th-century novelist. It is surprising that such a work should be prosecuted here, and if it is condemned, our country will certainly make itself look ridiculous in America and elsewhere.
I do not think that it could be held obscene, but am in a difficulty here, for the reason that I have never been able to follow the legal definition of obscenity. The law tells me that obscenity may deprave and corrupt, but as far as I know, it offers no definition of depravity or corruption.
I am certain that it is neither erotic nor pornographic, nor, from what I knew of the author, would there have been any erotic or pornographic intention in his mind.’
Graham Greene, August 22 1960:
‘It seems to me to be absurd that this book should ever have been classed as obscene and I should say that its tendency as Lawrence intended is to treat the sexual side of a love affair in an adult fashion. I can’t Imagine that even a minor could draw any other conclusion from the book than that sexual activity was at least enjoyable.
I am myself dubious how far Lawrence was successful in his intention. I find some parts of the book rather absurd and for that reason I would prefer not to be called as a witness in case I was forced into any admission harmful to the Penguin case.
Aldous Huxley, October 9 1960:
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover is an essentially wholesome book. Its treatment of sex is at once matter-of-fact and lyrical. There is no prurience in it and no trace of that sadistic perversion which is such an odious feature of many popular novels and short stories that, because their authors prudently avoid the use of certain four-letter words, are permitted to circulate freely.
That a beautiful and serious work of art should run the risk of being banned because its creator (for aesthetic and psychological reasons into which I need not enter) chose to make use of certain words that it is conventional to regard as shocking – this surely is the height of absurdity.
Evelyn Waugh, August 21 1960:
‘Your MBR/VS of 18th. I have not read Lady Chatterley’s Lover since it first came out. My memory of it is that it was dull, absurd in places and pretentious. I am sure that most of its readers would be attracted by its eroticism. Whether it can “corrupt” them, I can’t tell, but I am quite certain that no public or private “good” would be served by its publication. Lawrence had very meagre literary gifts.
Not everyone was happy about supporting the book, Doris Lessing wrote: “I don’t think this novel is one of Lawrence’s best, or a great work of art, I’m sorry, if there is to be a test case, that it will be fought over this particular book.” Likewise, Iris Murdoch tempered her support with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover certainly may strike one as an eminently silly book by a great man.”
Surprisingly, support came from unlikely sources, the Bishop of Woolwich supplied a written deposition, which stated:
‘Archbishop William Temple once said that Christians do not make jokes about sex for the same reason that they do not make jokes about Holy Communion – not because it is dirty, but because it is sacred.
‘Lawrence did not share the Christian valuation of sex, but he was always straining to portray it as something sacred, in a real sense as an act of Holy Communion. I believe that Christians in particular should read this book, if only because Lawrence believed passionately, and with much justification, that they have killed and denied the natural goodness of creation at this point.’
The trial lasted 6 days and marked the demise of one generation, and the arrival of another. This was most notable when the Prosecuting Counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked:
“Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”
If there was a line that negatively affected the Prosecution’s case then this was it. For it revealed Griffith-Jones lived in an archaic and class-divided world where everyone apparently had servants; a world separate from that of wives and servants, and this the majority of Britons. It was the clearest picture of the two worlds that existed back then - the world of “class, rank and privilege, ranged against ordinary people.”
Griffith-Jones’ comment highlighted this divide, and re-enforced the notion Penguin was on the side of “the common man.” In his closing speech, defense lawyer, Gerald Gardiner said:
“I do not want to upset the prosecution by suggesting that there are a certain number of people nowadays who as a matter of fact don’t have servants. But of course that whole attitude is one which Penguin Books was formed to fight against, which they have always fought against…
“Isn’t everybody, whether earning £10 a week or £20 a week, equally interested in the society in which we live, in the problems of human relationships including sexual relationships? In view of the reference made to wives, aren’t women equally interested in human relations, including sexual relations?”
Penguin’s success was a victory for all publishers, and the release of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on November 10 1960, marked the start of the cultural and political change that defined the decade.