Primary sources from the 1960s show public reaction to the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Posted: December 16, 2010

We are currently hard at work on our forthcoming resource Rock and Roll, Counterculture, Peace and Protest, due for publication in Autumn 2011. The period from 1950 to 1975 witnessed dramatic changes in society. There was the onset of Rock & Roll; the introduction of computers and credit cards; the boom of radio and television; and campaigns for black power, civil rights and women’s liberation. All around the world there were challenges to authority. By focusing on substantial collections of original archival material – manuscript, typescript and ephemera – from key libraries in Britain and America – we provide the primary sources that will enable students and scholars to examine these issues in detail and at first hand.

Lady Chatterley's Lover - D.H. LawrenceOne particular subject which caught my attention while developing the resource was the publication of D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Penguin Books in the UK, and the subsequent prosecution of Penguin under the Obscene Publications Act in 1960. The trial caused a public sensation, and has become a celebrated example of the decade’s emphasis on permissiveness and personal freedom, and opposition to the outmoded values of the Establishment.

The Penguin trial was a test of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, which had introduced a defence against prosecution for works that could be regarded as "in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern. The trial was a resounding success for Penguin, who had arranged for some of the weightiest names in literature and scholarship to defend Lawrence’s work.

However, the trial was about so much more than literary freedom. The prosecution’s case was built upon the paternalistic and moral concerns of privilege, rank and station; Prosecuting Counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones’s opening address set the tone when he asked the jury to consider whether Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” The defence seized upon the opportunity to contrast these outmoded concerns with the egalitarian principles in which Penguin had been founded: publisher Allan Lane described it as “a University Press in paperbacks”. Counsel for the defence Gerald Gardiner, in his closing remarks, forcefully highlighted this conflict:

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?

His words helped secure victory for Penguin, and usher in a decade in which a multitude of taboos would be challenged by law, including the decriminalisation of homosexuality and abortion; and in which sexual freedom for both men and women would be embraced in ways perhaps unimaginable at the time when the legal establishment brought this case against Penguin.

Letter to HM The QueenRock and Roll, Counterculture, Peace and Protest contains some fascinating archival material that throws light on this significant moment in British cultural history. Two primary documents particularly caught my eye. The first comes from the National Archives at Kew. A file of complaints sent to the Home Office (HO 302/11) show that there was widespread consternation from the public at the jury’s verdict. One such letter implored Her Majesty the Queen:

I beg of your Majesty to use your influence to reverse the decision to allow 'Lady Chatterley's Lover’ to be retailed to the public at a price within the allowance of youths and girls still at school. The depravity of this book is unspeakable, and with your sheltered upbringing in a Christian home Your Majesty cannot conceive the immoral situations which will be put before innocent minds.

The writer received a terse reply from the office of the Secretary of State, who wrote that, “by her Majesty’s Command, [he] has given it consideration, but regrets that he is unable to advise the Queen to issue any command thereon. Your views have, however, been noted.”

Another particularly exciting primary source included in Rock and Roll, Counterculture, Peace and Protest is film footage from ITN, Reuters, Gaumont British Newsreels and Fox Movietone. This news footage is a fascinating and arresting insight into some of the momentous events of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Lady Chatterleys Lover book saleIncluded in our video library is an amusing and enlightening ITN report on the sales frenzy that followed the release of the Penguin edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The report shows members of the public queuing to purchase their copy, while the bookseller implores them to buy “only ONE copy per person!” The reporter’s attempts to interview the purchasers about their reasons for buying the book are met with varying degrees of responsiveness; several interviewees refuse to talk at all, while others insist tersely that “I'm buying it for somebody else” or “I just want to see what it's all about”. Others are more open; one man acknowledges that it is “rather exciting to read”; while another, perhaps in mocking reference to Mervyn Griffith-Jones’s infamous opening address, insists that he is buying it “for my wife!”

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