The acquittal of the publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence on obscenity charges 50 years ago was path breaking. Somewhere I still have a fading copy of the uncensored edition, published by Penguin in 1960, that I bought when it came out. I can’t pretend I got it for literary reasons (I was, after all, 14 at the time). The book cracked open the stuffy, official edifice of British culture.
Nothing was more telling of the establishment’s remoteness from reality than the prosecution counsel’s opening remarks to the jury. He asked them: “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?” The jury he spoke to included three women jurors—and the likelihood that any jury member had servants was almost nil.
His question reflected the outlook of the elite that had come to run British society at the height of empire—and which was determined that nothing should change. It feared anything that might undermine sexual morality as a slide to wider social questioning.
The 1960 Penguin trial was not an aberration. Censoring writers the elite considered deviant went back as far as the crushing of Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. Nor was it the first attempt to censor Lawrence for obscenity.
Every copy of his novel, The Rainbow, had been seized by the police in 1915 and burnt because of the scenes of lesbianism—and more crucially perhaps, in a time of war, because of the heroine’s anti-militarism. Lawrence was also from a working class background. As always, fear of sexual and class rebellion was closely intertwined in the elite’s imagination.
But by the late 1950s the elite could no longer be sure of automatically getting its own way. Greater affluence and declining support for empire among the lower orders were weakening its grip. Even the cultured middle classes could not be relied on. That was clear at the trial.
The prosecution could produce no expert witness to back its claim that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was bad literature. The defence, on the other hand, lined up one eminent critic after another to testify to the book’s literary and moral merit.
The prosecutor might have felt that his objection to the novel’s filthy language and its positive depiction of love between a lowly gamekeeper and a high-born lady was one the country shared. But the jury’s refusal to follow the judge’s will and convict showed how isolated he and his reactionary co-thinkers in parliament, the judiciary and the newspapers were.
The elite sensed the ground slipping from under them. They weren’t totally wrong.
Rule by aristocratic Tories came to an end when Harold Wilson won the general election for Labour in 1964. Wilson talked about modernising Britain—about ending the old boy network. A new satirical programme, That Was the Week That Was, and the magazine Private Eye mocked the political establishment mercilessly and reinforced the contempt of the young for their supposed betters.
This was also the “swinging sixties”—of miniskirts, the Beatles, and Carnaby Street. The poet Philip Larkin later wrote: “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/(Which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”
Though the degree of social change may have been over-hyped, there were significant shifts. Divorce became easier. Men no longer went to prison for having sex with other men in private. Abortion was legalised. Old assumptions about a woman’s place and marriage were no longer taken for granted.
And the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies saw the rise of the women’s and the gay movements, alongside massive working class challenges to the state.
But there were still attempts, even after Penguin’s victory, to ban sexually explicit fiction. And up until 1968 an effective official censor, the Lord Chamberlain, had absolute control over what could or could not be said or seen on stage.
But essentially the battle had been won. The failure of the state was a victory. Without it, the move to a more sexually liberated and socially less conservative society might have taken longer and been more difficult.