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Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscene?

Cover of first Penguin edition of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' via the Bristol University siteNo, at least so far as the law is concerned. But after its initial publication in 1928, it was not until the 1960s that litigation in the US and the UK allowed it to become generally available. An op-ed by Fred Kaplan in the today’s New York Times, entitled The Day Obscenity Became Art, (with added links) tells us that

today is the 50th anniversary of the court ruling that overturned America’s obscenity laws, setting off an explosion of free speech — … The historic case began on May 15, 1959, when Barney Rosset, the publisher of Grove Press, sued the Post Office for confiscating copies of the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” which had long been banned for its graphic sex scenes.

… Mr. Rosset hired a lawyer named Charles Rembar, … [who] presented “Lady Chatterley” as a novel of ideas that inveighed against sex without love, the mechanization of industrial life and morbid hypocrisy. … On July 21, 1959, Judge Bryan ruled in favor of Grove Press and ordered the Post Office to lift all restrictions on sending copies of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” through the mail.

That case was Grove Press v Christenberry 175 F.Supp. 488 (S.D.N.Y., 1959); it was upheld on appeal (at 276 F.2d 433 (2nd Cir., 1960) (Justitia | OpenJurist); and Robert McHenry on Britannica blog has also entertainingly marked the anniversary.

Rembar wrote about his experiences defending this book and other controversial novels in The end of obscenity; the trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill (New York, Random House, 1968): Tropic of Cancer reached the Supreme Court in Grove Press v Gerstein 378 US 577 (1964), and Fanny Hill reached the same court in Memoirs v Massachusetts 383 US 413 (1966).

When these cases were decided, the leading US Supreme Court decision on obscenity was the relatively conservative Roth v US 354 US 476 (1957), and these cases were decided within its confines: the value of Grove Press v Christenberry was that it demonstrated that the Roth standard did not preclude First Amendment protection to obscene speech, at least where that speech embodied ideas of redeeming social importance. It laid the foundations for cases like Grove Press v Gerstein, Jacobellis v Ohio 378 US 184 (1964) and Memoirs v Massachusetts. These, in turn, led to the far more progressive stance taken by the Supreme Court in Miller v California 413 US 15 (1973), which held that a work is obscene and can be regulated by a State where that work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest in sex; portrays, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The plaudits probably belong to all of these cases, and not merely to Grove Press v Christenberry, but it is still an important and entertaining case for all that.

Moreover, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had also been the basis for a contemporary challenge to the UK’s Obscene Publications Act, 1959. It is an infamous trial, from the prosecution’s notorious and patronising rhetorical demand of the jury whether it was something they would want their wives or servants to read, to the cast of literary worthies who testified to the novel’s worth, to the jury’s acquittal on 2 November 1960. The following day, Penguin sold its entire first print run of 200,000 copies, and sold 2 million copies in six weeks. The Times has a wonderful collection of archive material about the case, the full papers from the trial are now available at Bristol University Library; Penguin have recently re-issued their classic account of the trial; and the BBC have made a marvellous drama (BBC | imdb | Times) of two fictional jurors’ experience.

These were undoubtedly important developments, but I can’t help but fear that the days of such trials might come back again.

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7 Responses to “Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscene?”

  1. Mark Waters says:

    Five Dials, Number 6 has obscenity as the main topic. Some interesting articles including one on Richard Hoggart’s appearance as a witness at the Lady Chatterley trial.

  2. Eoin says:

    Mark,

    Thank you for that. I hadn’t come across Five Dials before, but it’s great, and the pieces in Number 6 are particularly interesting. Very kind of you to pass on the link!

    Eoin.

  3. […] Lady Chatterly’s Lover isn’t obscene, how about Lolita? Yesterday’s Times has a fascinating story about Peter Carter-Ruck’s […]

  4. Eoin says:

    See also Ben Yagoda (Professor of English at the University of Delaware) in The American Scholar.org “Trial and Eros. When Lady Chatterley’s Lover ran afoul of Britain’s 1959 obscenity law, the resulting case had a cast worthy of P.G. Wodehouse”. This is a really interesting article, summarizing the trial itself. Some extracts:

    … Exactly 50 years ago, for six days in late October and early November of 1960, Penguin Books was tried in the Old Bailey for having attempted to bring out a paperback edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been banned since its 1928 publication [uncut, in Florence]. … Since 1868, obscenity had been a common-law offense, (unhelpfully) defined as any material whose tendency “is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” No one seemed to have any doubt that Chatterley would fall in the dead center of that definition. … Remarkably, this was the way matters stood until 1959, when liberal members of Parliament, under the leadership of Roy Jenkins, passed a new Obscene Publications Act. …

    But the government, as it turned out, was not greatly impressed with the new law and was not inclined to give Penguin a free pass. … Penguin didn’t expect such an aggressive response. … [But t]he Crown was meanwhile finding out that prosecution would not be easy. …

    The [judge’s] summing up … “cast gloom on everyone from Penguin.” In the lobby as well, “the general opinion . . . seemed to be that the jurors would not take long to come up with a verdict against Penguin.” However, after just under three hours, the dock worker, the installation inspector, and the others [in the jury] filed back in and the foreman announced a unanimous verdict of not guilty. “There was an outburst of clapping,” noted The Times, “instantly silenced by the usher.” Penguin was off to the races. It printed 50,000 additional copies of the novel in seven days, then two million over the next six months. By the following year, Chatterley had brought it a profit of 112,000 pounds, the equivalent at that time of $310,000.

    The end of the Chatterley ban did not mark an immediate end of literary censorship in Britain. Within a few years of the trial there were successful obscenity prosecutions of Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (also known as Fanny Hill), banned since John Cleland wrote it in 1748 and brought to market by a publisher emboldened by the Chatterley ruling. But both rulings were overturned on appeal, and in fairly short order the practice, in both Britain and the United States, became the present one, where the publication of more or less everything (child pornography excepted) is more or less permitted. …

  5. […] as a supplement to my post on the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trials, Alan Travis in the Guardian argues that the failure of the Chatterley prosecution secured the […]

  6. […] puts this censorship (cinsireacht) in the context of the the lifting of the UK ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel he thinks is overrated: Cinsireacht agus Lady […]

  7. […] of Guillaume Apollinaire (here and here), Carolina Gustavsson, Aldous Huxley, DH Lawrence (here, here and here), James Joyce, John Latham, Robert Mapplethorpe and Vladimir Nabokov. Moreover, I […]

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

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