How Britain Fell in Love with Lady Chatterley

Copies of the un-banned Lady Chatterley were much-prized and sold out within minutes. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
Copies of the un-banned Lady Chatterley were much-prized and sold out within minutes. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

by Ray Setterfield

November 10, 1960 — Bookshops across Britain were besieged on this day when the controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover went on sale for the first time.

The publishers, Penguin Books, had just emerged victorious from a sensational trial where the company was accused of contravening the Obscene Publications Act by publishing DH Lawrence’s story.

Britain was about to be overwhelmed by the Swinging Sixties and this became one of the first signs of a new age of freedom and emancipation. But it was a sign that shocked the stuffy British Establishment, which reacted by prosecuting the company for publishing an allegedly obscene book.

The trial in late October of 1960 was held in no less a venue than London’s Central Criminal Court – popularly known as the Old Bailey – where, over the years, spies, serial killers, traitors, rapists and infamous murderers had faced justice.

The sexually explicit novel about an affair between an aristocrat’s wife and his gamekeeper was published in Italy in 1928 and in France the following year. But it had always been banned in the UK.

In his opening address to the jury, prosecuting lawyer Mervyn Griffith-Jones quickly established the social gulf that existed between himself – and, by association, the Establishment – and ordinary people.

He asked them: "Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?"

He probably expected a grave shaking of heads from the jury, but instead the questions provoked laughter. By 1960, live-in servants were a rarity in Britain and unknown to members of this jury who included a dock labourer, a butcher, a teacher and a dress machinist. And they hardly needed to be told that girls, as well as boys, could read.

The six-day trial gripped the nation and resulted in acquittal for Penguin who had relied successfully on the defence of “literary merit”, supported by 35 witnesses ranging from a university lecturer to a bishop.

After the court’s publication go-ahead, the company could not cope with demand and rationed its first 200,000 copies to booksellers across the country. All were sold on the first day.

Foyles, the biggest bookshop in London, said its 300 copies went in just 15 minutes and it had taken orders for another 3,000. At Selfridge’s, the famous Oxford Street store, its supply of 250 copies went in minutes. A spokesman said: "It's bedlam here. We could have sold 10,000 copies if we’d had them."

In 1930, at the age of 44, Lawrence died of tuberculosis, defending his book to the last against those who accused him of pornography. He could hardly have imagined the sensation and vindication that would follow 30 years later.

Within a year of the trial, Lady Chatterley’s Lover had sold two million copies.

And yet there was another side to the story. Most ordinary British people in 1960 remained strait-laced, and Members of Parliament received many letters of protest.

In Edinburgh, copies were burned in the streets; in Wales, women librarians refused to handle it; and one mother wrote to the Home Secretary saying that her teenage daughter was at boarding school and she was terrified that “day-girls there may introduce this filthy book”.

The poet Philip Larkin would have understood her fears. As he was to record famously in his work, Annus Mirabilis . . . sexual intercourse began in 1963 “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”.

Published: October 6, 2016

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