Freedom to Read Week 2011

February 26, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

One of the most significant milestones in the history of free speech occurred in 1960, when a jury in the U.K. declared that D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not guilty of contravening the British Obscene Publications Act, enacted in 1959 “to provide for the protection of literature and to strengthen the law concerning pornography.” The stakes were high: the publisher of a book which had “a tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences,” if convicted, faced incarceration. As Geoffrey Robertson writes:

Literary standards were set at what was deemed acceptable reading for fourteen-year-old schoolgirls – whether or not they could, or would want to, read it. Merit was no defence: in 1928 The Well of Loneliness was destroyed by a magistrate who realized to his horror that one line in the novel (“and that night they were not divided”) meant that two female characters had been to bed together. He said this would “induce thoughts of a most impure character and would glorify the horrible tendency to lesbianism.” Censorship of sexual references in literature was pervasive in England in the 1930s (there was a brief respite for James Joyce’s Ulysses, however, when a sumptuously bound copy was found among the papers of a deceased Lord Chancellor), while, in the 1950s, police seized copies of the Kinsey Report and prosecuted four major publishers for works of modern fiction – three were convicted. During this period, books by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Cyril Connolly and others were available only to those English readers who could afford to travel to Paris to purchase them.

Although the content of Lawrence’s novel appears tame by today’s standards (compare it with certain scenes in American Psycho, for example), the book, and the surrounding trial, was a cause célèbre in its day. The verdict was handed down in November 1960, and by the end of the year, two million copies of the book had been sold. Penguin printed a special companion edition, The Trial of Lady Chatterley, which appeared in 1961; both Lawrence’s novel and the book about the trial were banned in Australia.

I can think of no better way to close Freedom to Read Week 2011 than by quoting the Publisher’s Dedication from the 1960 edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

For having published this book, Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of “Not Guilty,” and thus made D.H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.


From Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

In this short summer night she learnt so much. She would have thought a woman would have died of shame. Instead of which, the shame died. Shame, which is fear: the deep organic shame, the old, old physical fear which crouches in the bodily roots of us, and can only be chased away by the sensual fire, at last it was roused up and routed by the phallic hunt of the man, and she came to the very heart of the jungle of herself. She felt, now, she had come to the real bed-rock of her nature, and was essentially shameless. She was her sensual self, naked and unashamed. She felt a triumph, almost a vainglory. So! That was how it was! That was life! That was how oneself really was! There was nothing left to disguise or be ashamed of. She shared her ultimate nakedness with a man, another being.


One Response to “Freedom to Read Week 2011”
  1. Ruth Seeley says:

    And of course the story of the banning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Canada isn’t complete without mention of F.R. Scott challenging the ban, and the poem he wrote about the whole process, “A Lass in Wonderland.” On a personal note, my great aunt Mabel had acquired a copy of LCL when it first came out (she was living in Detroit at the time, and I guess it wasn’t banned in the US). She loaned her copy to my grandmother, who apparently called her and asked if she’d like her to burn it in the woodstove (so, presumably, it could meet the same fate as my great uncle’s gambling wins). 😉 All I can say is, bless FR Scott and people like him.