Penguin Wins Lady Chatterley Case
The 2nd of November 1960 AD
“Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?” With this outrageously patronising summation Mervyn Griffith-Jones, prosecuting counsel in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case, probably lost the jury and the trial. D.H. Lawrence ’s novel had been banned in Britain since it was published in Italy in 1928, though an underground version had circulated in literary circles. It helped the defence of course that not only could they muster 35 witnesses from the academic, literary (including E.M. Forster and Cecil Day-Lewis), political (Norman St-John Stevas) and religious spheres while nobody of consequence was willing to testify against the work.
The prosecution was no laughing matter – a London bookseller had been convicted and sent to prison in the middle of the previous decade for retailing the work, and people at the top of the putative British publishers, Penguin Books, faced the same potential punishment, perhaps more so given they intended printing 200,000 copies. The defence won, with the 1959 Obscene Publications Act allowing a defence of literary merit that the book blatantly merited, in spite or even because of the 30 uses of the ‘f word’ and its variants, and what we should still consider strong language – though few have servants and no man today surely would dare to censor his wife’s reading matter.
On November 2 1960 the jury in the five-day trial reached a not-guilty verdict; and with that verdict a key element of swinging sixties Britain fell into place.
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