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A Love-Hate Affair?

It was the month of October 1960 when thousands of people gathered in front of London’s Old Bailey Court! There were 12 members of Juries – nine men and three women. A court official had handed a copy of the notorious novel over to them… Lady Chatterley’s Lover. They could read the novel inside the courtroom during the session, but could not take it outside the court premises, as the novel was banned

The novel by English author D H Lawrence (September 11, 1885 – March 2, 1930) – first published privately in 1928 in Italy, and in 1929 in France – was banned by the British Government on August 29, 1959 because of watershed obscenity. Britain argued that it took the step in order to save the literature from obscenity. The Government also gave more power to the Police for taking actions against authors, like D H Lawrence. Even, the publishers had to face jail terms for publishing novels, having Purple Passage. Purple Passage is an elaborate or excessively ornate passage in a literary composition that could cause excitement in the mind of a 14-year-old girl. Earlier in 1928, the British Government had banned Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness for a single line that was considered as a Purple Passage!

David Herbert Lawrence

British politician Roy Jenkins introduced a Bill to the Parliament and it came into force on August 29, 1959 as the ‘Obscene Publications Act 1959’ after getting the Royal Assent. The Act created a new offence for publishing obscene material, repealing the common law offence of obscene libel which was previously used, and also allows Justices of the Peace to issue warrants allowing the police to seize such pieces of material. At the same time it went on to create two sets of defences; firstly, the defence of innocent dissemination, and secondly, the defence of public good. At the same time, the Act stated that a novel, with immense literary merit, could not be banned. The British Parliamentarians could hardly believe that one of the most controversial English novels of the 20th Century would get rid of the Act with the help of its literary merit! Penguin Paperback used a loophole in that particular Act, and republished the novel in the UK just a year after it was cleared by the US Government.

Lawrence passed away in 1930, two years after completing the novel. As the author narrated, Sir Clifford Chatterley is a handsome and well-built man. However, he has been paralysed from the waist down because of a gruesome War injury. As a result, his relation – physical, as well as mental – with his wife Constance Reid (or Lady Chatterley) deteriorates. Lady Chatterley’s emotional frustration leads her into an affair with the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. It is to be noted that certain events in Lawrence’s own unhappy domestic life prompted him to pen the novel. In his final days, Lawrence was suffering from tuberculosis. He was also facing three additional problems: irritable mood, impotency and intense physical arousal. Meanwhile, his wife Frieda reportedly developed an extra-marital affair with an Italian man, and their relation shocked Lawrence.

Lawrence with his wife Frieda

During the trial, Government Pleader and senior Treasury Counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked the Jurors whether they would wish their wives or their servants to read such a book. The pleader did not know that Justice Sir Laurence Byrne had already given the novel to his wife Lady Dorothy Byrne, who went through the book and marked the sexually explicit passages in the paperback copy. As Sir Laurence was a busy person, he had no time to read the entire novel. He had arrived in the court with the copy marked by his wife. Penguin appointed Michael Bernard Rubinstein, a solicitor who specialised in representing authors and publishers, as its advocate. Rubinstein managed to submit the names of 35 witnesses to the court. Two of them were T S Elliott and Aldous Leonard Huxley! During his testimony, English New Testament scholar, author and Anglican Bishop of Woolwich John Arthur Thomas Robinson said: “What, if any, are the ethical merits of this book? While Lawrence’s view was not Christian his intention is to portray the sex relationship as something essentially sacred… as in a real sense a holy communion. For him, flesh was completely sacramental of spirit. His descriptions of sexual relations cannot be taken out of the context of his whole, to me, quite astonishing sensitivity to the beauty and value of all organic relationships.

On November 2, the members of the Juries discussed the Case for three hours and cleared the novel. Twelve Juries were in favour of lifting the ban, as Lawrence got justice 30 years after his demise. Within 15 minutes, 300 copies of the books were sold in the UK! Immediately after the Court delivered its verdict, Penguin decided to publish the second edition of the book on November 10. No wonder, 500,000 copies were sold on the very first day. In the second edition published in 1961, the Penguin included a publisher’s dedication, which read: “For having published this book, Penguin Books was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959 at the Old Bailey in London from October 20 to November 2, 1960. This edition is, therefore, dedicated to the 12 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.

The lifting of the ban from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in the US, and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the UK are historic event. With this, the ethicists lost their control over literature in the West. The State should not have the right to judge the literary merit of novels and other forms of literature. The reaction to the lifting of the ban on this particular novel was far-reaching in the British society. The Government also lifted bans from some plays and movies in next few years. Even homosexuality and abortion were no longer legally punishable in Britain. The British society became far more liberal, where the Freedom of Speech and Individual Liberty were cherished with absolute care! Later, Britain did not make a mistake by imposing a ban on a literary work, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

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