'Lady Chatterley's Lover', by D H Lawrence
[NLS shelfmark: P.med.659/322]
When the Obscene Publications Act came into force in 1959, Penguin Books decided to publish the first British unexpurgated edition of 'Lady Chatterley's lover' to commemorate the 30th anniversary of D H Lawrence's death.
Knowing that there could be trouble ahead, advance copies were provided to New Scotland Yard. A summons was duly issued against Penguin Books on 19 August 1960, the first test of the new Act.
Reasons for censorship
Objections were based as much on its cheap public availability, its depiction of inter-class physical relations and its use of obscene language, as much as its description of the sexual act.
The Obscene Publications Act
The Obscene Publications Act was first introduced in September 1857 by Lord Campbell, the Lord Chief Justice.
Before this, the only law against sexually explicit material was King George III's 1787 Royal Proclamation 'For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality', including the suppression of all 'loose and licentious Prints, Books, and Publications, dispersing Poison to the minds of the Young and Unwary and to Punish the Publishers and Vendors thereof'.
This was policed by groups such as the Proclamation Society, which became the Society for the Suppression of Vice which was instituted in 1802 to 'check the spread of open vice and immorality, and more especially to preserve the minds of the young from contamination by exposure to the corrupting influence of impure and licentious books, prints, and other publications ...' This had little effect, because they had no power to destroy the material.
Reform of the Obscene Publications Act in 1959
This act significantly reformed the law related to obscenity. It created a new offence for publishing obscene material and also allows magistrates to issue warrants allowing the police to seize such materials.
At the same time it creates two defences. Firstly, the defence of innocent dissemination, and secondly the defence of public good or literary merit. It became increasingly difficult to secure a conviction and even when successful these were frequently overturned on appeal.
It has rarely been used in recent times despite the increasing amount of 'obscene' material available to the general public.
Suggested discussion questions
Looking back now, this book seems tame in comparison with what we see on various media platforms today. In what ways do you think society has changed so that books such as 'Lady Chatterley's lover' are now widely regarded as 'classics'?
What do you think D H Lawrence himself would make of censorships laws today?
What types of material do you think a future Obscene Publications Act is likely to prohibit?