Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Philip Larkin – ‘Annus Mirabilis’
The poet Philip Larkin was not alone in identifying the trial of D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 as a kind of watershed in public attitudes to sex – and especially to the idea of ‘obscenity’. Of course, these lines are partly ironic: recent accounts of Larkin’s rather unsavoury treatment of women would suggest that 1963 was by no means ‘too late’ for him. Yet the term ‘sexual intercourse’ here implies a more frank, public dialogue about sex that became the norm in the decade that followed. This is a common view, but how far is it correct?
In this essay, I continue my exploration of some of the cultural shifts that were taking place at the very start of the 1960s in Britain (you can find some other examples here and here). It’s at this time, before ‘the sixties’ really began, that one can see intimations of the more dramatic changes that were coming further down the line, but also of the reasons why some of them were perhaps more complicated and ambivalent than popular mythology suggests. I want to go back to the trial, but also to the novel itself; and I want to pose some questions about why this book in particular (rather than any other) became the focus of debate, and why that might matter.
A bigger picture
Lawrence’s novel about the affair between an aristocratic, unfulfilled woman and her husband’s working-class gamekeeper was originally written in the late 1920s. It had been published more or less privately in various approved and pirated editions in the final years of the author’s life (he died in 1930). After his death, Lawrence’s critical reputation steadily grew: one key milestone was the publication of a book-length study in 1955 by the leading British literary critic F.R. Leavis. After some early uncertainty, Leavis saw fit to admit Lawrence into his highly selective canon of great English novelists – although interestingly, he spends very little time on Chatterley, summarily dismissing it as ‘a bad novel‘.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover had in fact already been tried for obscenity (and acquitted) in 1959 in the United States, and this must have given something of a green light to the British publisher Penguin Books, then in the process of bringing out a complete edition of Lawrence’s work. The publisher clearly knew that a prosecution was likely, and even appeared to invite it by supplying a dozen copies to the London Metropolitan Police. The trial, Regina vs. Penguin Books, took place at London’s Old Bailey court over six days in October 1960. Several selective transcripts of the trial were later published: I have relied on the first of these, which appeared a few months afterwards, although it is undoubtedly a partial account (not coincidentally, it was also published by Penguin).
As I’ve suggested, the trial – and ultimate acquittal – of Lady Chatterley’s Lover has frequently been identified as a ‘landmark’ or a ‘seminal moment’, not just in obscenity law, but more widely. For some, it opened the floodgates of ‘permissiveness’, while for others it dealt the final death blow to Victorian moral values. One leading social historian, David Kynaston, goes so far as to describe the verdict as ‘epoch-defining’ (Modernity Britain: 480). However, most historians of this period tend to be more cautious. Another popular writer, Dominic Sandbrook, gives the trial pride of place right at the start of his monumental history of the period, Never Had It So Good (2005); but even he is bound to admit that its significance has been exaggerated, despite the controversy it generated at the time.
Yet, as it appears to do for Philip Larkin, the trial somehow epitomises the popular view of the sixties as a period of ‘liberation’ (not only of the sexual variety, but more broadly). As they progressed, the 1960s did undoubtedly see significant changes in public attitudes towards marriage, divorce, contraception and abortion; women’s independent sexuality, and eventually that of gays and lesbians, was much more widely recognised and celebrated (by some at least); sex education became more plain-speaking and less moralistic. Sexual representation – of varying degrees of ‘explicitness’ – became more open and more commonplace in a much wider range of media and social settings. Many of these changes culminated in a raft of ‘liberalising’ legislation later in the decade.
And yet there is a significant risk of overstatement here. These changes were often ambivalent and inconsistent; ‘progress’ was gradual, and not always linear; there were powerful counter-attacks, and retreats as well as advances. We should be wary of any simple narratives, whether of steady liberalisation or indeed of a collapse into ‘permissiveness’. Likewise, we should also beware of giving defining significance to individual instances. The years immediately before and after the Chatterley trial saw a range of publications and public scandals that brought questions about sexuality and sexual behaviour into a very bright public spotlight, of which the most well-known are the Wolfenden Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution (1957) and then, just a couple of years afterwards, the trials of Christine Keeler and of the Duchess of Argyll.
The Chatterley trial was not the only obscenity trial of the 1950s and early 1960s; nor was the book the only one to attract controversy in this respect. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was published in the US in 1958; while James Joyce’s Ulysses and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were both republished in popular editions in 1958 and 1961 respectively. Even so, the Chatterley trial was undoubtedly the most high-profile of these; and it also held the greatest legal and cultural significance.
As we’ll see, debates over the popular publication of material relating to sex and sexuality – and thus about obscenity and censorship – always reflect the broader social movements and tensions of their time. As historians like Matthew Hilliard have shown, they are not only about the representation of sex, but also about broader moves towards democratisation, mass literacy and popular education, and the anxieties these things generated among the ruling class. What might appear at first sight to be local debates about the acceptability of particular words or images often bring into focus broader and more long-term changes in the relations between different social groups. As such, the trial – and the eventual acquittal – of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (or its publisher) may not in itself have fundamentally changed the world; but revisiting it helps to illuminate much wider changes that were already taking shape during this transitional period.
Testing the law
The trial of Lady Chatterley was seen at the time – and was intended to be – a test case for the new Obscene Publications Act, which had been passed into law a few months previously. The Act itself was the culmination of a campaign, principally led by the Society of Authors, that dated back several years; but it was also an attempt to resolve several underlying tensions in obscenity law that were much more long-standing. The two principal issues at stake here were to do with the potential influence of artistic and literary works on particular audiences; and with the potentially redeeming significance of cultural value.
In his excellent history of English censorship law, Christopher Hilliard traces these issues back to the mid-nineteenth century. Prior to the 1959 Act, the key test of obscenity was termed the ‘Hicklin test’, named after the judgment in the prosecution of an ‘obscene’ anti-Catholic pamphlet in 1867. Famously, the Hicklin test referred to the tendency of a work ‘to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall’. This test of what was called ‘obscene libel’ was thus to do with the potential influence of the work on those who might encounter it, and who were deemed to be particularly impressionable. In practice, of course, there was no meaningful way of presenting evidence to this effect. As Hilliard shows, the prosecution of obscene material thus inevitably depended upon all sorts of assumptions about audiences, especially as defined in terms of age, but also (on occasion) in terms of class and gender. As in a good deal of media research, such audiences were always defined as other people – children, young people, women, the working class – who are seen as both endangered and potentially dangerous.
On the other hand, the cultural value of a given work was frequently adduced as a kind of countervailing or redeeming quality. While this issue had been raised in earlier obscenity trials – most notably that of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) – there was in fact no legal basis for doing so. Even so, the authorities undoubtedly feared that they would be held up to public ridicule by the literary intelligentsia (or at least by journalistic commentators) if they concentrated their efforts on works that were deemed to display literary quality. This accounted for the reluctance to prosecute ‘classic’ literary works, as well as the wariness around more contemporary books like Joyce’s Ulysses or Nabokov’s Lolita. At the same time, for more moralistic campaigners, cultural value was sometimes seen to compound the offence: ‘good’ writing might offer a superficial respectability to material that would otherwise be clearly identified as obscene.
These two themes came together (and were reinforced by) the marketing strategies of the publishing industry. Publishers of material that might be at risk of prosecution (or at least seizure and destruction by the police, which was often the preferred means of preventing its circulation) sought to remove it from the public eye by means of high pricing, limited editions, and upmarket packaging – tactics that Lawrence’s publishers also used when some of his books first appeared. As well as keeping such material away from the dangerous classes, these strategies also represented an implicit claim to cultural value. Nevertheless, some pro-censorship campaigners were wary of this approach as well; and the advent of literary modernism further complicated matters, not only because it frequently challenged official moral values, but also because it disturbed established notions of what would count as quality in the first place.
Prior to the 1959 Act, the authorities had been finding it increasingly difficult to secure successful prosecutions (or seizures). Claims on either side, whether about influence or about cultural value, were ultimately impossible to support with evidence, perhaps increasingly so. As I’ve noted, the Act came about as the result of a concerted campaign by the Society of Authors, and was conceived as a defence of the institution of ‘literature’. The preamble to the Act states that its principal aim was ‘to provide for the protection of literature’; and in the process, ‘to strengthen the law concerning pornography’ – something that, by definition, was therefore seen as not ‘literature’. Despite a good deal of legal and political wrangling, the key point was that the ‘public good’ – and, within that, ‘artistic and literary merit’ – now became an acceptable basis for a legal defence. ‘Expertise’ in such matters would henceforth be seen as admissible evidence.
Making an example
This historical background accounts for one of the most surprising aspects in revisiting the Chatterley trial today: it was barely concerned with obscenity at all – in the sense of establishing the potential or actual influence of the book. Rather, its overriding focus was on the question of literary value. The 1959 Act still contained the Hicklin test, but it effectively rendered it redundant: even if the work was deemed likely to deprave and corrupt (for example, by inducing what the prosecution called ‘lustful thoughts’, or condoning adultery), it could nevertheless be exonerated on the grounds of its contribution to the public good. In a sense, the issue of obscenity was ‘parked’.
This resulted in a strangely one-sided trial. Aside from in his opening and closing statements, the prosecuting barrister, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, did not present any evidence whatsoever, nor did he call any expert witnesses. In fact, he was not permitted to call witnesses on the question of whether the book might ‘deprave and corrupt’: given the impossibility of adducing evidence either way, it appeared that this had to be left to the jury to decide. Meanwhile, despite contacting several notable authors who took a dim view of Lawrence, Griffith-Jones’s efforts to obtain expert witnesses on the question of literary value had come to nothing. As a result, his role was largely confined to cross-examining the long succession of defence witnesses, seeking to question their credibility or undermine their claims that the book did indeed have some kind of literary, moral or educational value. As the publisher later suggested (in the blurb to its published transcript), the trial effectively became ‘the most thorough and expensive seminar on Lawrence’s work ever given’.
In effectively selecting or bringing forward Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a test case in the wake of the new Act, the publishers and their associates were undoubtedly making a smart strategic choice. At the time he wrote it, Lawrence himself saw the book as a deliberate challenge to obscenity law, and (like his paintings, which were exhibited amid much controversy at around the same time) as a kind of provocation. The fact that the book was now to be published in a cheap paperback edition costing three shillings and sixpence (and with an initial print run of 200,000) clearly brought it within reach of the masses – a fact that was repeatedly noted by the prosecution at the trial. (In this respect, the book was also a significant marker in Penguin’s famously popular-democratic approach to publishing, and its challenge to the divide between high and popular culture.) Yet the fact that the book had been written by a literary author with an established and still growing critical reputation surely allowed them to feel that they were on very solid ground.
Equally, for the authorities – the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Home Office and the police – the prosecution was effectively inescapable. If they chose not to prosecute this high-profile publication, it would be much harder for them to prosecute anything else in future. Immediately following the passing of the new Act, an example had to be made – although in many respects, once Lady Chatterley had been chosen, the cards were stacked against them.
Nevertheless, establishing literary merit was by no means unproblematic. One key emphasis in the Society of Authors’ campaign, which was reflected in the new Act, was that courts should be required to assess the value of a work ‘as a whole’ – or ‘the dominant effect of the work’ – rather than merely the use of particular words or quotations taken out of context (’isolated titillating passages’, as the Act’s principal architect, the Labour politician Roy Jenkins, called them). Throughout the trial, Griffith-Jones consistently resisted this requirement, on both the grounds I’ve identified. On the one hand, he asserted that the bulk of the book was simply ‘padding’ between the sex scenes, and that it was these scenes that should be the primary focus. In this respect, he was implicitly focusing on the question of influence: the wrong people would simply read the ‘dirty’ bits (and in fact I suspect his judgment about this wasn’t entirely at odds with how the book was eventually read…). Yet he also frequently read out passages from the text, some at considerable length, in order to ridicule or challenge witnesses’ generalisations about the novel’s literary value – a task he clearly relished.
By contrast, the defence rested on much more generalised assertions about the book. Ironically, in spite of the emphasis on ‘close reading’ that was becoming fashionable in literary criticism at the time, there was very little such reading going on among the critics who appeared at the Old Bailey. (Notably, the most substantial sequence described in detail was the scene of anal sex, read by Griffith-Jones in his concluding address, and clearly chosen to administer a closing shock to the jury.) While this may have been a seminar of some kind, it wasn’t an especially rigorous one.
Another difficult issue here was to do with authorial intention. Lawyers on both sides, as well as witnesses, sometimes had to be reminded that they could not – or should not – make assertions about Lawrence’s intentions. Yet arguments about the aims of the book ‘as a whole’, and about its moral or educational messages (and hence its potential influence), inevitably depended on claims about this. For the defence, much of the case rested on Lawrence’s motivations for writing the book, and indeed for including the ‘four-letter words’ that some found so objectionable (rather than the equivalent clinical terms). While Penguin Books Limited was the official defendant, it was the late author who was ultimately on trial.
Thus, when it came to ‘proving’ the novel’s literary value, the defence and its expert witnesses frequently employed a circular logic: Lawrence was a ‘great’ writer, up there with the best, and Lady Chatterley was therefore a ‘great’ book. Several witnesses were asked (or chose themselves) to rank it, not in relation to other novels – such comparisons were deemed inadmissible – but in relation to Lawrence’s other works: even if it wasn’t one of his best, was it one of his top five, perhaps? These people were literary experts, and if they said the book had literary value, then surely it did.
Likewise, there was a good deal of discussion of Lawrence’s own biography. Lawrence, the prosecution noted, had left his first wife for another woman; and equally, Lady Chatterley appeared to condone ‘adulterous’ relationships. Griffith-Jones repeatedly sought to challenge the literary critic Richard Hoggart (a key defence witness) for his claim that Lawrence was ‘a moralist in the puritan tradition’. Lawrence as an individual was repeatedly described as ‘serious’, as having ‘integrity of purpose’, as somebody who ‘believed in marriage’, as ‘virtuous’ even if he was not a Christian, and so on. Such a person could, it appeared, hardly be accused of a desire to deprave and corrupt.
As we’ve seen, the key distinction in the 1959 Act in this respect was between ‘literature’ and ‘pornography’ – or ‘filth’, as both prosecution and defence referred to it. The fundamental aim of the defence was essentially to prove that Lady Chatterley belonged to the first category rather than the second, and to discredit anybody who believed otherwise. At times, the defence witnesses were obliged to concede that there were instances of ‘bad writing’ in the book, although none of the participants seemed inclined to define the criteria by which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were to be judged.
While literary value was the key line of the defence, the ‘public good’ argument extended to moral, sociological and educational questions. As well as calling writers and literary critics (Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E.M. Forster among them, as well as Lawrence scholars such as Graham Hough, Helen Gardner and Vivian de Sola Pinto), the defence also called members of the clergy (the Bishop of Woolwich and the Reverend Donald Tytler, among others) along with educationalists and social workers. Here again, there seemed to be a binary logic at work. On the one hand stood natural, healthy, ‘human’ sexual relationships, which involved qualities like tenderness, compassion and sensitivity. On the other was promiscuous sex, deemed to be necessarily unsatisfactory, mechanical, unfulfilling and ultimately futile. The former was somehow sacred and spiritual, while the latter was profane, trivial, degrading and disgusting. Promiscuous sex was dirty, while healthy sex was inherently clean. (To be fair, this all reflects emphases in Lawrence’s own writing, which I’ll consider in due course.)
In these kinds of terms, the experts argued, Lawrence’s moral or spiritual message was all about the ‘redemption of the individual’. Lady Chatterley and her lover were not just screwing around, but finding ‘an aspect of truth’, or searching for ‘integrity’ and ‘wholeness’. There was nothing in the book, they argued, that condoned reprehensible promiscuity. According to Tytler, the Church of England’s Director of Education in Birmingham, the book provided a much-needed form of ‘moral education’ that was entirely in line with Christianity. The prosecution, and even the judge, were inclined to question such assertions – most notably one churchman’s claim that Lawrence presented sex as ‘an act of holy communion’. (Again, I would argue that this kind of moralising is partly sanctioned by Lawrence’s own quasi-spirituality, and his conservative sexual politics – issues I’ll consider below.) As a cartoon in Punch suggested at the time, there was a certain irony in the defence attempting to prove that the book was ‘so pure and innocent it is even fit for schoolgirls to read’.
As Hilliard and others have pointed out, there is a fundamental paradox here. On the one hand, the defence’s line was essentially democratic, or at least anti-paternalistic, in that it sought to establish the individual reader’s right to make their own judgments. Yet in making claims about literary, moral or educational merit, it was bound to resort to ‘experts’ on these matters – and it was this elite group of professors, bishops and headteachers that the jury was called upon to trust. Meanwhile, for the prosecution, Griffith-Jones frequently resorted to what we might call a ‘populist’ argument, invoking the views of ‘ordinary people’ as against the dubious or exaggerated assertions of experts. He was also keen to interrogate the defence’s parade of experts as to whether their professional judgments would be carried over into their ordinary lives (would they be happy for their own children to read the book, for example?). Experts, he implied, were not always as reliable as good old common sense.
As I’ve suggested, the prosecution did not seek to establish or present evidence as regards the potential influence of the book; and for its part, the defence was solely aiming to establish its literary and educational value – even if it was seen by the jury to be obscene. Yet this did not prevent either defence or prosecution from making implicit claims about the book’s influence, whether for good or ill. Despite being effectively irrelevant, the Hicklin test remained a persistent presence here.
The key focus of concern in this respect – in the history of debates about censorship, as well as in a great deal of research on media effects – are categories of readers who are believed to be particularly vulnerable or impressionable. Assumptions about such readers – most frequently expressed in terms of their age or maturity – were invoked throughout the trial, by both prosecution and defence. As I’ve implied, the defence’s arguments about the book’s moral value rest on assumptions about the need to educate the young about the dangers of promiscuity and the meaning of properly ‘human’ sexual relationships. More obviously, for the prosecution, it is the young who are most likely to be ‘led astray’ by such reading.
Ultimately, it was Griffith-Jones’s ill-judged (and often quoted) remarks about this at the very start of the trial that effectively sealed the fate of the prosecution case. ‘Would you,’ he asked, ‘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 in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servant to read?’ These questions apparently caused gasps and even laughter from the members of the jury. Griffith-Jones’s patrician and patronising assumptions about class and gender hierarchy were implicitly seen as outdated – and it was these assumptions that the verdict ultimately challenged.
These assumptions were in turn based on a wider sense of social decline – a pessimistic view of the emerging changes of the period. In his closing speech, Griffith-Jones lapsed into a bad-tempered rant about the lack of ‘standards’, and of restraint and discipline, that he saw as characteristic of post-war Britain. This critique of ‘permissiveness’ became increasingly familiar as the decade progressed. Even so, it seems ironic that the argument appears in relation to a book that was originally written and published more than thirty years previously.
The book in the dock
As I’ve suggested, the choice of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as the focus for a test case of the new obscenity legislation was not accidental. The fact that it was this book (rather than any number of others) made it much more likely that certain arguments could be mounted in its defence. Yet we might also ask what was lost or missed in this process. The book had a significance, and a utility, as a kind of symbol. But what can we say of the novel itself?
Even at the time of the trial, there was a vast industry of critical writing about Lawrence: Gerald Gardiner, the defence counsel, claimed that six hundred books had been published about his work, although that must surely have been an exaggeration. Despite claims about the author’s uncontested ‘greatness’, there were (and have since been) many quite divergent estimates of his importance and quality as a writer. Until I began work on this essay, it had been almost fifty years since I first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, during my English degree, and I was curious to return to it. My aim here is not to engage in literary criticism, but I do think it’s important to say something about what kind of a book this is (and is not) – and particularly to consider what is going on in the sections that were considered by some at the time to be obscene.
The fact that the book in the dock was Lady Chatterley’s Lover – rather than any other – made a significant difference. It meant that certain arguments could more easily and plausibly be raised, both about literary value and about moral purpose. Despite its apparent ‘obscenity’, in these respects the book offered a very useful vehicle for some quite conservative arguments: it could be read in ways that were by no means subversive of the cultural or moral status quo. On the other hand, it appears strange that other, more critical, arguments that might have been made – and were made, albeit on the very margins, at the time – were barely addressed. Most notably, questions about Lawrence’s sexual politics were not discussed in the trial at all.
Briefly, Lady Chatterley is set in rural Nottinghamshire, where Lawrence himself was raised. The lord of the manor, Sir Clifford Chatterley, has suffered injuries in the Great War that have left him paralysed from the waist down. Along with his estate at Wragby Hall, Clifford owns much of the mining industry in the nearby village of Tevershall. He is also an aspiring writer, seeking to make his way in the London literary world, although his work is described as merely superficial and fashionable. His wife Constance (Connie), trapped in a sexless marriage, eventually begins to have affairs, initially with another writer, Michaelis, and eventually with the gamekeeper on the estate, Oliver Mellors, who is separated from his wife. Their liaisons take place secretly on the grounds of the estate, and in Mellors’s cottage; although their relationship is eventually discovered by Clifford’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bolton, on whom Clifford has become increasingly dependent. Eventually, Connie decides to leave Wragby Hall, and it is revealed that she is pregnant. She and Mellors are reunited in London, and both seek divorces from their respective partners, although their future together remains uncertain.
It’s important to recognise that Lady Chatterley is by no means exclusively, or even largely, about sex. At a rough estimate, the sex scenes occupy about five percent of its overall length. If there is ‘padding’ here, as Mervyn Griffith-Jones argued, there is an awful lot of it; and a reader in search of ‘titillation’ would have a good deal of work to do. On the contrary, from its very first sentence, the book is quite insistently about ‘the state of England’ – about what Lawrence regards as the troubled and tragic condition of modern industrial society. Within that, it is about the relations between the social classes; the longer-term impact of the First World War; the changing balance between the urban and the rural, and between industry and nature; and the political and cultural trends of the period. Gender relations (and sex) are seen in the context of these broader changes, and as somehow symptomatic of them; and the characters – and the ways in which they change and develop – all somehow represent these broader themes.
Lawrence’s account of the state of England is undoubtedly perceptive and powerful, but it is also very jaundiced. For all its literary elaboration, his fundamental view of the modern world – and particularly of the industrial working class – is absurdly bleak and pessimistic. Although two of his main characters – Mellors and Mrs. Bolton – are from working-class backgrounds, both are in some respects mavericks or anomalies. The rest are merely ‘animals’. To say the least, Lawrence was no enthusiast for democracy, let alone for socialism – or indeed, as we shall see, for women’s rights.
Despite the passion of Lawrence’s account, there is a large amount of telling here, and rather less showing. His tone is often curiously distanced and analytical, his passing remarks sarcastic and sneering. At times, Connie and Mellors become merely vehicles for Lawrence’s own grandiose commentaries, not just on the evils of industrialism or the failings of the working class, but also the superficiality of the literary world, or the state of the modern novel. As the critic Walter Allen suggested, in giving evidence for the defence at the trial, the book is somewhat of a ‘tract’ – in the sense that Lawrence is presenting his own views much more explicitly than he had done in most of his earlier novels. Other critics have been even less charitable: for example, Katherine Anne Porter (of whom more below) takes issue with Lawrence’s ‘inflamed apostolic solemnity’, and his presentation of himself as a kind of ‘parochial messiah’. This tendency is especially the case in his account of sex, and of the relations between the sexes more generally.
Sex on the page
As I’ve implied, any reader seeking explicit ‘pornographic’ writing about sex in the pages of Lady Chatterley’s Lover would almost certainly be disappointed. During the trial, the prosecution counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones helpfully enumerated the number of sex scenes in the novel (there are thirteen of them), as well as (quite comically) the incidence of explicit terminology (‘fuck’ appears 30 times, ‘cunt’ 14, ‘balls’ 13, and so on). Nevertheless, Lawrence’s writing remains oddly coy in some respects, most notably in the anal penetration scene with which Griffith-Jones’s final speech concluded; and aspects of the female anatomy in particular appear to elude him.
While sex is by no means Lawrence’s only preoccupation here, it is a key part of the novel’s ‘pitch’ to the reader. The term first appears three pages in, and when the characters are not doing it, they are often talking about it. While the cover of the 1960 Penguin edition is based on Lawrence’s trademark phoenix emblem, modern editions promise more in this respect. My Penguin Classics edition has a painting of a muscular hand fastening the belt of a pair of corduroy trousers, and bears the quotation (taken from the anal sex scene) ‘She had come to the real bed-rock of her nature, and was essentially shameless’. The packaging of other contemporary editions (the book is now out of copyright) is frequently even more titillating – as indeed are the various film versions.
How does Lawrence actually describe the sexual act, and sexual feelings? The answer would have to be: quite strangely. While there is a certain amount of penis-worship (of which more below), there is no mention of female genitals at all: ‘cunt’, in Mellors’s terminology, seems to refer not so much to a bodily part, as to something rather more nebulous. The clitoris is referred to (quite bizarrely) as a ‘beak’. By contrast, ‘wombs’ and especially ‘bowels’ are mentioned frequently, often to unfortunate comic effect. There is very little incidence of what we might today call ‘foreplay’. The anatomical specifics of their encounters are occasionally quite unclear: in one especially ludicrous instance, Mellors penetrates Connie, ‘feeling the stream of tenderness flowing in release from his bowels to hers, the bowels of compassion kindled between them’. Elsewhere, when it is not being glorified for its ‘phallic mystery’, Mellors’ penis is described as a ‘plunger’, which might have interesting potential in everyday plumbing emergencies.
There is a good deal more of this kind of thing: suffice to say that if the ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’, now given annually by the Literary Review, had existed at the time, Lawrence would undoubtedly have been a strong contender. Yet, in the spirit of the trial, it is probably unreasonable to present such quotations out of context. My interest here is not in making judgments about what is or is not ‘bad’ writing but in identifying what the book is actually saying about sex, and how it is saying it.
There was curiously little discussion of these issues during the trial itself. A review by the celebrated US writer Katherine Anne Porter, published in 1959, was quoted by the prosecution, but her views were quickly dismissed by the defence witness (Graham Hough) as ‘eccentric’. Yet Porter’s review is perhaps ahead of its time, not least because it confronts the issue of sex very directly; and in some respects, her argument is much more subversive than anything that was said at the trial.
Porter is excoriating about what she sees as the ‘unintentional hilarious low comedy’ of Lawrence’s writing about sex. She particularly takes him to task for ‘the unbelievably grotesque episode of this besotted couple weaving flowers in each other’s public hair, hanging bouquets and wreaths in other strategic body spots, making feeble little dirty jokes, [and] inventing double-meaning nicknames for their sexual organs’. Porter argues that the book effectively sanitizes sex: ‘instead of writing straight, healthy obscenity, [Lawrence] makes it sickly sentimental, embarrassingly so’. It is ‘a pious attempt to purify and canonise obscenity’, she argues: ‘my quarrel with the book is that it really is not pornographic – the great, wild, free-wheeling spirit of pornography has been hitched to a rumbling little domestic cart and trundled off to chapel, its ears pinned back and its mouth washed out with soap’.
Porter argues that such qualities reflect Lawrence’s deep-seated ‘fear and distrust of sex’, and particularly of female sexuality. She challenges his tendency to speak ‘with great authority’ about what women think and feel – and, in effect, to issue instructions as to how they should do so. Ultimately, she argues, the book is little more than ‘the fevered daydream of a dying man sitting under his umbrella pines in Italy indulging his sexual fantasies… a boy imagining a female partner who is nothing but one yielding, faceless, voiceless organ of consent’.
On an even more personal note, Doris Lessing’s introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition comments on Lawrence’s ignorance about the clitoris (although she suggests it was typical of its time), and the ‘ridiculous’ nature of some of the sex scenes. While a more sympathetic critic than Porter, she also makes some cutting remarks about the gap between the sex in Lady Chatterley and the reality of Lawrence’s own marriage. At the time of writing, she suggests, his wife was regularly having affairs, while Lawrence was left impotent as a result of tuberculosis. She also implies that Lawrence suffered from a similar problem to Connie’s previous lover, Michaelis, namely premature ejaculation.
Despite the preference for everyday rather than clinical terminology (albeit notably on the part of Mellors – Connie herself does not use it), it is this overblown and grandiose style that opens the way for the kind of moralising that was evident in the trial – the claim that Lawrence’s writing about sex was at least acceptable because it is in fact profoundly spiritual and wholesome. Yet this is a world in which the mundane, unsatisfactory, even comical aspects of sex can never appear.
The cult of the phallus
Of course, Lady Chatterley’s Lover does not merely describe sex: it also presents a philosophy of sex, or a set of claims about what sex should mean – and, along with that, a particular view of gender relations. This much is very clear from Lawrence’s commentary on the book, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published a couple of years later. Here again, we find a binary logic that is characteristic of his work more broadly. It is vital, Lawrence argues, to distinguish between ‘genuine’ sex and ‘counterfeit’ sex. While the former is driven by ‘real feelings’, the latter is just about ‘mental feelings’. Counterfeit sex is a manifestation of a world in which everything is either dead or barbarous: counterfeit love and sex will never bring about the ‘redemption’ of England.
Interestingly, in passages briefly referred to in the trial, Lawrence claims that ‘real’ sex entails fidelity and marriage. Marriage, he argues, is a guarantee of ‘true freedom’; but it has to be ‘real’ marriage and not ‘counterfeit’ marriage, ‘like nearly all marriage today’. ‘Real’ sex is somehow tied to ‘blood sympathy’ and ‘blood desire’, to the rhythm of the seasons and of (Christian) religious festivals; ‘counterfeit’ or ‘personal’ sex is merely a symptom of mechanical modernity, something that supposedly ‘emancipated’ young people treat as a ‘toy’. This leads into what can only be called a form of phallus worship: ‘real’ sex is necessarily ‘phallic’; and ‘the bridge to the future is the phallus’.
What might any of this mean in practice? If we look at the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley, it’s clear that ‘real’ sex is all about the woman’s submission. Connie is constantly ‘yielding’, ‘melting’, and ‘giving up’: she is to be ‘had for the taking’, and only when she is ‘taken’ does she become a ‘real’ woman. According to Mellors, men ‘fuck’ and women ‘take it’. By contrast, the phallus is a kind of weapon: ‘the momentous, surging rise of the phallus’ with its ‘amazing force and assertion’ is like ‘the thrust of a sword’. It is, Connie marvels, ‘so big! And so dark and cocksure! … and so lordly!’ (While this is more than a little reminiscent of pornography, it bears saying that there is a great deal more female sexual agency on display in some pornography than is evident here.)
In terms of gender representation, the novel is a curious mix. Connie, placed at the centre of the book, is perhaps a ‘rounded’, multi-dimensional image of a modern woman, although her agency is largely subjugated. Yet the men ultimately function as little more than ciphers. Clifford’s impotence and inadequacy blatantly stands in for that of his class; and it is hard to see Mellors as much more than a one-dimensional stereotype of rugged, working-class masculinity – or, as Lawrence puts it, ‘the bearer and keeper of the bright phallos’.
By contrast with Mellors, Connie’s earlier lover Michaelis is inadequate because he fails to give her vaginal orgasms. Sex with Michaelis is little more than a superficial, passing entertainment, a cheap thrill. Connie argues – and her father later agrees – that her generation has no ‘real men’, and hence cannot enjoy what Lawrence sees as ‘healthy human sensuality’. Meanwhile, Clifford is not just physically impotent, but his masculinity is also undermined by his vain pursuit of literary success: despite taking charge of the coal-mines, he eventually becomes a ‘child’ in the care of Mrs. Bolton. According to Mellors, he is ‘tame’ and lacks ‘balls’. By contrast, Mellors himself is a kind of walking penis, infinitely potent yet remote and mysterious. Despite their differences in class, Connie’s father eventually congratulates Mellors (in one particularly grotesque scene) for giving his daughter ‘a good fucking’ and showing her what a ‘real man’ can be.
Both for Mellors and for Lawrence, any independent assertion of female sexuality is problematic. According to Mellors, most women are actually ‘lesbians’. They seek to achieve orgasm through the ‘beakishness’ of the clitoris – ‘they tear at you with it until you’re sick’ – rather than the natural receptiveness of the womb. Women’s ‘freedom’, he tells Connie towards the end of the book, is ‘ghastly’ and ‘ends in the most beastly bullying’. Women should be prevented from initiating sexual activity; and those who assert their own will, he argues, should be shot. Connie does not dissent from such views; nor indeed does Lawrence encourage us to do so. Indeed, Lawrence’s own arguments, for example in the A Propos, are not too far removed from this. In one passage, he even suggests that women should not be allowed to bare their arms: this kind of ‘flippancy’ and ‘vulgarity’, he suggests, is not ‘real’ sexuality but a kind of counterfeit modern freedom.
The best-known critique of Lawrence’s views of gender relations is undoubtedly contained in Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, published in 1971. Millett ranges across his novels as a whole, including some lesser-known late works, The Plumed Serpent, Aaron’s Rod and Kangaroo. In her account, Lawrence’s view of sex is wholly ‘phallocentric’. Lady Chatterley, she argues, is ‘a quasi-religious tract recounting the salvation of one modern woman (the rest are irredeemably ‘plastic’ and ‘celluloid’) through the offices of the author’s personal cult, “the mystery of the phallus”’. In Lawrence’s world, the phallus is effectively a god, and phallus-worship is a kind of sacrament: the male erection becomes the justification of male supremacy, while the woman is merely the passive recipient, and the worshipper.
As Millett argues, Lawrence’s phallus carries a political significance. The answer to the problems of industrialisation and modernity is a return to older gender roles, premised on male dominance. Lady Chatterley, she argues, is simply Lawrence’s fantasy of displacing the impotent and corrupt aristocracy (Clifford) through the phallic power that will enable him to possess the upper-class Lady. Yet this is by no means a fantasy of working-class revolution. Mellors may be a kind of godlike ‘sexual superman’ or a ‘primal sexual being’, Millett says, but he is also a snob who considers himself better than the other sub-human men of his class. As Millett argues, Lawrence’s politics here come close to a kind of proto-fascism that is even more evident in the ‘primitivism’ of books like The Plumed Serpent, where there is a kind of sadistic glee at women’s abjection and sacrifice of selfhood.
Unlike Millett (and indeed Lessing), I am somewhat wary of reading Lawrence’s novels as neurotic projections of his inner psychodramas – or indeed seeing them as acts of revenge or narcissistic fantasies of wish-fulfilment in respect of real people. Nevertheless, it’s hard to dissent from her analysis of his misogynistic sexual politics. Far from foreseeing or celebrating women’s liberation, Lady Chatterley is motivated by a fear and resentment of women: it is a profoundly anti-democratic attack on modern forms of emancipation.
Conclusion: making differences
On one level, the impact of the Lady Chatterley trial was substantial and immediate. Penguin’s initial print run of 200,000 copies sold out within hours; and the book went on to sell more than three million copies in its first six months. Whether it led to a significant sea-change in public attitudes to sex, or to sexual representation, is rather more debatable, however.
The historian Nick Thomas presents some useful data on public opinion in the wake of the trial, drawn from a range of sources, including the popular press, letters to the publishers and the Home Office, and surveys and interviews conducted at the time. While he notes that a vocal minority opposed the verdict, he demonstrates that public opposition to censorship was already strong and growing. As such, he argues, the outcome merely reflected a broader change that was already well under way: the jury was not leading public opinion, but following it.
With regards to obscenity law, the trial (and indeed the 1959 Obscene Publications Act) did not ultimately resolve very much. As Christopher Hilliard describes, the ensuing two decades saw countless battles between the religious right and the liberalisers, which threw up many continuing confusions and anomalies in the muddle of laws (and legal institutions and processes) that sought to regulate obscenity and indecency. As I’ve suggested, the Hicklin test (‘deprave and corrupt’) was fairly meaningless without the possibility of evidence; but the ‘public good’ defence was equally problematic. It was not until the end of the 1970s that the government recognised that the law was not fit for purpose, and established the Williams Committee to arrive at a more effective basis for judgement. While the Williams Report was largely ignored (for a variety of reasons), the 1959 Act has increasingly fallen dormant, although it remains in force. Obscenity, however defined, is no longer the focus of social debate in the ways it once was.
Even so, it is possible to read the Chatterley trial as an important moment in the wider social changes that were taking shape at the time. If the verdict was not ‘epoch-making’ – or even an opening of the floodgates – it did represent or reflect a more general challenge to paternalism. And in this sense, it was perhaps less to do with sex or obscenity per se, and more to do with class and power.
The fact that the book in the dock was Lady Chatterley’s Lover undoubtedly made a difference to all this. It is interesting to speculate about how things might have played out in relation, say, to Joyce’s Ulysses (the ban on which was lifted in Britain in 1936), Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, or Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (which came to trial in Britain in 1966, and was acquitted on appeal in 1967). All three represent sex in very different ways from Lawrence: they locate it firmly within everyday life, in sometimes sordid circumstances; they are often deliberately comical and absurd; they are much more transgressive of conventional morality; and they resolutely refuse to invest sex with any of the quasi-religious significance that suffuses Lawrence’s account. Alternatively, it would have been interesting if the book on trial had been one without the apparently redeeming claim that it was ‘literature’ – and hence incapable of being mere ‘pornography’. The fact that it was Lady Chatterley – not just its authorship but also its content – sanctioned a degree of sanctimonious moralising on the part of the Great and the Good that would have been much harder to sustain in relation to other texts.
Beyond this, it’s striking how one of the most significant trials in the history of censorship law related to a novel and an author whose sexual politics were, to say the least, somewhat dubious. ‘Liberation’ in the field of sex, or at least sexual representation – if such it was – should not, in this sense, be confused with women’s liberation. In this latter respect, the trial of Lady Chatterley prefigured some of the unresolved contradictions and tensions that were to emerge a little further down the line in the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of the sixties.
SOURCES AND REFERENCES
Hall, L.A. (2005) ‘Sexuality’, pp. 145-163 in Addison, P. and Jones, H. (eds.) A Companion to Contemporary Britain, 1939-2000 Oxford: Blackwell
Hilliard, C. (2021) A Matter of Obscenity: The Politics of Censorship in Modern England Princeton: Princeton University Press
Krash, A. (1962) Review of Rolph (below) The Yale Law Journal 71(7): 1351-1363
Kynaston, D. (2015) Modernity Britain, 1957-1962 London: Bloomsbury
Lawrence, D.H. (1928/1994/2006) Lady Chatterley’s Lover London: Penguin Classics edition
Lawrence, D.H. (1930/1994/2006) A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ London: Penguin Classics edition
Leavis, F.R. (1955) D.H.Lawrence, Novelist London: Chatto and Windus
Millett, K. (1971) Sexual Politics London: Rupert Hart-Davis
Panter-Downes, M. (1960) ‘The lady at the Old Bailey’, New Yorker, November 19
Porter, K.A. (1959) ‘A wreath for the gamekeeper’ (review of LCL) in The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter https://www.onlinereadfreebooks.com/en/The-Collected-Stories-of-Katherine-Anne-Porter-595610/71
Rolph, C.H. (ed.) (1960) The Trial of Lady Chatterley: Regina v. Penguin Books Limited Harmondsworth: Penguin
Sandbrook, D. (2005) Never Had It So Good, 1956-63 London: Abacus
Schatz-Jakobsen, C. ‘The case against Lady Chatterley’s Lover: The 1959 Obscene Publications Act as a New Critical subtext’, pp. 45-64 in E. Erlanson et al. (eds.) Forbidden Literature: Case Studies on Censorship Lund, Sweden: Nordic Academic Press
Sutherland, J. (2021) Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Thomas, N. (2013) ‘”Tonight’s big talking point is still that book”: popular responses to the Lady Chatterley trial’, Cultural and Social History 10(4): 619-63
Yagoda, B. (2010) ‘Trial and Eros: When Lady Chatterley’s Lover ran afoul of Britain’s 1959 obscenity law, the resulting case had a cast worthy of P.G. Wodehouse’, The American Scholar 79(4): 93-101
[Please cite with web address: davidbuckingham.net.