The Lady Goes Courting

The Old Bailey, London’s storied criminal courts building, sits upon the former site of London’s Newgate Prison. Daniel Dafoe was once imprisoned there. The Restoration government burned a pamphlet written by John Milton near the front steps. The building reaches back to the earliest days of British criminal prosecution. At the beginning of each new session, the justices solemnly parade into court carrying bouquets of flowers while the halls are strewn with herbs—a throwback ritual from the days when the fetid smell of the jail must be masked.

From October 20th to November 3rd, 1960 the No. 1 Court in the Old Bailey held the trial of R v. Penguin Books, Ltd. This building, featured in many crime novels, became the setting for a real-life literary drama. The public prosecution of Penguin Books tested the limits of Britain’s Obscene Publications Act of 1959 over the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

            The book, written in 1928, had been banned as obscene in its unexpurgated form.Front cover of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', Penguin edition, 1960 Copies carried in from the European continent were seized. In 1960 Penguin Books whose goal, expressed by the publisher was to “produce a book that would sell at the price of 10 cigarettes,” delivered copies to the public prosecutor in advance of publication. The prosecution of Penguin Books followed.

            A jury was seated to hear the case. (In the first tactical move, the Defense did not seek to protect the delicate ears and eyes of genteel British women. They declined to exercise their right to have an all-male jury impaneled in an obscenity case. The jury subsequently consisted of nine men and three women.)  Prior to the start of evidence, the jurors were ushered into the jury room and instructed to read the book. The book must be read in the jury room and copies could not be taken home—it was banned reading material.  Every juror finished reading the book ahead of the allotted time.

The public prosecutors, led by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, called no witness. They had difficulty enlisting experts willing to testify to the book’s obscenity and whether, taking the book on the whole, the obscenity outweighed the public good “in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern”. These were the statutory standards. At the trial’s conclusion, jurors would be posed the common-sense questions of whether the publication as a whole would do any harm and, if so, if its literary merit might still make it worthwhile. Reportedly, the Department of Public Prosecutions sought to call Rudyard Kipling, a stalwart of the Old Guard in Great Britain, but sadly learned that he had been dead since 1936.

The Defense, led by Gerald Gardner, mounted a full-throated response, calling 35 witnesses testifying to the artistic, literary and sociological value of the book. They defended the work, which some called the foulest book in English literature by arguing that it was not obscene. Rather, the Defense maintained that the book represented Lawrence’s public commentary on the England of his day.

The prosecution’s cross examination consisted of reading many of the salacious passages and arguing that the plot merely provided padding for descriptions of sexual intercourse. They tallied up the numbers on four-letter words throughout the manuscript. The gulf between those whom George Orwell described as “the striped-trousered ones who rule,” and the emerging post-war society was best illustrated by the oft-quoted questions asked by prosecutor Griffith-Jones. “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because daughters can read as well as boys—reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

            After three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Over the next three months, Penguin sold three million copies of the book. The finding by the jury ushered in a relaxation of British publishing and what some describe as the beginning of the “permissive society” in Britain. Some mark the end of the trial as the true start of the 1960s.

   headline         The case expanded the tool box of the writer. It is gospel to nod and to agree that this represents a good thing. We might pause to consider this idea—whether we as readers and writers could be content with a bit less explicitness. If we lived in the world of the cozy mystery, where more occurred out-of-view and was alluded to rather than made explicit, would we be the poorer? We can surely agree that literature has killed far fewer people than those ten cigarettes, the book intended to replace. For better or worse, the world was different after R v, Penguin Books Ltd, a trial concluding in early November 1960.

Perhaps the blog should conclude with a profanity laced fusillade, racking up its own four-letter tally.  I will finish instead by declaring R v, Penguin Books Ltd November’s “Trial of the Month”.

Mark Thielman

2 thoughts on “The Lady Goes Courting

    1. You’re right Brian. The question in the case is whether “shock” is the same thing as “harm”. If the standard had been “shock” the reader, the Crown would have won easily. Instead, it was harm, and the publishing world in England (and be extension, the rest of the reading world) changed.


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