“...[W]ould you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?"
The 1960 Chatterley trial was of legal significance as it was a test case for the 1959 Obscene Publication Act. The new definition of obscenity lay behind Penguin's decision to publish the novel, and it was also what enabled the trial to become a confrontation between a permissive and articulate liberal intelligentsia and an outmoded and philistine legal establishment. Under the new Act it was not enough to count the profanities (although the prosecution did this nevertheless): a work was to be judged obscene “if its effect ... is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear” that work. This provided a key role to expert witnesses who could be considered qualified to judge sexually explicit passages in the context of the whole work. Consequently, in a move that turned the trial into a spectacular piece of legal theatre, the defence called 35 eminent literary and academic figures, including E.M. Forster, Richard Hoggart, Rebecca West, and the Bishop of Woolwich, to give their opinions on Lawrence’s artistry, intentions, and treatment of sex.
The jury took just three hours to return their Not Guilty verdict. Mr Justice Byrne’s summing up had been fair but his private views were almost certainly glimpsed in his refusal to award costs, leaving the defendants with a substantial legal bill. Nevertheless Regina v. Penguin Books was a great victory for Penguin. It was the trial that sold two million books (Penguin’s print-run of 200,000 sold out within a day, and sales reached 2 million in 2 years) and a triumph for Penguin’s avowed mission to make literature accessible to all; it is, after all, very likely that the jurors were influenced by the fact that the novel was being published by an imprint that was held in great public affection. Beyond this, the trial soon came to be seen as a moment that marked the end of one epoch and the opening of another, that heralded the transformations of the sixties and helped bring to birth a more liberal and permissive Britain. As Richard Hoggart, who mounted the most robust defence for Lawrence in the witness box, put it in his autobiography: “It has been entered on the agreed if conventional list of literary judgements as the moment at which the confused mesh of British attitudes to class, to literature, to the intellectual life, and to censorship, publicly clashed as rarely before – to the confusion of more conservative attitudes. On the far side of that watershed and largely as a consequence, the favoured story continues, we had the Permissive Society. All of which is excessive and over-simple, but has some truth."
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