From Queen Victoria, right through the first half of the 20th century, Britain was a famously prudish and sexually repressed nation. Then came the Swinging Sixties, and it all flopped out into the open, with naked flesh and free love everywhere.
And one of the most pivotal moments in peeling away the petticoats of Victorian morality came on this day in 1960 when a jury came to the verdict that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene.
DH Lawrence’s racy classic was first published privately in Florence in 1928. An edited version was published in the UK in 1932. But it was not until 16 August 1960 that Penguin published an unexpurgated version.
Unfortunately for Penguin, it was an offence to publish material that was likely to “deprave and corrupt”. The law did, however, make an exception if the published work was of artistic merit.
On 25 August, Penguin received a summons, and on Friday, 21 October, the case of R v Penguin Books opened. The nine men and three women of the jury were given copies of the book, and asked to read it – but were forbidden from taking it out of the jury room.
The prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who called no witnesses for the prosecution, selected passages from the book to illustrate its depravity, that sex was at its “core and heart”, and that it had no literary merit at all.
“Is it a book”, he asked to amused titters, “that you would wish your wife – or even your servants – to read?”
The Bishop of Woolwich – one of 35 witnesses for the defence – testified that it was “a book all Christians should read”.
The jury agreed. It took them three hours to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty to a chorus of cheers from the public gallery. The second edition of the book carried a dedication “to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ and thus made DH Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom”.