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date: 21 September 2023

Lady Chatterley's Lover trialfree

(act. 1960)

Lady Chatterley's Lover trialfree

(act. 1960)
  • Philip Carter

Lady Chatterley's Lover trial (act. 1960), or Regina v. Penguin Books Limited, took place between 20 October and 2 November 1960 in court number 1 at the Old Bailey, London, and involved the judge, jury, prosecution and defence counsel, and the thirty-five witnesses called to support Penguin's planned publication of an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence's final novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover.

First published in Florence in 1928 and Paris in 1929, the novel had not been published in Britain and the United States for fear of prosecution. British readers did have legal access to an expurgated text, from Heinemann, while uncensored editions smuggled in from continental Europe also circulated. However, these were regularly confiscated by customs officials with importers and retailers at risk of prosecution, as in the case of a Soho bookseller gaoled for two months in 1955. The trial of October–November 1960, which ended with Penguin's acquittal on charges of publishing an obscene article contrary to section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, attracted considerable interest and has become one of the best-known episodes in modern British legal history. More widely, in the hands of social commentators, creative writers, and historians, the trial has been cast as both a synecdoche for changing post-war attitudes to social order and public decency, and the starting point for a decade or more of conflict between champions of moralism and liberalism.

Penguin prosecuted

In January 1960, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Lawrence's death, Penguin Books agreed to publish seven additional works by the novelist—among them Lady Chatterley's Lover—to add to the existing thirteen titles in their catalogue. Aware that Heinemann had no interest in producing an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley, Penguin's chairman Sir Allen Lane agreed to publish the novel in full with a print run of 200,000 copies and a publication date of August 1960. Lane later commented that he regarded this as an ideal test case of the new Obscene Publications Act, which had been introduced by the Labour MP Roy Jenkins as a private member's bill a year earlier. Under the new act works were to be considered in their entirety and could be defended in terms of their contribution to the public good; after 1959 those convicted of obscenity would also face limited (in contrast to previously unlimited) punishments of a fine or up to three years' imprisonment.

Alerted to Penguin's intention to publish the novel, the director of public prosecutions, Sir Theobald Mathew, decided—albeit with reservations—to prosecute the firm under the act of 1959. It was a move welcomed by Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller and Sir Jack Simon, the Conservative government's attorney-general and solicitor-general, with Manningham-Buller expressing his hope that 'you get a conviction'. But the director of public prosecutions' decision also surprised many publishers and lawyers, given the recent appearance of an unexpurgated American edition and a refusal by the British authorities to bring proceedings against Weidenfeld and Nicolson for their forthcoming edition of Nabakov's Lolita. In response to the prosecution more than 300 writers, scholars, and public commentators were contacted on Penguin's behalf with the great majority asserting either the merits of Lawrence's novel or the unacceptability of its not being published in its original form. Those who replied in support of the publisher's intention (but who did not appear at the subsequent trial) included Aldous Huxley, T. S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, John Betjeman, Stephen Spender, and Kingsley Amis. Graham Greene was similarly opposed to the prosecution but refused to defend a book that he considered of little literary merit, while Enid Blyton—who had not read the work—also declined on the grounds that 'my husband said NO at once' (Lewis, 324). The crown also sought to gather witnesses but their search for public figures willing to speak up for the ban proved remarkably unsuccessful; indeed two of those contacted—the literary scholar Helen Gardner and the historian Noel Annan—later appeared as defence witnesses. In August 1960 twelve copies of Penguin's new edition, constituting ‘limited publication’, were handed over to the Metropolitan Police; the company was duly charged on the 16th, and the novel's publication—set for the 25th—was suspended.

The trial

Regina v. Penguin Books Limited began at 10.30 a.m. on Thursday 20 October and was presided over by Mr Justice Byrne (Sir Laurence Austin Byrne, 1896–1965), who was accompanied throughout the proceedings by his wife, Lady Dorothy (d. 1969). Described by the New Yorker's journalist as a 'compactly-built grey-haired man with a quietly pugnacious expression' (Lewis, 326), Byrne—a devout Roman Catholic with fifteen years' experience as a High Court judge—was understood to be sympathetic to the prosecution case, which was led by Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC, with the assistance of (Stephen) Alastair Morton (1913–1992). Clearly hostile to the proposed publication, Griffith-Jones cut an imposing figure; to Allen Lane he was 'a bit fearsome', while Sybille Bedford, reporting on the trial for Esquire, commented on his 'voice quivering with thin-lipped scorn' (ibid., 327). Penguin's defence team was led by Gerald Gardiner QC with support from Jeremy Hutchinson (b. 1915) and Richard Du Cann (1929–1994). As directors of Penguin Books—the sole defendant—Allen Lane and Hans Schmoller (1916–1985) sat at the solicitors' table. The jury comprised nine men and three women of whom, according to subsequent reports, three-quarters had already decided to acquit Penguin before any evidence was heard (Rolph, 7).

In his opening statement Griffith-Jones advised jury members that they must answer two questions: first, whether the novel, taken as a whole, was obscene in terms of section 2 of the new legislation ('to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read the matter contained in it') and, second, if this proved so, whether publication was still justified for the public good. Having warned the jury against acting as censors or approaching the case 'in any priggish, high-minded, super-correct Victorian manner', Griffith-Jones set out the prosecution's contention that the novel 'does tend, and certainly that it may tend, to induce lustful thoughts in the minds of those who read it' (Rolph, 16). This was followed by what became the defining, and now best-known, statement of the trial:

You may think that one of the ways in which you can test this book, and test it from the most liberal outlook, is to ask yourselves the question, when you have read it through, would 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?

ibid., 17

Griffith-Jones had raised a similar point when, as the prosecutor in an earlier obscenity trial (brought against Heinemann and Walter Baxter for his novel The Image and the Search, 1953), he had asked jurors whether, 'when Christmas comes', they would 'hand [copies] round as presents to the girls in the office—and if not, why not?' (quoted in Lewis, 317). However, as repeated in 1960, Griffith-Jones's strategy, and in particular the reference to wives and servants, was clearly detrimental to his case: in C. H. Rolph's opinion the question 'had a visible—and risible—effect on the jury, and may well have been the first nail in the prosecution's coffin' (Rolph, 17). Griffith-Jones's statement was followed by the prosecution's only witness, Detective Inspector Charles Monahan, who, having described the novel's removal from the Penguin offices, was cross-examined by Gerald Gardiner. In turn Gardiner's opening statement for the defence outlined Penguin's reasons for publishing a new edition, asserted Lawrence's importance as a novelist, and denied that the book was obscene, being not merely a collection of sexual encounters (as Griffith-Jones suggested) but rather Lawrence's celebration of 'the relationship of a man and woman in love' and a critical commentary on aspects of 1920s society (ibid., 29, 32). With the opening addresses completed, the case was adjourned for three days to allow jurors to read the novel, which Mr Justice Byrne instructed they do in the court rather than at home.

The trial resumed on Thursday 27 October and lasted for a further five days of which the first three were taken up with statements by thirty-five witnesses called for the defence. According to their principal occupations at the time of the trial, the witnesses included nine university academics who were (in order of appearance): Graham Goulder Hough (1908–1990), lecturer in English and fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge; Helen Gardner, of St Hilda's College, Oxford; Joan Bennett (1896–1986), lecturer in English and fellow of Girton College, Cambridge; Vivian de Sola Pinto, professor of English at Nottingham University; Richard Hoggart (b. 1918), lecturer in English at Leicester University; Raymond Williams, then a staff tutor at Oxford University's extramural department; Kenneth Arthur Muir (1907–1996), professor of English at Liverpool University; and the provost of King's College, Cambridge, Noel Annan). They were accompanied by thirteen authors, journalists, and editors who gave evidence in the following order between 27 and 29 October: Rebecca West [see Andrews, Dame Cicily Isabel]; (Cicely) Veronica Wedgwood; Edward Francis Williams; Edward Morgan Forster; Walter Allen; the magazine editor Anne Eleanor Scott-James; Jack Lambert; Dilys Powell; C. Day Lewis; Stephen Potter; Janet Adam Smith; the critic and reviewer John Henry Robertson Connell (1909–1965); the newly appointed editor of the Yorkshire Post (Charles) Kenneth Young (1916–1985); and (Hector) Alastair Hetherington of The Guardian. The remaining defence witnesses included three publishers, Penguin's editor-in-chief William Emrys Williams, Allen Lane, and Stanley Unwin; four Anglican churchmen, John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, A. Stephan Hopkinson, vicar of St Katharine Cree, London, and editor of the London Churchman, (Theodore) Richard Milford, and the Revd Donald Alexander Tytler (1925–1992), director of religious education in the diocese of Birmingham; and two schoolteachers, Francis Cammaerts, of Alleyne's Grammar School, Stevenage, and Sarah Beryl Jones, of Keighley Girls' Grammar School. Other testimonies came from the lawyer and future Conservative MP Norman St John-Stevas (1929–2012), the Labour politician Roy Jenkins, the educational psychologist (Clifford) James Hemming (1909–2007), and Bernadine A. Wall (b. 1939), a recent Cambridge graduate, of Ladbrooke Grove, London. A further thirty-six witnesses had been asked to testify for the defence but were not called due to the absence, in the later stages, of cross-examination by the prosecuting counsel.

The first witnesses for the defence—Gough, Gardner, and Bennett—were English scholars who each confirmed Lawrence's standing as a novelist, refuted the prosecution's suggestion that the work was no more than a string of sexual encounters between Constance Chatterley and the gamekeeper Mellors, and also justified Lawrence's repeated use of ‘four-letter words’ as integral to the novel's overall literary effect. They were followed by two of the most notable witnesses to give evidence on 27 October, the author Rebecca West and John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich. While acknowledging the shortcomings of selected passages in the novel, West dismissed claims of excessive and unnecessary sexual description by interpreting the relationship—in a theme that reprised Gerald Gardiner's opening address—as Lawrence's 'allegory' of a 'culture that had become sterile and unhelpful to man's deepest needs' (Rolph, 67). Robinson continued this theme, stating that Lawrence had sought to 'portray the sex relation as something sacred … in a real sense an act of holy communion', even if this was not consonant with a 'Christian valuation of sex'. In his cross-examination Griffith-Jones pressed Robinson on the novel as a 'valuable work on ethics' and made the first of several sharp, and ultimately counter-productive, rebukes to witnesses whom he accused of indulging in lectures rather than answering his questions. The bishop's testimony concluded with further questions from Gardiner, prompting Robinson's controversial assertion that the novel was one that 'Christians ought to read'—a statement that gained widespread media coverage (ibid., 71–3).

The first day of defence testimonies concluded with Richard Hoggart, a 'self-composed, determined and unshakeable witness', with whom, it was generally agreed, the case moved in favour of the defence (Rolph, 92). Like those before him Hoggart denied that the novel's sex scenes were excessive or gratuitous. He also offered the firmest statement yet of the novel's literary merit, identifying it as one of the best twenty books published since 1930. Recalled on 28 October, Hoggart addressed the subject of the novel's language, which he acknowledged had initially been shocking—Lawrence's words being those that 'don't go into polite literature normally'—but argued that their use was justified, given the absence of alternatives and their diminishing impact as the novel progressed (ibid., 98–9). In his cross-examination Griffith-Jones sought, unsuccessfully, to belittle Hoggart, first mocking his claim that the novel be considered 'puritanical' and then asking that the court be spared another lecture: 'You are not at Leicester University at the moment' (ibid., 100). Hoggart refused to respond in kind and was praised by observers for his sincerity and thoughtfulness while Griffith-Jones's tendency towards high-handedness was further exposed.

Hoggart's arguments were reiterated by subsequent witnesses, including E. M. Forster, Roy Jenkins, and Norman St John-Stevas, who each addressed Lawrence's ability as a writer and his novel's literary and moral qualities. Speaking on Monday 31 October, St John-Stevas, a practising Roman Catholic, also described the book as 'consistent with my own faith' and one 'every Catholic priest and every Catholic would profit by reading' (Rolph, 136). Later in the day Penguin's founder, Allen Lane, took the stand. Replying to questions from Jeremy Hutchinson, Lane explained the aims of his company ('a University Press in paper backs' and his reasons for publishing an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley, highlighting its importance for a complete series of Lawrence's works, the company's policy of not producing edited versions, and the opportunity presented by the legislation of 1959 (ibid., 142). Penguin's contribution to British cultural life was subsequently endorsed by Lane's fellow publisher Stanley Unwin, who was followed by Dilys Powell, who argued for the superiority of Lawrence's depictions of sex when compared with many of those in contemporary cinema, and by C. Day Lewis, who defended Connie Chatterley against the prosecution's charge of immorality. The potentially damaging effects of her and Mellors's conduct on the young was in turn dismissed by the educationist Donald Tytler, who claimed that the novel was an important corrective to an increasingly common view that sex was 'unimportant' and hence promiscuity 'the normal course' (ibid., 159). The final word went to one such young reader, Bernadine Wall, who began by describing the obvious shortcomings of the novel in its censored form. Asked what she had made of Lawrence's language in the unexpurgated version, she replied that his choice of words contained no surprises as 'I knew all of them at that time' (ibid., 171).

Closing speeches for the defence and prosecution were made on 1 November. Gerald Gardiner claimed that the prosecution's argument had been overwhelmed by the calibre and consistency of the defence witnesses; he also instructed jurors that they were not judging a pornographic bookseller but a highly regarded publisher whose directors clearly did not consider the novel obscene. In response Mervyn Griffith-Jones stated, somewhat duplicitously, that he had been unable to call witnesses as, according to the legislation of 1959, experts were restricted to commenting on the artistic merits of a work—something that was not under investigation in this case. He went on to question whether the opinions of university lecturers and writers were those of the 'ordinary common men and women' who would read Penguin's cheap paperback edition, and reiterated that the novel contained depictions of sexual activity of the kind that could only be found 'some way in the Charing Cross Road, the back streets of Paris and even Port Said' (Rolph, 224). Summing up, Mr Justice Byrne instructed jurors of the need to decide whether, in its unexpurgated form, the novel was 'beyond reasonable doubt … obscene' and thus likely to deprave and corrupt. In doing so the jury was not expected to consider themselves a 'board of censors' but to behave as 'men and women of the world—not with prudish minds but with liberal minds' (ibid., 229–30).

The verdict and its aftermath

On Wednesday 2 November, after three hours' deliberation, the jurors returned a verdict of not guilty, so opening the way for the legal distribution of a novel no longer deemed obscene under the act of 1959. Initially the ruling applied only to England and Wales, though it was later extended to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Under the banner 'Now YOU can read it' Penguin's new edition went on sale on 10 November, at 3s. 6d., and by the end of the first day the complete run of 200,000 copies had been sold. Newspapers subsequently reported how queues—'mostly of men'—had gathered outside the principal London booksellers and that stocks of ‘Lady C’ had gone in minutes. Others greeted the novel's publication with dismay. The Times, while acknowledging 'a great shift in what is permissible legally', denied an equivalent transformation in popular morality and spoke up for the many 'sincere people … deeply concerned about public and private morals … [who] will be asking themselves exactly where the consequences will stop'. Further questions were also predicated about the weakness of the crown's case and why it had not been possible to match Penguin 'bishop for bishop, don for don, with a similar parade taking exactly the opposite view' (The Times, 3 Nov 1960).

In 1961 Penguin published a full transcript of the trial, edited by C. H. Rolph [see Hewitt, Cecil Rolph], a former police officer turned journalist who had previously served as secretary to the Herbert committee (1954), a gathering of publishers and booksellers who sought reform of the law on censorship. Within a year of its publication Lady Chatterley had sold more than 2 million copies and has since been frequently adapted for theatre, film, and television. In 2006 the trial itself formed the basis for a BBC drama, The Chatterley Affair, scripted by Andrew Davies.

The events in court number 1 became a staple in discussions of British society during the mid-to-late 1960s, with frequent reference to influential testimonies like those of John Robinson and Richard Hoggart and, above all, to Mervyn Griffith-Jones's misplaced question on the subject of the book's suitability for jurors' wives and servants. Such comments ensure that the episode was, and continues to be, regarded as more than a literary debate on the boundaries between obscenity and decency: 'not just a legal tussle, but a conflict of generation and class', as Penguin claimed in its publicity for the transcript of 1961. That the trial was significant is seldom disputed. Yet it remains open to discussion how far the verdict provided evidence of an earlier shift in public opinion—as suggested by Penguin's solicitor, Michael Rubinstein, who thought it 'signalled changes which had already occurred in society's attitudes' (Marwick, 146)—and how far it marked the start of a coming revolution in which, at least for Philip Larkin, 'Sexual intercourse began' between 'the end of the Chatterley ban' and the 'Beatles' first LP' (Annus mirabilis, in High Windows, 1967).


  • C. H. Rolph, ed., The trial of Lady Chatterley: Regina v. Penguin Books Limited (1961)
  • H. Montgomery Hyde, ed., The Lady Chatterley's Lover trial (1990)
  • The Times (20 Oct–5 Nov 1960)
  • J. Lewis, Penguin special: the life and times of Allen Lane (2005)
  • M. Roodhouse, ‘Lady Chatterley and the monk: Anglican radicals and the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 59 (2008), 475–500
  • A. Travis, Bound and gagged: a secret history of obscenity in Britain (2000)
  • A. Marwick, The sixties: cultural revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958–c.1974 (1998)


  • University of Bristol Library, trial papers, DM 1679