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Lady Chatterley celebrates 50th anniversary of her acquittal

It will be 50 years ago tomorrow that a British court declared that D.H. Lawrence’s previously banned novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, did not constitute obscenity. In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Ian Brown commemorates the anniversary of the landmark decision:

The trial of Constance Chatterley is still considered the most significant obscenity contest in English literary history. For six days in court, the soldiers of moralism “ those who believed some people had a right to tell others what they could read and how to behave “ battled a pack of liberals who insisted these were individual decisions.

The case was wildly entertaining, studded as it was with the most articulate minds in literature testifying about how truthful a piece of writing has a right to be. The unanimous acquittal was later credited with liberalizing the context for women’s rights, divorce, capital punishment, homosexuality and abortion, and even setting the mood for the sex-drenched 1960s, as Philip Larkin (b. 1922) noted in his poem “Annus Mirabilis”:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) “

Between the end of the

Chatterley ban and

The Beatles’ first LP.

Brown also notes that challenges to books have by no means disappeared since the Chatterley case: two notable examples from this country alone are Deborah Ellis’s book of non-fiction Three Wishes and Anne Laurel Carter’s novel The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, both of which were charged with inciting hatred toward Israel.

While any attempt to ban a book is a serious matter, Brown also points out that the Chatterley case was not without its lighter moments:

The most brilliant witness, many observers thought, was Richard Hoggart, senior lecturer in English at Leicester University. He insisted D.H. Lawrence was a puritan, in the original sense of one heavy with conscience.

The prosecutor tried to mock the claim by reading several sexual passages, including one revering a man’s testicles as a source of life: ˜The strange weight of a man’s balls ¦’ Mr. Griffith-Jones intoned. Puritanical?

It is puritanical in its reverence.

Reverence for the weight of a man’s balls?

Indeed, yes.