Obscenity trial: Judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover expected to fetch £15,000

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By Polly Botsford on

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Image credit: Sotheby’s

A copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, used by the judge who presided over the novel’s trial as an “obscene” work, is to be sold at auction next month.

The racy novel, written by DH Lawrence, was the subject of one of the most celebrated jury trials on whether or not it should be published in English by Penguin or whether it broke obscenity laws. The book had been banned here since it was first published in France in 1928.

The book tells the story of a young, female aristocrat having an affair with her husband’s gamekeeper. It contains passionate, explicit sex scenes and even a few swear words; mild by modern standards but scandalous at the time, particularly since DH Lawrence’s heroine ripped up accepted views on class divides and sexual desire (you can watch the BBC 2015 adaptation starring Richard Madden of Bodyguard fame).

No wonder, perhaps, that the wife of Mr Justice Byrne, the judge in the 1960 trial crafted a special bag for him to carry his copy of the book to and from the Old Bailey, according to the auctioneers Sotheby’s. It’s expected to fetch up to £15,000 when it comes under the hammer.

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The wife also read the book and wrote down on Old Bailey notepaper where the “relevant” passages were. It is clear she didn’t like it, her annotations include comments such as “coarse”, earmarking scandalous pages with the word: “love-making”.

But all to no avail: the jury found in favour of Penguin and, within days, the book’s publication in the UK went ahead.

The book’s legal significance is that it tested a new law, the Obscene Publications Act, which contained an amendment to allow writing which, though potentially “obscene” and “corrupting”, may also have literary or other qualities.

In R v Penguin Books (proper citation if you fancy a read: R v Penguin Books Limited [1961] Crim LR 176), the defence team brought in 35 literary and academic experts, the biggest names at the time such as EM Forster (of Passage to India fame) and Rebecca West, to give their view on the book’s merits.

The book had huge social significance too: this was a battle between “old” Britain, the stuffy establishment, and the new liberal, artistic generation, this was the beginning of the swinging ’60s.

The defence witness and English professor, Richard Hoggart, wrote in his autobiography (reprinted in the lot catalogue):

“[The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover] has been entered on the … 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 … On the far side of that watershed … we had the Permissive Society.”

The trial would be the making of the book itself. When Lady Chatterley’s Lover went on sale on 10 November of that year, there were queues around the block at bookshops around the country: all 200,000 copies printed were sold on the first day, two million in the three months afterwards.

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