November 10, 1960 was a banner day for those who believed in the freedom of writers and publishers, and for those who wanted to read the world’s most notorious novel. D.H. Lawrence had written Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1920s but it would take over 30 years – and a sensational test case trial – for it to be finally published uncensored in the UK.
Telling the story of an adulterous affair between Lady Chatterley – whose husband has returned disabled from WWI – and Mellors, their gamekeeper, the novel ignited huge controversy from the moment it was published.
Published privately in Italy in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was divisive because of its frank depictions of sex and because of the four letter words it contained.
Both would prove to be key factors at the 1960 obscenity trial which preceded its publication. The trial saw publishers Penguin being prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. They were ultimately successful, however, and on November 10, 1960, 200,000 copies of the novel went on sale across the UK.
The response was remarkable and the print run sold out on the first day. In London, Foyles (W&G Foyle Ltd, as it was then) sold its entire complement of 300 copies in 15 minutes. The story was repeated at Selfridges, Hatchards and across the country. During the next three months, Penguin would sell three million copies of the novel.
1960 was the 30th anniversary of Lawrence’s death and Penguin wanted to produce a set of his books to commemorate thisbut needed Lady Chatterley’s Lover to complete the set. When the Obscene Publications Act was passed in 1959, it included the clause that a banned ‘obscene’ book or work could be published if it was “justified in the interests of science, literature, art and learning”. Penguin decided to test this clause with the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
They printed and stored the books before sending several copies to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who decided to prosecute. After a relatively short trial, during which prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked the now-infamous question, “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” Penguin won and the ban was overturned.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a byword for the risqué and scandalous, but for many, the publication of the novel was a watershed moment in British history between a staid, Establishment-ruled past and a more permissive future.