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Famous cases: R v Penguin Books

Famous cases: R v Penguin BooksCan you publish pornographic or offensive books if they have artistic merit?

The case

'Lady Chatterley’s Lover' is a book by D.H. Lawrence, which was published by Penguin Books in 1960. The book was described as obscene, as the story contained many sex scenes as well as repeated use of what newspapers delicately termed ‘four-letter words.’ The case was a test of the new obscenity laws, which were passed in 1959. The laws stated that something could avoid being prosecuted for obscenity if the material contained some artistic merit.

The arguments

Accusers believed that sexual intercourse was at the ‘core and heart’ of the book, while the defendants, Penguin Books, maintained that the book was an artistic discussion of many issues, and not purely a romp. The chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffiths-Jones, caused controversy when he told the court it was not the kind of book ‘you would like your wife or servants to read.’

The defence called witnesses, including many eminent literary critics, who stated that Lawrence was sincere in his writing, and that it was important for the jury to look deeply at the text. However, the prosecution and indeed the judge pointed out that in this case more was required. It had to be demonstrated to the jury not just that a literature student or academic could get more than a cheap thrill out of Lawrence’s book, but that the average layman would have a similar understanding of it.

The verdict

The jury, having read the book, decided that Penguin Books were not guilty. Apparently the decision was greeted by cheers in the courtroom, and Penguin Books later showed their gratitude by publishing the second version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ with a dedication to the jury at the beginning.