Review: Lady Chatterley’s Trial by Penguin Books

Lady Chatterley's Trial book cover by Penguin Books

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is actually one of my favourite books; a statement which is usually met with a raised eyebrow and a little smirk by those who know the book by reputation alone. Its sordid status comes, of course, from the censorship trial of 1960 when a jury were asked to decide whether the novel was just too obscene for public release. There are two things to remember here, folks:

a) There’s actually remarkably little sex in this at all. It’s not very graphic, it’s not very long (*smirks*) and it’s not that frequent either. The moral outrage was more about the theoretical promotion of adultery than the sex scenes themselves and readers in the 1960s were a lot more easily shocked than today; and

b) You know there are other parts to this book, right? Like, there is a story here and stuff?

Summary: In May 2005 Penguin will publish 70 unique titles to celebrate the company’s 70th birthday. The titles in the Pocket Penguins series are emblematic of the renowned breadth of quality of the Penguin list and will hark back to Penguin founder Allen Lane’s vision of good books for all’. In 1960, thirty years after D. H. Lawrence’s death, Penguin moved to publish his most provocative novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover for the first time. What followed was the most significant literary obscenity trial of the twentieth century, as Penguin called upon a string of expert witnesses including E. M. Forster and Sir Allen Lane to triumphantly defend the book’s literary merit, in a case that compellingly reflected the changing face of contemporary society.

I was expecting a short book analysing the censorship trial with maybe a few quotes thrown in for good measure, so I was initially quite disappointed when I realised that it’s actually just a collection of excerpts from the trial with no commentary at all, not even an introduction.

While I’d still like to read such a book (if one exists), Lady Chatterley’s Trial is still worth reading in its own right. As a quick disclaimer, I’m a lawyer. I have absolutely no idea whether this would be of interest to somebody who doesn’t have a bundle of ridiculously pretentious qualifications, or if you’d have more fun using it to make a papier mache bowl. I do know that only quotes from the main hearing of the main trial are included – there aren’t any dry comments on procedure, directions, process, etc. Purely the interesting parts, and as it was being aimed at a jury at the time, it’s perfectly comprehensible.


There must be quite a lot missing as this is only 54 pages long and these hearing things (technical terms) can go on for days. Barristers aren’t exactly renowned for their brevity. The gist is there, often in summarised form, but I’d have liked to have read the nitty gritty. Actually, what I’d really like is to read a transcript of the jury’s deliberations, but that’s not possible and never will be.

The first page states ‘it is hoped that (this book) is reasonably fair to both sides.’ Without seeing a full transcript I can’t be absolutely positive, but it does seem that rather a lot more of the prosecution’s submissions are missing than the defendant’s! Their cross-examination summary is a lot shorter and less detailed. Were there really no prosecution witnesses? It’s almost like Penguin were biased in favour of their own company or something…

Don’t get me wrong, I realise this book was published by PENGUIN to celebrate PENGUIN’S anniversary of publishing PENGUIN books and it would be completely unreasonable to expect them to include every snippet of why they shouldn’t be allowed to publish exactly what they choose. Just pointing it out 🙂

I actually do feel all fuzzy about Penguin now, to be honest. I knew their basic story before – that Allen Lane was shocked that the working classes couldn’t afford to buy books, so he strove to publish paperbacks no more expensive than a pack of cigarettes. Without him, who knows whether books would be as widely available and affordable today. Their story is fleshed out a little more in Lady Chatterley’s Trial and it really made me appreciate all the books on my shelves and that I can buy a cheap-ass paperback instead of a hardback, leatherbound monstrosity.

But of course that whole attitude is one which Penguin Books was formed to fight against, which they have always fought against, and which they will go on fighting against – the attitude that it is all right to publish a special edition at five or ten guineas so that people who are less well off cannot read what other people read. Isn’t everybody, whether earning £10 a week or £20 a week, equally interested in the society in which we live, in the problems of human relationships including sexual relationships?

*spontaneous applause from the cheap seats*

I can’t even really explain why I fell in love with this book so much, considering it’s just a collection of quotes and summaries of speeches. Maybe it’s not the book I like, but the concept. Excuse the tweeness, but it made me feel so lucky and so privileged that we live in a country where we can afford to own 300 books we haven’t even opened yet, and where it’s perfectly okay to publish a novel where a bored aristo has sex with the groundskeeper in the woodshed.

That’s thanks to twelve (it is twelve, right? There are certain people reading this who will never let me live it down if it’s not…) normal, average men and women who realised that books should never be banned because they contain a concept that you don’t agree with and that Penguin Books should be commended for striving to make books available to the masses. I assume that’s what they realised, anyway… perhaps they just wanted to wrap-up so they could go out for a smoke.

Read my review of Lady Chatterley’s Loverwhich we’re allowed to read, thanks to Penguin!

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