Literature and Obscenity: The Ghost of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’

“The imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”

–George Orwell

When Penguin publishers decided to go ahead with D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, they were tried under England’s obscenity law. The charge of obscenity was levelled due to the content of the novel, which allegedly had sexually explicit writings and descriptions. The novel revolves around Mrs Chatterley, whose husband is a war veteran paralysed below the waist and there is no connect between them whatsoever, physically or emotionally. It is a story about the adulterous affair of Lady Chatterley with a gamekeeper Oliver Mellors and highlights various themes on class difference, human relationships and female sexuality.

Before the publishers were tried in the UK, the book had faced a similar trial in the US. While it was initially considered obscene, the judgment was later overruled. In the UK’s court, the content of the book was thoroughly debated and finally, Penguin publishers were acquitted of charges of obscenity. After the trial got over, the book became a masterpiece and a bestseller in literary fiction. It sold three million copies. The book is still considered as one of the finest works of Lawrence.

However, there are certain interesting takeaways from this famous trial in the history of English literature. During the trial, one of the prosecutors asked the publishers whether they will be willing to let their wives or servants read the book. Then, the question extended to whether it was a kind of book one was willing to keep in the house. Or even a book that their children might get their hands on? The argument that stemmed was that the book and its contents seek to corrupt a reader’s mind.

Although the book has been published and sold since 1928 in the rest of the Europe, it was not until the year 1960 that it was available in England, 30 years after Lawrence’s death.

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As the book found acceptance across the West, something different happened with the same book in Japan. A publisher, Kyujiro Koyama, wanted to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Japanese. Koyama approached a Japanese novelist, Hitoshi Ito, who did the translation and sold a number of copies.  They were both booked under Section 175 of their criminal code which was the section for obscenity.

The Supreme Court of Japan found the text to be obscene. It ruled that the book ignites a sense of shame upon its reading and it opposed to the idea of sexual morality. The court said that there is an inherent sexual morality and it is necessary that one does not breach it to affect the societal order. The Japanese Supreme Court put itself in the centre of the debacle by bestowing upon itself the duty to secure and safeguard society’s prevailing morals and ideas. In India too, the Supreme Court found the book obscene.

So, is there a universal definition for obscenity?

From the aforementioned account of Lawrence’s book, I find the notion of obscenity rather complicated. What may be liberating for a society might be obscene for another; there seems to be a lack of universal consensus. Laws regarding obscenity and their interpretations are different in different countries. The test of time might also be of relevance as something which might have been considered immoral or obscene years ago is no longer obscene in contemporary times. For instance, in 1980s, when a homosexual act was depicted in a British theatre during Howard Brenton’s play titled, Romans in Britain, it was tried under Sexual Offences Act, 1956. Now the depiction of homosexuality in cinema or theatre is no longer viewed from that angle. The notion and stigma around homosexuality has also changed with time and mainstream cinema is slowly adapting to it.

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To expect an artist to perform in a cage of restrictions is like attacking his creative domain. The very fact that art is a means of expression signifies that the artist must have his, her or their range of freedom. The freedom of speech and expression is like an inalienable and inseparable right of an individual. A sexual depiction must not be confused with something being pornographic. The relationship between a writer and his/her/their readers is unique and only the writer knows the exact emotions he/she/they is trying to convey.

The social framework cannot be so fragile that a sexually explicit novel or an adulterous film will bring out the prurient interest in all its members. There should be a line but not so weak that an artist feels trapped or restricted. The difference between art, obscenity and pornography must be understood in order to regulate the content of any artistic creation. An expression even if vulgar or in bad taste may be essential for the work of the author. There should not be an unnecessary and unjustified legal interference with artistic liberty. Restriction on content hampers the scope for intellectual brainstorming and public discussion as this affects the liberty and right of both the author and the readers.

In the contemporary times when the government wishes to regulate OTT platforms, I am compelled to ask this question – are we still haunted by the ghost of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

Anant Prakash Mishra is a third-year law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (NUJS).

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