In its 84-year history, Penguin Books has led many seminal moments which have changed both the publishing and wider cultural landscape forever. From the moment the young publisher Allen Lane founded the company in 1935 – creating a paperback revolution that brought good writing to all – right through to the publication of Michelle Obama’s Becoming last year – we have always championed quality of writing, creativity, diversity of voice and freedom of expression.
Our decision to publish DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 (in the face of a UK-wide ban of the book, sparking a subsequent court case) represents a cornerstone of our commitment to these values. We are delighted to be donating £10,000 to the crowdfunding campaign launched by English PEN – the worldwide writers’ association which promotes freedom of expression – to keep in the UK the original hand-annotated copy of the book which was used by the judge during the trial in 1960.
The case that changed the world of publishing forever
In 1960, Penguin Books fought – and won – a landmark case against the English courts to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence, which had previously been banned for obscenity.
Originally published in Italy in 1928, and in Paris the following year, the book had been banned in the UK as it was deemed to include sexually explicit scenes and profane language. Following the instigation of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, which allowed publishers to escape conviction if they showed the work was of literary merit – Penguin defied the ban by planning to publish the book. The proposed price was just 3 shillings and sixpence – a result of Allen Lane’s work to democratise literature and make sure it was accessible to all – meaning that it would be within reach of a huge readership, including people from the working classes.
Upon understanding that legal action against the company (in relation to the planned publication) was imminent, in August 1960 Penguin published a statement saying that it was “[the company’s] intention to defend any action that may be taken against them and to call evidence in support of their claim that the book is neither pornographic nor obscene, but a work of art of serious intent with an important place in English literature.”
Following a six-day trial, the jury came to a unanimous verdict of not guilty after just three hours. The following day 200,000 copies of the book were sold, with over 2 million copies sold within the year. English PEN writes that “the verdict was a crucial step in ushering the permissive and liberal sixties and was an enormously important victory for freedom of expression.”
Sale of the judge’s copy of the book
In October 2018, the original copy used by the judge during the trial was sold at auction for £56,250. The book included a number of hand-written notes from his wife, Lady Dorothy Byrne, pointing to passages and language that were considered sexually explicit. However, on 13 May 2019, Arts Minister Michael Ellis ordered a temporary export bar on the hand-annotated copy, given the book’s enormous cultural and social significance.
In response, English PEN has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £56,250 and keep this copy of the book in the UK, saying “this historic artefact is of unique value and should remain in the UK, allowing the British public access to understand what is lost without freedom of expression.” If successful, the organisation will work with relevant organisations including the British Library and Arts Council England to identify an organisation who can house this artefact and guarantee its preservation.
You can find out more about - and donate to - English PEN’s crowdfunding campaign here.
Lady Constance Chatterley is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who is impotent. Oppressed by her dreary life, she is drawn to Mellors the gamekeeper. Breaking out against the constraints of society she yields to her instinctive desire for him and discovers the transforming power of physical love which leads them both towards fulfilment.
Banned for many years for its frank depiction of sex, Lady Chatterley's Lover was first published by Penguin in 1960 and was at the centre of a sensational obscenity trial at the Old Bailey. D. H. Lawrence himself called it 'the most improper novel in the world'.