Lady Chatterley’s Lover, based on DH Lawrence’s (in)famous novel, is now streaming on Netflix, starring Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell. In coming to your handheld devices from Lawrence’s feverish and earnest pages, Lady Constance Chatterley has travelled a long long way, facing landmark obscenity trials in several countries, including India.
What is the novel about, and why did it raise such a row when first published? What was the Ranjit Udeshi case around it in India, which was to influence obscenity cases for decades? We explain.
What is the book about?
Put very simply – and by robbing it of all its tenderness and wistfulness – Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about the extramarital affair of an aristocratic lady and her gamekeeper. It was published in 1928 in Italy and in 1929 in France, although in England, its author’s home country, the book was not available in an unexpurgated edition until 1960.
Though hardly sensational by today’s standards, when published, the book was considered scandalous. It had descriptions of sexual encounters, contained the f word, and one of the signifcant moments of the book is Lady Chatterly and Oliver Mellors — the ‘lover’ in the title – orgasming together.
Though the novel’s critics in a juvenile manner focused only on the ‘steamy’ parts of the book, it is about much more than that. Constance is wealthy, married to a man crippled in the war, and feels oppressed in her barren existence, pun intended. Her husband has achieved some celebrity as a writer and gathered around him men who would today be described as ‘intellectual woke bros’. Upon this dispiriting milieu bursts Oliver Mellors, with his virility, novelty, and ‘realness’.
The novel explores the importance of a connection of bodies, and not just minds, in a relationship; it is a commentary on class tensions; and, in the post World War I world, it is Lawrence’s plaintive plea to heal through love – tender and passionate sex as one of the antidotes to violence.
Incidentally, Mellors had served as an Army officer in India.
Obscenity trial in England
As Lady Chatterley’s Lover was available elsewhere in Europe, in England, Customs would make a point to search and pick out all copies people tried to smuggle in.
Then in 1960, Penguin’s co-founder Allen Lane decided to publish an unexpurgated copy of the book, and price it at three shillings and sixpence, making it affordable even to non-upper classes. Penguin was promptly sued, even though, just a year earlier, the Obscene Publications Act 1959 had been passed, which provided a defence to publishers if they could prove that the work had literary merit and was intended for the public good.
The ensuing Regina vs Penguin Books Ltd. trial is now recognised as a watershed moment in British cultural life.
Witnesses for the defence included author EM Forster, critic Helen Gardner, and even some clergymen. The defence also made sure to have women among jury members, and the eventual verdict was that the book was not obscene. In the next three months, 3 million copies of the book were sold.
Barister Geoffrey Robertson wrote in The Guardian in 2010, “No other jury verdict in British history has had such a deep social impact… Within a few years the stifling censorship of the theatre by the lord chamberlain had been abolished, and a gritty realism emerged in British cinema and drama.”
In 1961, Penguin dedicated the second edition of the book “to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ and thus made DH Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.”
Trial in India
India had its own version of Regina vs Penguin Books in 1964, in the form of Ranjit D Udeshi vs the State of Maharashtra, though in this case, the Supreme Court held the book to be obscene. The trial saw the upholding of the 1868 Hicklin Test of obscenity, which the SC did away with only in 2014.
Udeshi and the co-owners of Happy Book Stall in Bombay were prosecuted under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code (which deals with obscenity) for selling unexpurgated copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1959.
In the SC, Udeshi contended that : “(i) the section was void because it violated the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India., (ii) even if the section was valid, the book was not obscene and (iii) it must be shown by the prosecution that he sold the book with the intention to corrupt the purchaser, that is to say, that he knew that the book was obscene.”
The SC in its verdict held that, “An overall view of the obscene matter in the setting of the whole work would, of course, be necessary, but the obscene matter must be considered by itself and separately to find out whether it is so gross and its obscenity so decided that it is likely to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to influences of this sort and into whose hands the book is likely to fall….”
The court also flagged concerns about the book “perverting our entire literature”.
“Today our national and regional languages are strengthening themselves by new literary standards after a deadening period under the impact of English. Emulation by our writers of an obscene book under the aegis of this Court’s determination is likely to pervert our entire literature because obscenity pays and true art finds little popular support. Only an obscurant will deny the need for such caution,” the court held.
The SC’s view that “the obscene matter must be considered by itself and separately” was in line with the Victorian-era Hicklin Test, which essentially says that obscenity can be punished irrespective of the artistic merit of the work, the “obscene” portions can be judged independently of the larger context of the work, and if one portion is found “obscene”, the whole work can be banned.
After 50 years, in the Aveek Sarkar case of 2014 (about the publication of a semi-nude picture of Boris Becker and his fiancee), the Supreme Court did away with the Hicklin test. The court held that “while judging as to whether a particular photograph, an article or book is obscene, regard must be had to the contemporary mores and national standards and not the standard of a group of susceptible or sensitive persons”; and that the photograph had to be viewed in the context of the message (of interracial love) it wanted to convey.
In other countries
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of obscenity trials in many other countries, including Australia (ban lifted in1965); Japan (book found obscene, translator and publisher fined, in 1957); US (ban lifted in 1959); Canada (found not obscene in 1960).