Regardless of whether authoritative, official censorship exists in a society, common people have always been the most feared of censors. The masses are the most powerful in the sense that they can make or destroy a writer. A story is what a reader makes it. Every book sitting on a shelf in a bookstore, every movie playing in cinema halls, every show airing on the television and every play being staged in a theatre is looking for an audience, an interested party. And despite all the banal claims about the process of creation being the most fulfilling, at the end of the day, every story needs a reader, or a listener. That’s what stories are for, aren’t they? To be heard.
The impact a story can have is perhaps best demonstrated by all the long-drawn trials in England under the Obscenity Act of 1959. In fact, the creation of the Act itself is enough to tell one just how influential writers can be. The need to sanitize works of fiction to keep them within limits of public tolerance is evidence of the fact that literature holds enough potential to shape a society. Perhaps this is why most writers try to “stay within line” in their writings. And perhaps that is why there are so few who stand out.
DH Lawrence, born in the nineteenth century in England, was one of those few. He couldn’t even be called a writer in the conventional sense of the term during his time, simply because he never wrote about anything even remotely conventional then. Anyone who can write something like Lady Chatterley’s Lover in early twentieth-century Britain can never be expected to be liked by his own people. Today, however, the author of that book can only be seen as incredibly foresighted (the sexual liberation of the British public that he seems to have triggered came much later after his death), making Lawrence almost awe-worthy for modern readers.
The Obscenity Trial of 1960 was levelled against Penguins Books, who published an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that had erotic passages from Lawrence’s original manuscript restored. This trial was a game-changer in the truest sense. The court had labelled the book “obscene”, conveniently overlooking the larger psychological and philosophical themes that it dealt with. A sexually restrained public couldn’t digest a Lady’s graphic love affair with a low-class man and had instigated the trial. The book was tried under the Obscenity Act, passed by the Parliament on the insistence of the Society of Authors in 1959, aimed to “protect Literature and strengthen the law concerning obscenity”. The main issue of the dissenters was the easy accessibility of a text like Lady Chatterley to women and the working classes, a thought that met with high disapprobation of, you guessed it right, the “intellectual” upper-classes.
Penguin’s solicitor, Mr. Michael Rubinstein, worked on getting experts and novelists to prove the literary merit of the book as a whole. The Act clearly stated, something that was overlooked by most prosecutors of the novel, that a book was not to be judged only on its “depraving” passages and could be acquitted if “the publication is justified in the interests of science, literature, art and learning or any other object of general concern”. The defence took a significant step right on the first day of the trial by declining an all-male jury for the trial. The evidence presented in favour of the book was not only psychological in nature, but forensic also. The book was eventually acquitted and the trial became a celebrated milestone in the history of British Literature.
DH Lawrence, an immensely insightful writer who became the victim of the times, was subsequently hailed as an unsung hero. Lady Chatterley’s Lover itself became a masterpiece and is perused even today by students of English Literature, not as a cheap erotica, but as an ingenious depiction of a woman’s trials with questions of physical desires and individual identity.