2010 marked two seemingly unrelated occasions which nonetheless fused for me as the year began to wind down. First, as book lovers will know, this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Chatterly trial, wherein a jury of 12 at London’s Old Bailey acquitted the publishers of Lady Chatterly’s Lover on charges of obscenity for having published the novel. In addition, in September, I began my work as a teaching assistant as part of my graduate program. The first event marks a major social and cultural turning point of the 20th century and the second was merely a nerve-wracking experience that most involved would probably like to forget as soon as possible. If I’m going to put a positive spin on my abilities as a teacher, I can only say that perhaps I will improve over time and that this first term was a learning experience, the latter of which is no doubt true. Nonetheless, the pointed questions of literary freedom raised by the Chatterly trial have an important lesson to impart for all teachers, no matter the level at which they work.
The broadest issue at play in the crusade against Lawrence’s novel, one which we would like to think is a thing of the past, is that of enforced moral standards from authority figures, whether they be parents, schools, churches, or the state. Particularly, this moral reinforcement was not once which concerned action or harm, but morality in the sphere of thought, publication and art. Geoffrey Robertson, in an eloquent reflection on the trial, writes,
Judges in 1960 regarded themselves, rather more than they do today, as the custodians of moral virtue. In performing this egregious function, they came to blur the distinction between literature and life. Their confusion was well represented by Lord Hailsham, in the parliamentary debate that followed the verdict: “Before I accepted as valid or valuable or even excusable the relationship between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, I should have liked to know what sort of parents they became to the child . . . I should have liked to see the kind of house they proposed to set up together; I should have liked to know how Mellors would have survived living on Connie’s rentier income of £600 . . . and I should have liked to know whether they acquired a circle of friends, or, if not, how their relationship survived social isolation.”
The attitude of the prosecution, and it seems the prevailing general attitude of the time, was that art had a duty not to violate or potentially subvert prevailing social or behavioural norms, not even in depicting the lives of fictional characters. Robertson notes Justice Laurence Byrne’s imploring of the jury to consider, ”whether the book ‘portrays the life of an immoral woman’, to remember the meaning of ‘lawful marriage’ in a Christian country and to reflect that ‘the gamekeeper, incidentally, had a wife also. Thus what the ultimate result there would be is a matter for you to consider.’” In other questions posed to witnesses, such as whether or not they would allow their own daughters to read such alleged filth, the notion of censorship for the sake of protection from thoughts impure and abnormal come through once again. Ian Brown sees this attitude still presenting itself today in crusades to ban certain publications from schools or local libraries. Brown quotes Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, as saying,
In the United States we now have parents following what their children are reading into college. I imagine the reason they want to ban books is that parents are increasingly anxious about the dangerous world they are putting their children into. And books are an easy target. It’s not easy to remove bullying from the world. But if they see a book that has bullying in it, they think they can get rid of the problem by getting rid of the book. And economic anxiety just breeds a lot of protective censorship.
While reason emerged the victor in 1960, the fight for our right to freedom of conscience continues and with it our ability to be thoughtful and critically thinking (read: not morons) beings. Brown’s article concludes that being shocked is certainly not the same as being harmed, and this conclusion of the Chatterly trial gave way to a loose connection between questions of censorship and how I came to view my duties as a teacher.