Today, Saturday 1 October, sees the end of Banned Books Week, the annual American campaign for the freedom to read. (These are the top titles challenged in the USA this year, and here are some classics which have been attacked.) So here are Reading Sheffield readers’ memories about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, perhaps one of the most famous banned books of all. (Coincidentally, a dramatisation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is on at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre until 15 October 2016.)
D H Lawrence’s novel was first published in Italy in 1928, and in an abridged version in the UK in 1932. The full version was published in the UK in 1960 by Penguin Books. Penguin was prosecuted for obscenity and won the case. The trial made headlines, and Penguin’s victory liberalised UK publishing.
As it happens, the Reading Sheffield readers were not all impressed with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But what is important is that, thanks to the 1960 challenge by Penguin Books, they had the chance to read it and make up their own minds.
For Mary Robertson, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ‘the most boring book I’ve ever read!’ Her memories are vivid:
Oh yes! It was banned and then it went to court. Before that we would get it and we would pass it round and it was one you would read under the bedclothes. … The part that was thumbed was the part with the gardener. That’s the only part. I mean now it would be nothing, would it? Oh we laugh about that. … It was [sharp intake of breath] ‘I shouldn’t be reading this’, yes. I didn’t get the D H Lawrence books. They were too gritty, they were too real. I quite like some of his plays [sic] but not the books.
Eva G was also unimpressed. ‘I didn’t think it was shocking! I did think what all the fuss was about!
Anne B was younger – 14 or 15 – when she read it. She was shocked: ‘Oh yeah because I was totally innocent in those days.’ She got hold of the novel by chance:
I found my dad reading surreptitiously, which was totally…I mean it was when it was all in the papers about the …[laughing] I remember he pushed it under the pile of newspapers in the cupboard and I found it one day and I started doing the same thing and reading it surreptitiously. There was always a half hour part of the day, when I got in from school before they came back from work, that I’d got to myself and I used to read it. I worked my way through it. That was the only time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it so I never let on. I don’t think my mother knows today that I ever read it.
Discretion was not unusual. Nurse Betty R said:
Yes, sister on the ward was reading it and she said “Would you like to read this Betty?” And she said “Keep the brown cover on it.”
Peter Mason illustrates what often happens with challenged books:
… we weren’t meant to read his [Lawrence’s] books so we read it and, looking at it now, I don’t know what all the fuss was about, because you see more about it on the TV and the news these days.
He thinks that Lady Chatterley’s Lover only ‘became famous because they banned it, I don’t think it would have…’
Alan B studied Lawrence for his Open University course and concluded that he preferred the poetry to the novels:
… he is one of these people who makes some very insightful…observations on life but you have got to read through a lot of stuff to get to them [chuckles] whereas his poems are more punchy.
Peter B read Lady Chatterley ‘even before copies were generally available’. He thinks it is now ‘a bit dated’. But Lawrence:
advanced literature in the sense that it was the first time that sort of thought had been attributed to the working class. You had to be either a business man or a lawyer or something to be written about.
Mavis was, she says, too young when she found D H Lawrence and so she ‘could not understand why it was banned’:
… I had no idea what I was reading. The sex scenes went right over my head. In fact somebody lent me a forbidden copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I could only have been about fourteen. Somebody got it from her sister who was much older and I didn’t notice why it should be banned, I couldn’t understand! (Laughs) And I look back now and think how could I possibly not have noticed what that was all about.
But Mavis does think that Lawrence changed things for her:
It both led me on to a different level of adult fiction even if I didn’t always pick up on the nuances but as I did pick up the nuances I think it made me see how people adapt, grow up, fall in and out of love – I think it went along with my development at the right age.