In 1960, D.H. Lawrence‘s sensual and scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover faced one of the most intense obscenity trials of all time. The novel’s plot (a sordid affair between a wealthy paraplegic’s wife and the estate groundskeeper) is no longer the only shocking thing about it. Today, the original copy from the obscenity trial sold for over £56,000 at more than five times the pre-sale estimate, setting a world record for the sale price of any Penguin paperback. This copy is a constant record-breaker: its 1993 sale for £4,370 made it the most expensive paperback in history.
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D.H. Lawrence was no stranger to personal or professional scandal. In 1912, Lawrence began an affair with Frieda Weekley—his coworker’s wife. Shortly after the lovers fled to Weekley’s native Germany, Lawrence published his 1911 novel Sons and Lovers. It’s as (creepily) Oedipal as it sounds, and it became one of the top 100 most challenged books of its century. In 1915, authorities went on to restrict his subsequent novel The Rainbow under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. The Rainbow frankly discusses protagonist Ursula’s liberated sexuality, even going so far as to include an erotically charged lesbian scene—a detail so impossibly shocking to the chaste public that there wasn’t yet a law against it. The homosexuality wasn’t even the novel’s make-or-break sin—Ursula also has premarital sex with men she doesn’t go on to marry.
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This particular copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is particularly special: it contains the actual annotations from the prosecution, including many circled obscene phrases that we cannot include here. The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover lasted for six full days before the jury acquitted publisher Penguin Books in a brief three hours. As is the natural course of events when something of interest is (nearly) restricted, the novel became an instant bestseller, with reports of individual stores selling over 300 copies in the first half an hour after the ruling. But the true legacy of Lawrence’s work is not financial at all. The trial was the end of government’s monolithic control over public morality; though it didn’t outright obliterate content restrictions, it opened the doorway into the world we now inhabit.
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