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A Matter of Obscenity

Christopher Hilliard, Princeton University Press, 320pp, 2021, £30

KEN BELL follows the story of English law and ‘dirty books’

With its seventy-two pages of footnotes, Christopher Hilliard’s A Matter of Obscenity manages to combine the original archival research of the heavyweight historian with a lightness of touch that should appeal to the general reader.

His aim is to show that from the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, Britain had a system of ‘variable obscenity,’ which can be summarised in the words of a judge who held that if a work was to be condemned all that mattered was that it tended ‘to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.’ In simple English, if a magistrate thought that the gullible could be harmed by a work, he could order its destruction. That was the law in Britain until the 1960 Chatterley case.

Needless to say, gullibility was defined by education and wealth. It was assumed that a wealthy man was also a well-educated one, so such an individual could be trusted to view a sensuous painting in a gallery. On the other hand, a postcard-sized print of the same work could be bought for coppers by a poor man who, almost by definition, would be uneducated – and thus unable to understand the subtlety of the work, so would likely treat it as porn.

Hilliard presents many examples of this policy in action, with my favourite probably being Boy, a homosexual-themed novella written by James Hanley and first published in 1931 by a small publishing house called Boriswood, after The Bodley Head had rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it was ‘nothing but buggery, brothels and filth.’

Boriswood then took up the work and published it on handmade paper in a limited edition without any problems. The company then slightly bowdlerised the text and took a chance on a trade edition, again without any problems. However, even trade editions were so expensive in those days that the average man could not afford to buy one, which is why many readers were members of circulating libraries which charged a membership fee to allow people to borrow books. Thus Boriswood produced an even cheaper edition to sell to those libraries, which is why Boy became the talk of Bury in 1934, when the owner of a small circulating library picked up a few copies of Boy as part of a job lot of new books.

I think the reader can tell where this is going, and sure enough, all were prosecuted and fined heavily. The owner of the circulating library had wanted to fight his corner on the grounds that the book had been in distribution for several years by that time, but he was prevailed upon by various legal firms to plead guilty, with one stating, ‘The subject matter of the said work is one which is strictly forbidden, relating as it mainly does to intimacy between members of the male sex…no bench in this country would hesitate to designate the said work as obscene.’

Although the cinema and theatre also operated under variable censorship rules, Hilliard focuses on the world of publishing. The work is full of short comments that could be elaborated into chapters all of their own, such as the fact that William Dugdale, who along with his two brothers pretty much dominated the London pornography trade in the middle of the nineteenth century, had been involved on the periphery of the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820. In 1818 a spy’s report held that he was ‘a very active incendiary of profligate and deistical principles,’ so it is quite possible that following the crackdown on British radical politics which followed the Napoleonic Wars he used his old distribution network to sell the porn that he then produced on presses that had been used for political pamphlets.

The legitimate publishing houses dominate Hilliard’s work, of course. It is fitting that the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover receives a chapter all to itself, as that marked the final high-water mark of the state’s attempts to censor written texts. Thanks to Hilliard’s research, we discover that Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the prosecutor at the Chatterley trial had advised against prosecuting Lolita in 1959. So he was less the cartoon buffoon that popular legend has it, and more a man who would leave a work alone if, like Lolita, it appeared in an expensive, hardback edition.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was produced by Penguin as a cheap paperback, so it could be seen as a breach of the implicit agreement between the state and the publishing houses that pornography could only be produced in expensive editions. Griffith-Jones took the view that if it wasn’t prosecuted then it would be very difficult to ever prosecute written works ever again.

The fact that he then went on to do more than anyone to ensure that Penguin was acquitted with his fatuous rhetorical question to the jury which asked if they wanted their wives or servants to read the work, is actually not the main error he made. When the jury burst out laughing at his pomposity it must have become clear to Griffith-Jones that this was a trial that pitted the future against the past, and as is usually the case in such matters, the future wins. He should have objected to the prosecution in the first place, but he does not seem to have realised just how far outside the Zeitgeist he and others were.

Literary censorship did not end with the Chatterley trial, as attempts were made to prosecute other works, but either they were overturned on appeal, such as happened with Last Exit to Brooklyn, or the jury refused to convict, which was the case with Inside Linda Lovelace in 1970. It was after that last fiasco that the Director of Public Prosecutions ‘that in future their default position would be not to institute obscenity proceedings over prose.’ With one or two upsets, invariably overturned on appeal, that has been the case up to the present day.

A Matter of Obscenity travels a long road from William Dugdale to Penguin paperbacks, but between the two there is clearly a line of people who pushed against the notion that what was acceptable for the wealthy should be forbidden to the ordinary man in the street. We owe our thanks to Professor Christopher Hilliard for helping us follow their path.