Files available for inspection at the Public Record Office bulge with details of these and other equally startling bannings. Zola's Nana, Aristophanes's Lysistrata, Queen Marguerite of Navarre's Heptameron, Boccaccio's Decameron and Balzac's Droll Stories - an unabridged text of which had been first published in England in 1874 - all fell foul of hyper-sensitive British magistrates in the early 1950s.
The order against the Decameron provoked adverse comment in the Times, whereupon the permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions expressing his concern. The DPP replied that 'The police who made the searches could not be expected to read every book before seizing it and errors of judgement were bound to happen,' although in his view they were comparatively rare.
This may have been disingenuous. The 1857 Obscene Publications Act provided not only for the seizure and destruction of allegedly obscene books, but also for the prosecution of their publishers. During 1954 there were six such prosecutions, of which three - against Margot Bland's Julia, Stanley Kauffmann's The Philanderer and Walter Baxter's The Image and the Search - failed. There were also cases where the police took unilateral action. Despite the furore that had greeted the second volume of the 'Kinsey Report', Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, in America, the Deputy DPP determined that it would not be actionable in Britain, but early in 1954 Doncaster police seized copies anyway. In this instance, the magistrates decided to refuse a destruction order.
Officials seemed to have few qualms about prosecuting new books, but the seizure of recognised literary classics was discussed in a meeting between the DPP and the permanent Under-Secretary of the Home Office in August 1954. They decided to issue a secret list of books that were henceforth to be exempt from seizure. The draft circular stated:
'The Home Secretary has been considering the problems likely to arise if works which are recognised throughout the civilised world as established classics are seized and put before a court . . . The Home Secretary is aware that a number of these works contain erotic passages which many would think obscene, but it is clear from what has happened in one or two cases that if they are seized and put before the courts such action is likely to bring the law into contempt.' The draft list of classics included Defoe's Moll Flanders, The Heptameron, The Arabian Nights and the works of Aristophanes, Boccaccio, Ovid, Catullus, Juvenal and Rabelais. (Aristotle also appears in this list by virtue of a popular guide to gynaecology first published in the 17th century under the title Aristotle's Masterpiece.)
The draft circular was discussed by the Central Conference of Chief Constables in November 1954. They were not impressed, arguing that
'the translations of established classics were not infrequently published in distorted versions; and . . . the existence of an 'approved' list of classics, however carefully the circular was drafted, might become known and might have undesirable repercussions.' They requested that these matters be left 'to the discretion of the courts and the chief officers of police', and the Home Office decided not to promulgate the circular.
Meanwhile, a Society of Authors working party chaired by Sir Alan Herbert and including Roy Jenkins and Norman St John-Stevas among its members, was proposing changes to the obscenity law. Their report was forwarded to the Home Office just before Christmas 1954. The Permanent Under-Secretary had already confided to the DPP: 'None of us wants either legislation or an inquiry at this time.' But though he and his colleagues found the Society of Authors' draft proposals for a new obscenity law quite unsatisfactory, they later gave unofficial advice on how to improve the details.
The Society of Authors' modified proposals, offered as a Private Member's Bill to the House of Commons, passed into law at the fourth attempt, in 1959. The discussions in Parliament, and the memory of the Home Office's proposed circular of 1954, seem to have discouraged the DPP and police from being too outrageous in their activities against pornography for a couple of years, but the new Obscene Publications Act, in offering a liberalisation of the law (especially with regard to the question of literary merit) led of course to Penguin's publication of the unexpurgated text of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960 and its famously unsuccessful prosecution at the behest of the DPP.
Though the Home Office preserved a bundle of nearly 40 outraged letters from the public - 'Brighton is worried - increase in teenage mothers, & venereal]' wrote one elliptical citizen from Eastbourne - neither Home Office officials nor the DPP made a written record of their views on the outcome of the trial. One can imagine that some bitter remarks punctuated the rattling of tea cups in Whitehall.
The Lady Chatterley's Lover case is often supposed to have marked the end of official literary censorship in Britain, but this was certainly not the authorities' view. When Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was published in Britain in 1963, one Chief Superintendent Kennedy of Scotland Yard informed his superiors: 'My opinion of this book in so far as the law of obscenity is concerned, is that it outrages the mind of any normal individual. It is worse than Lady Chatterley's Lover . . .
'The publication of this book affords an opportunity to mount a counter-attack to avenge the repulse we suffered in the Lady Chatterley case. In my opinion, and I do not speak without experience, in the light of modern trends, and certainly from our own aspect, no effort or expense should be spared to mount such a counter
attack and thus vindicate the attitude of the vast majority of our populace.'
The DPP had already obtained a barrister's opinion, which was against prosecution: 'I think
it extremely doubtful whether a conviction would ever be obtained. In its curious style I find it well written - better written than Lady Chatterley's Lover - and with considerable humour so that the question of literary merit would present difficulties. The author is apparently well recognised as a writer of distinction.'
The DPP passed these remarks to the Metropolitan Police, observing that 'a prosecution that failed could only increase the sale of this book. Accordingly, before commencing proceedings one has to be rather more sure of success than usual . . . I quite understand that this will be a bitter pill for those like Chief Superintendent Kennedy who feel outraged by the book but there is nothing I can do about it.'
The police, however, did receive complaints about Tropic of Cancer from the public. When an extract was broadcast on the Third Programme, a detective inspector interviewed the assistant solicitor of the BBC at Broadcasting House and in his report to Chief Superintendent Kennedy noted: 'It is indeed fortunate that the broadcast occurred on the Third Programme which caters for the minority of the 'listening' public.'
Under the Government's Thirty Year Rule, the Tropic of Cancer file is the most recent available for inspection at the Public Record Office, so it is not yet clear how far the unsuccessful prosecution of Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit To Brooklyn in 1967-8 and the notorious 1971 Oz trial should be seen in terms of an official counter-attack against the Permissive Society.
Of course the moral certainties of one generation have a nasty habit of becoming the standing jokes of the next: but in the case of obscenity there's a possibility that the joke is on us. The official objection to Last Exit to Brooklyn and the children's issue of Oz was less to their sexual explicitness than to their apparent endorsement of sado-masochism and paedophilia. Today, more than 20 years later, deviant sexual practices involving violence against adults or the abuse of children remain the principal concern of those worried about pornography. That this aspect of sex literature should still be a painfully controversial issue reminds us how little real change and progress there has been in Britain's communal consciousness during the past two decades. By comparison, the years between 1954 and 1963 seem, despite officialdom's rearguard action, a decade of bold progress.-Reuse content