Explicit and Confounding Books: On Christopher Hilliard’s “A Matter of Obscenity”

By Thomas J. SojkaDecember 27, 2021

Explicit and Confounding Books: On Christopher Hilliard’s “A Matter of Obscenity”

A Matter of Obscenity: The Politics of Censorship in Modern England by Christopher Hilliard

ON HIS RETURN to England from Paris, Adam Fenwick-Symes faced the inquisition of the customs officer. Fenwick-Symes had in his luggage a veritable library: books on architecture and history, a dictionary, an economics text, and a copy of Dante’s Purgatorio. Of these, the last two were confiscated pending investigation and dubbed by the witless official to be, respectively, “Subversive Propaganda” and “French, […] pretty dirty, too.” Perhaps most tragically for Fenwick-Symes’s livelihood, the manuscript of his autobiography, due at his publisher — deemed “downright dirt” by the official — was to be burned. Despite his protestations, the official was unmoved, saying, “Particularly against books the Home Secretary is. If we can’t stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside.”

Though this account is invented by Evelyn Waugh for his 1930 novel, Vile Bodies, it is illustrative of the culture surrounding obscenity in early 20th-century Britain. The unnamed Home Secretary was a clear stand-in for the real William Joynson-Hicks, who served in the role from 1924 to 1929. The popular press portrayed “Jix” as a moral crusader, launching a war against nightclubs and the bright young things who frequented them and also against obscene literature (particularly Continental imports).

Joynson-Hicks’s Victorian sensibilities are unsurprising — he was born in 1865 — but it is the persistence of that morality well into the 20th century, even after the rise of the so-called “permissive society” (brilliantly documented by Frank Mort in his 2010 book, Capital Affairs) that is somewhat unexpected. And it is this struggle among campaigners against obscenity, reformers, publishers, authors, and booksellers that Christopher Hilliard’s new book so brilliantly illuminates. A Matter of Obscenity: The Politics of Censorship in Modern England refashions developments in the law into a lucid and engaging cultural history, outlining debates around censorship (particularly literary, but also film, magazines, and pulp fiction) in Britain from 1857 to 1979. The eight chapters are chronologically uneven (the first covers over 60 years, while another focuses on only a few months), but Hilliard uses this varying temporal scale to his advantage. It is unsurprising that the trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover takes up an entire chapter — indeed, it serves as a kind of fulcrum. And the compression of the Victorian period and its immediate aftermath into one chapter at the start both grounds subsequent sections and gets some important details out of the way.

Despite Philip Larkin’s proclamation, in his poem “Annus Mirabilis,” that “[s]exual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (which was rather late for me) — / Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban / And the Beatles’ first LP,” Hilliard shows that the 1960 trial over Lawrence’s novel did not decisively settle the obscenity debate in Britain. Additionally, while much has been written on the influence of American culture, particularly in the postwar period (which Hilliard also stresses in his discussion of film and pulp fiction), this book also focuses on the Continent. French, German, and Italian authors, printers, and exporters contributed to the obscene media trade, and Britain looked to Scandinavia in its postwar reassessment of pornography.

It is all too easy for the most notable example in such a book to overwhelm the narrative — the Chatterley trial is only one chapter, though references appear throughout the book — but Hilliard manages to use it to great effect. There has certainly been no shortage of work on D. H. Lawrence and his controversial novel — in the last year alone, a new biography by Frances Wilson and Alison Macleod’s novel Tenderness. And of course, there are Charles Rembar’s The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterley, Tropic of Cancer and Fanny Hill (1968) and Chris Forster’s Filthy Material: Modernism and the Media of Obscenity (2018), among other such studies. So why do we need another book on obscenity in Britain?

What Hilliard shows in A Matter of Obscenity is that Chatterley was neither the beginning nor the end of the debate about illicit material; questions of what was appropriate reading for members of a particular class or gender, for instance, had clear Victorian antecedents. And while publishers would win the day in 1960, allowing for the publication of Lawrence in mass-market form, the war against vice was far from over. This kind of framing allows Hilliard to avoid a teleological trap in his account of obscenity. This is not the story of the triumph of authors or the defeat of anti-vice campaigners but instead a timely account of the cultural forces at work in British society. The goalposts of “obscenity” are constantly shifting — by our standards, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is hardly blush-inducing, with more scandalous plots now featured on daytime television — and it is these shifts that Hilliard’s book attempts to capture.

Drawing on the work of Ian Hunter, David Saunders, and Dugald Williamson, Hilliard shows how the idea of “variable obscenity” was central to the book trade from the mid-19th century onward (“O.K. in vellum and not O.K. in paper”). As debates around citizenship continued to unfold during the Victorian period, so too did those around the “literary franchise.” At a time when more men won the right to vote with the passage of the Second Reform Act of 1867, more people were also becoming literate (compulsory education for children in England and Wales began in 1880) while the price of printed matter declined. Though Britain lacked a formal censor (the Lord Chamberlain’s power over theater and, later, the British Board of Film Censors being the exceptions) and books were not “banned” per se, attempts were made to control the circulation of obscene materials. Despite the legal structure created by the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, no one was ever actually charged under that law — a detail Hilliard emphasizes as many scholars having gotten it wrong in the past. Courts instead charged offenders with common-law obscene libel, which often resulted in destruction orders or the confiscation of obscene materials.

Nevertheless, the Obscene Publications Act, coupled with the Regina v. Hicklin case in 1868, formed the basis for subsequent legal judgments. The Hicklin case related to the publication of the sexually explicit anti-Catholic pamphlet The Confessional Unmasked. Invoking the idea of “variable obscenity,” Hilliard explains the thinking of the Lord Chief Justice Cockburn: “[T]here were obscenities in Chaucer and Byron that the law did not bother with: that doesn’t matter: the test for obscenity is whether the material tends to deprave and corrupt those liable to be depraved and corrupted and who might get their hands on this.” And so, copies of the pamphlet were destroyed, while its publishers were not charged with a criminal offense — thus setting a precedent that would remain in place for decades to come. The Hicklin case also made clear the importance of public access. Books contained in private libraries, acquired via subscription, or sold in untranslated form (e.g., Zola’s novels, The Decameron) were allowed because they were inaccessible to a broad reading public. In contrast, the publisher Henry Vizetelly was prosecuted and fined when he printed a mass-market translation of Zola’s La Terre in 1888. At a time when more people were both literate and full citizens, the question of who might read an obscene book was far more important to the police and prosecutors than whether the book was actually obscene or not.

By 1918, a subsequent Reform Act had further expanded the franchise to include all men over 21 and most women over 30. The immediate postwar period saw the continued commitment among publishers to “variable obscenity,” publishing challenging modernist works in small print runs “at a revolting price & printed in a disgustingly exquisite way.” Critics saw modernist art and writing as not only offensive and lacking in merit but also as an attack on the values of British society. Joynson-Hicks, as Home Secretary, issued a warrant allowing the Post Office to confiscate packages it believed to contain copies of Joyce’s Ulysses, “an explicit and confounding book,” and put them through the civil service guillotine. The Sunday Express campaigned against Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, another book particularly disliked by Jix. The resulting trial took Hicklin as a precedent, finding that Hall’s book was indeed corrupting and harmful, and copies of the book were destroyed. The defense’s argument that the literary merit of the text overruled obscenity charges would be used — successfully — in the years that followed. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, printed privately in Florence in 1928 and in Paris the following year, escaped such treatment, despite Lawrence’s desire to take on British censorship. Lawrence died in 1930, and his book remained too expensive and limited to attract prosecution for the next three decades.

After years of campaigning by the Society of Authors, Parliament passed the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, which made exceptions for works with literary merit — giving Penguin Books the confidence to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover in unexpurgated form. The resulting obscenity trial, with Mervyn Griffith-Jones leading the prosecution, brought to the fore questions of class and gender relations, the authority of intellectuals, and full literary franchise. Griffith-Jones infamously asked the jury box, “Is this a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?” The question was woefully out of touch — few British families had live-in servants by 1960 — and it elicited laugher from the working-class men on the jury. The Victorian idea of variable obscenity was no longer viable, and Penguin’s victory became symbolic of the decline of establishment authority. Indeed, three years later, when the Metropolitan Police considered prosecuting the publishers of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, “to avenge the repulse we suffered in the Lady Chatterley case,” they ultimately decided against it, fearing that they would not only be unsuccessful but would make the book more popular.

For conservative activists like Mary Whitehouse, the Chatterley case was part of a broader trend in moral decline — decriminalization of homosexuality, legalization of abortion and divorce reform, and the abolition of theater censorship — brought about during Harold Wilson’s Labour government. But, as one commentator remarked, in the years since the trial there was no evidence that “all our servants have been hopelessly corrupted.” It would be easy to end the story here, with the ascendency of the “permissive society,” but by continuing through the 1970s, Hilliard rightfully complicates this narrative. The longest obscenity trial in British history was that of the satirical magazine Oz in 1971. “The complaints against Oz,” Hilliard argues, “reflected the widening scope of obscenity to encompass non-sexual varieties of supposedly antisocial behavior, especially drug use.” The “School Kids” issue of Oz “was antisocial to the point of sedition rather than obscenity.” The prosecution highlighted the potential damage such a publication could have on children, though psychologists called by the defense disagreed. Nevertheless, the jury found Oz guilty of the obscenity and postal charges but acquitted on the charge of conspiracy to corrupt public morals.

The middle-class activism of Mary Whitehouse and like-minded individuals persisted, with Whitehouse positioning herself as both “speaking for a silent majority and playing the persecuted iconoclast.” By the end of the 1970s, a Gallup poll found that most Britons did not think sex belonged in the public sphere while also disapproving of government interference and intervention. The Williams Committee, charged with considering questions of obscenity and film censorship, uncovered a liberal attitude reflective of the individualism of English culture (anatomized by the historian Jon Lawrence in his 2019 book, Me, Me, Me: Individualism and the Search for Community in Post-war England). As the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality had found in 1957, what people did in their own homes was their own matter.

As Hilliard points out, debates about censorship are ongoing, while those over obscenity have receded. Margaret Thatcher was not the culture warrior that some of her supporters had hoped her to be. By the 1990s, the internet had broken down any remaining barriers to accessing obscene materials from the comfort of one’s own home. And today, each one of us can carry Lady Chatterley’s Lover — or something more lascivious — in our pockets. There is no customs officer searching our bags for Maurice or Last Exit to Brooklyn. In our age of hyper-individuality, variable obscenity stands no chance.


Thomas J. Sojka (@tomsojka) is a PhD candidate in history at Boston University, where he researches elite sociability, party going, and gossip in 1920s and 1930s Britain.

LARB Contributor

Thomas J. Sojka (@tomsojka) is a PhD candidate in history at Boston University, where he researches elite sociability, party going, and gossip in 1920s and 1930s Britain.


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