Banned Books in Australia A Special Collections-Art in the Library Exhibition

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover became a focus of controversy as soon as it was published in Paris in 1929. It was banned in Britain and the Australian Customs service was alerted to watch out for importation of the book. It was duly intercepted in September as part of a parcel addressed to W. A. Webb, South Australian Commissioner for Railways, who had been sent it sight unseen under a regular arrangement with a Chicago bookseller.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was declared a prohibited import, whereupon Webb asked for his copy back so he could return it to the bookseller. Customs refused, suggesting tartly that he advise his supplier not to send books like that in future. It later transpired that the confiscated copy had disappeared.

Over the following decades, the Censorship Board approved the importation of various expurgated editions of the book, including one published by Penguin. Then, in 1960, Allen Lane of Penguin decided to republish the original in defiance of the British ban. Penguin defended the book in court and won the case.

Once Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been released in Britain, the Literature Censorship Board recommended the book be passed in Australia. The timing was not auspicious for the Menzies government, whose censorship policies were already under attack in the media. The decision was referred to Cabinet in 1961; its briefing notes described the issue as ‘a real test case’ and suggested that allowing the book in ‘might well be the end of any effective Commonwealth censorship of imported literature’. Predictably, Cabinet decided to retain the ban. It remained in place until 1965, when the book was finally released for importation after Penguin Books announced its intention of circumventing Customs by publishing the book locally.

The Trial of Lady Chatterley

Shortly after the Australian government reasserted its ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1961, Penguin released C.H. Rolph’s The Trial of Lady Chatterley, an edited transcript of the British court proceedings, including extracts from the book. The Australian Minister for Customs banned it soon after without reference to the Literature Censorship Board. There was a public outcry at this decision and eventually the book was referred to the board in 1964.

A. A. Phillips, a member of the board at the time, wrote in his report on The Trial: ‘I hold that the banning of “Lady Chatterley” was a grave error … I cannot therefore approve the banning of “The Trial” for which the case is even weaker than the case for banning “Lady Chatterley”. In my view, it was a mistake forced on the Minister as a corollary to the original error of Cabinet’s decision.’ The board unanimously recommended the book’s release, but was overruled.

After this decision, a Sydney bookseller named Alex Sheppard decided to take the risk of publishing The Trial in Australia himself. He bought the Australian rights from Penguin and arranged for friends in England to send him the text in 34 separate letters despatched to different addresses. He had great difficulty finding a printer, but eventually he was able to assemble copies of the book, which he posted to each state attorney-general with a note inviting them to prosecute him. The only one who took the bait was Victoria’s Arthur Rylah, who launched a prosecution for the unauthorised use of judicial evidence. Amid a hail of adverse publicity, however, the Victorian government eventually dropped the case and the federal government lifted the ban.

The problem for Sheppard was that the Penguin edition could now be imported into Australia, where it was sold for a quarter of his production costs. As a result, he and his backers lost heavily from their attempt to defy the censorship authorities.

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