Essay

What Thunder Bay Burned

And how Lady Chatterley wrote our obscenity law

From the January/February 2010 magazine
Comments
Image courtesy of the Canadian Press
Courtesy of the Canadian Press Lady Chatterley’s Lover goes on sale in 1960.

FORT WILLIAM, ONT., Oct. 3, 1959 (CP)—More than 700 copies of D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, have been taken from newsstands and burned. Henry Batho, manager of Central News Company, said he burned the books in the city incinerator last week rather than get in a fight with Fort William City Council.

Mr. Batho said Fort William mayor Catherine Seppala came to his offices and suggested that the book was “pretty raw.” He said, “She didn’t order the books taken off the stands but said it would be a good idea.” Not wanting to get involved in a court case Mr. Batho said he also consulted the Fort William police chief who also thought it would be a good idea if the books were pulled off the stands.

Mayor Seppala said no ban was in force but if the books ever appear again “I won’t hesitate to enforce a ban.” She said she had not read the book but merely looked at two paragraphs.

On the strength of the two paragraphs she went to the distributor and suggested the book was about “the dirtiest thing ever put in print.”

Fifty years ago, an old British novel became a Canadian bestseller. Unable to find a publisher for what would be his last book, D.H. Lawrence had Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately printed in Italy in 1928. It was banned in England and the United States, available only in pirated copies. When Grove Press published the first unexpurgated American edition in April of 1959, the US postmaster general declared it “an obscene and filthy work” and barred it from the mails. The New York judge in whose lap the Lady landed ruled that although the novel described sexual intercourse in great detail and “four-letter Anglo-Saxon words are used with some frequency,” it did not, on the whole, exceed tolerable limits for sexual expression. A year later, Penguin Books won a similar obscenity trial in England. With Lawrence now thirty years dead, his Lady was finally of legal age.

But not here, not quite. Just two weeks before America legalized Lady Chatterley’s Lover, John Diefenbaker’s Conservative government broadened the legal definition of obscenity in Canada. Bill C-58 defined as obscene “any publication a dominant characteristic of which is the undue exploitation of sex, or of sex and any one of the following subjects, namely crime, horror, cruelty and violence.” For the courts to seize obscene material, a judge only needed “reasonable grounds for believing that any publication… is obscene or a crime comic.” The book trade and the Opposition pleaded with the government to amend “a dominant characteristic” to “the dominant characteristic” and restore the protection of works with “literary or scientific merit.” They lost. On July 6, 1959, Bill C-58 became law.

A Critical Appreciation

From a 1928 review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Illustration by Terry Corrigan
Terry Corrigan

There has been brought to our notice within the last few weeks a book which we have no hesitation in describing as the most evil outpouring that has ever besmirched the literature of our country.

The sewers of French pornography would be dragged in vain to find a parallel in beastliness. The creations of muddy-minded perverts, peddled in the back-street bookstalls of Paris are prudish by comparison.

The book is by one of the best known of modern English novelists, Mr. D. H. Lawrence. It is entitled Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

—Unsigned comment, ‘Famous Novelist’s Shameful Book,’ John Bull, 20 October 1928, xliv, 11.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover sat at around number two on Canadian bestseller lists from mid-summer of 1959 to the end of year. Besides the burning in Fort William, the novel ran into trouble in Hamilton, Ontario, in Brandon, Manitoba, and in Nelson, BC. But the first real use of Bill C-58 came in cosmopolitan Montreal. In November, a police morality squad seized copies of the novel during a raid on three newsagents. Canadian literary heavyweights Hugh MacLennan and Morley Callaghan testified on the novel’s behalf in the following summer’s trial, but both the judge and the Quebec Appeals Court set aside their testimony, declared the novel obscene, and banned it in Quebec.

The fears of C-58’s opponents had been realized: the first casualty of legislation ostensibly aimed at “newsstand trash” wasn’t a pulp novel or crime comic, but a serious book by a widely respected writer. Worse, it looked as if the Montreal ruling would effectively ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover across Canada. But on March 15, 1962, the Supreme Court of Canada overruled the Quebec courts in a five-to-four decision. Speaking for the slim majority, Justice Judson clearly defied the Criminal Code’s new obscenity test of a dominant characteristic, concluding that the “undue exploitation of sex” was not “the dominant characteristic of the book as a whole.” Score one for semantics.

Today the furor over Lady Chatterley’s Lover seems almost quaint. (I watched an episode of Weeds recently in which an amputee toe-fucks a pornstar. Now that’s obscene.) But back in 1959, models for New York’s Thornton Model Agency balked at bikinis and Miss Charlotte Whitton of Ottawa wrote Queen’s Quarterly in Kingston to complain about “sex-soaked” poems by Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen. In 1959, readers accepted the sly wink of James Bond screwing Pussy Galore, but the open love of a gamekeeper for the “best bit o’ cunt left on earth” was hard to swallow.

Opponents of Bill C-58 had cast its author, Justice Minister Davie Fulton, as a crusading Christian. In fact, Fulton was a nationalist. The real target of Bill C-58 was exactly what he said it was: not literature, but the American pocketbooks and comics that prompted CBC Radio producer Robert Weaver (himself no Conservative) to complain that same year about Canadian newsstands “groaning with investigations of homosexuality, lesbianism, prostitution and drug addiction, miscegenation, and juvenile delinquency.” Bill C-58 was the stick to the Canada Council’s carrot: one to promote Canadian high culture, the other to proscribe American popular culture. The problem—and the lesson of 1959—was that in crafting a definition of obscenity wide enough to capture more than its ostensible target, Bill C-58 missed its real target and hit a Lady.

The definition of an obscene publication crafted to keep out American pulp of the 1950s remains unchanged in the Criminal Code of Canada. It’s still an offence in this country to make, sell, or own a crime comic. (Keep those old True Crimes well hidden, never mind your new Frank Millers.) But today, Canadians can legally read what Thunder Bay burned. In retrospect, the trials of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were a shame in more ways than one. The last rant of a dying man, the novel is about so much more than sex: class, coal, machines, marriage, art, the bruise left on a generation by war. The first orgasm—Lawrence calls them “crises”—doesn’t come until the end of chapter three.

Subscribe to The Walrus Donate to The Walrus Foundation