When I was growing up, the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence was banned most everywhere. But by the time I went to McGill University in the early sixties, the battle for freedom of the press was won forever, or so I thought.
In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the novel was not obscene on the grounds that it had “redeeming social or literary value.” On November 2nd, 1960, Penguin had won the case brought against it in Great Britain. On that day, all 200,000 copies of their edition had sold out. In the next few years, millions more would be sold. The ban had even been lifted in Canada.
I had not exactly read any of Lawrence’s novels, but I planned to read them all–in their entirety.
Imagine the collective undergraduate shock when the McGill newspaper reported the scandalous news that the prissy librarian in Royal Victoria College, the women’s residence where I lived, had taken scissors to the novel. The racy parts were all gone! Who did she think she was to presume to protect the innocence of the young ladies living in RVC? We were, after all, sophisticated adults, a few of us even old enough to vote. Censorship?! Outrageous!
Royal Victoria College was a large building with a huge statue of Queen Victoria dominating the front steps. It had once been the women’s college affiliated with men-only McGill. Because it had once been a self-contained college, it had great facilities–like its own swimming pool and its own small library.
I worked in that very library. It was a great job. I loved not having to brave Montreal winters to go to work, and I loved hanging out in a library, always have. Shelving and checking out books were easy enough, and I worked only evenings–after our uptight librarian went home for the day.
One evening I happened upon an unusual new acquisition. Surely our librarian would never have chosen to add that particular book to the collection if she had realized what it was about. After all, she had expurgated Lady Chatterley’s’ Lover! Our little library had acquired a copy of the classical Hindu book, the Kama Sutra. The cover was dull. It looked like some kind of spiritual/theological/mythological bone-dry book from India. But when I started to flip the pages, I realized it was a book of sexual positions.
Although I was pure as the driven snow at the time, I checked out the book and read it cover to cover. Could human bodies even do such things?! I mentioned it to my friends, all of them. Over a period of many months, every girl I knew checked out the book, evenings, after the librarian had gone home. I doubt it spent even one night on a cold library shelf.
Without a doubt, most of us read the book because we believed it had been acquired by accident by our librarian. We wanted to thumb our noses at her and anyone else who would tell us what we could or could not read. Without a doubt, the book was infinitely more delicious because that year the librarian of Royal Victoria College had cut out pages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
PS. In 1965 Tom Lehrer, a singer and writer for That Was the Week That Was, a television show satirizing social and political issues. recorded a song you may enjoy. It’s called “Smut.” It includes the lines
“Who needs a hobby like tennis or philately?
I’ve got a hobby: rereading Lady Chatterley.”
Copyright by Margaret French