How Obscenity Laws Nearly Stopped Nabokov’s Lolita from Being Published

From Literary Hub:

Lolita was originally published as a limited edition in France in September 1955. The book was released by Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, a company known for specializing in pornography, but which had also built a reputation for publishing challenging literary titles. The first print run had been 5,000 copies and the book received little attention.

Over the next few months, a handful of copies of Lolita were smuggled into England. A single copy made its way into the hands of Graham Greene, who reviewed it favorably in the Sunday Times. This was followed soon after by a scathing article in the Sunday Express, which denounced the book as “sheer unrestrained pornography.” Shortly after, the British Home Office ordered that all copies entering the country should be seized.

When he first read Lolita, George Weidenfeld knew immediately he wanted to publish it. His partner, Nigel Nicolson, was not so sure. Nor were Nigel’s parents. His father Harold Nicolson “hated” the book and said it would be “universally condemned,” while his mother Vita Sackville-West “saw no literary merit in it at all.” As for Nigel himself, he told George that he was not convinced they should proceed with publication.

George was unrelenting. He took legal advice, however, and learned that publication in England would be extremely hazardous. Under the current law, they would likely lose the case, which would result in huge losses. Any copies that had been printed would have to be pulped, not to mention the enormous editorial, marketing, publicity and legal expenses incurred up to that point. Such an outcome would be calamitous for Weidenfeld & Nicolson, placing its future in serious jeopardy.

As luck would have it, the lawyers said, the Labour politician Roy Jenkins was right then guiding a new obscenity bill through Parliament. Under this new law, if the government blocked publication and the case went to court, then the publisher would be able to argue the literary merits of the book by calling authors, academics and reviewers to testify. If this bill was enacted, then just maybe, George might have a chance. The effort would still pose an enormous risk but, for the publisher, it might be worth it.

In the decades leading up to the proposed publication of Lolita, governments had frequently cited “obscenity” as the reason for preventing controversial books being published. In the United States, the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act of 1873 had been used to ban Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Voltaire’s Candide. In Britain, the legal test for obscenity derived from a 1868 case known as Regina v Hicklin, in which a judge ruled that obscene material tended “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence.”

In 1928 the British government had relied on the Hicklin case to ban Marguerite Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. Opposition to the book was whipped up by the media, particularly the Sunday Express whose editor wrote, “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” That same year, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was also deemed to violate the obscenity laws and was commercially published in only an expurgated version. Six years later, the publisher Boriswood was prosecuted for obscene libel and severely fined for releasing Boy, a sexually explicit novel by James Hanley.

Over the summer of 1958, with the lawyers saying that the new bill had a good chance of passing through Parliament, and with Nigel Nicolson’s tenuous but nervous agreement, George reached out to the author, Vladimir Nabokov, in New York and asked for permission to publish Lolita in the United Kingdom and across the Commonwealth. By the end of November, they had reached an agreement on the general terms and Nabokov wrote to George saying “an English edition of Lolita is nearing signature.”

In his reply to the author in New York, George said, “May I take this opportunity of telling you how inspired and moved my colleagues and I feel by the book and how determined we are to see that it launches with dignity and success in this country.” Publication of Lolita in Great Britain seemed a little closer, but then, by the year’s end, George’s plans started to unravel.

When word began circulating in the press that Weidenfeld & Nicolson intended to release Lolita, Nigel’s political colleagues pressed him to change course. At one point the Conservative chief whip Ted Heath (and later prime minister) begged him to cancel publication. Nigel asked him if he had read the book. Heath said he had. “Did you think it obscene?” Nigel asked. “As a matter of fact I thought it very boring,” Heath replied. “If it is boring it cannot be obscene,” Nigel said, which he later admitted was not a very good argument.

A few days later, the Attorney-General, Reginald Manningham-Buller (called “Bullying Manner” behind his back), stopped Nigel in a dark corridor in the bowels of the House of Commons. “If you publish Lolita you will be in the dock,” he said, jabbing a finger at him. “Even after the Obscenity Bill has been passed?” asked Nigel. “That won’t make any difference,” responded the country’s top lawyer. ‘The book is thoroughly obscene. I’ve given you a clear warning.”

On 16 December 1958, a week before Christmas Eve, Roy Jenkins’ new Obscenity Bill was debated in the House of Commons. Midway through the proceedings, Nigel stood up to speak. First, he acknowledged that he had an interest in the matter as a director of the firm Weidenfeld & Nicolson, which was planning to publish Lolita. Then he moved on to the substance of his speech. “The question could be asked,” he declared, “Is an obscene work of art a contradiction in terms? I would answer the question by saying, no, it is not. It is quite possible for a work of art to be obscene.” He then went on to say that the book had already been published in America, where over 250,000 copies had been sold.

Lolita had also been published in France and Italy. “The question arose whether it should be published in England. That was the question which my colleagues and I had to answer,” he continued.

Lolita deals with a perversion. It describes the love of a middle-aged man for a girl of twelve. If this perversion had been depicted in such a way as to suggest to any reader of middle age or, for that matter, any little girl—could she understand it—that the practices were pleasant and could lead to happiness, I should have had no hesitation in advising my colleagues that we ought not to publish this book. But, in fact, Lolita has a built-in condemnation of what it describes. It leads to utter misery, suicide, prison, murder and great unhappiness, both to the man and to the little girl whom he seduces.

At this point, Emrys Hughes, a Welsh Labour MP, rebel and general troublemaker, tried to interrupt, but Nigel brushed him aside and moved on to his conclusion. “I asked myself whether the loss to literature in this country through the non-publication of Lolita was greater than the risk which one ran of offending certain people by its publication.” Pausing to take a breath, he then said, “In the end, I came to the conclusion that it was probably right to publish this book.” Nigel had for the first time publicly declared his support for the publication of Lolita.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

4 thoughts on “How Obscenity Laws Nearly Stopped Nabokov’s Lolita from Being Published”

  1. Controversy is gold: free publicity.

    So many books are in this category now, it’s hard to get a good viral outrage going.

    And it can easily go south if the crowd has a valid point.

    But maybe, if you do it right, it will sell a lot of copies first. I’m thinking, I’m thinking. A little tricky when I’m trying to stay PG-13 with mainstream literary fiction, but there are many topics and opinions that might get some states like Texas or Florida going anyway.

  2. I will note here that there are a lot of people who misunderstand Lolita in exactly the way Nicolson said they would not–and are fans.

    I mean, it does give you an idea of who you shouldn’t trust to be around your children, but still.

  3. In the future, writers such as Michel Houellebecq and Delicious Tacos will no doubt become targets of the censorious.

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