A FEW weeks ago a Spectator reviewer subjected to drastic castigation a novel which, as he said, Possessed . no quality to entitle it to a moment's attention except undisguised salacity. About the same time the publishers of another very different volume were called on to show cause why copies of the volume should not be destroyed. The magistrate ordered that they should be, and the publishers were subjected to a moderate fine. There have been rumours of the prosecution of yet a third volume, 11, novel which, incidentally to its narrative, touches in plain language on some of the crudities of slum life and the, relations between men and women living in such surroundings. • Such cases raise questions of obvious difficulty and manifest importance. They are the more difficult all that standards in these matters have changed substantially in the last twenty years. Books that Would have been condemned half a generation ago are regarded as almost commonplace today. The prosecution of the author of such a work as Madame 130vary (to go baCk rather further) would be incon- ceivable. As the Westminster magistrate, in what Was in essentials a ,sound and sensible judgement, said in .regard to one of the books referred to above (The Sexual Impulse), not so long ago such a volume would have been banned altogether, from the mere fact that it was written on a topic which was not considered fit for mention in decent society. But, he. added, things had changed, and sexual matters ,were being discussed and . information sought, and books were being written in order to satisfy the demand for such education. On that ground, with Consi.derable broadmindedness, he pronounced most of the book as free from objection-7a ruling which host reasonable persons who have read the volume w°1•11d not contest.
As to the particular chapter which (in addition to 'ale or two isolated passages) led to the decision that m the book must be condemned as obscene, no corn- nient need be made here, except to repeat that the magistrate's judgement was 'in essentials sound and 'sensible. Writers who desire for one reason or another to discuss in, detail the most intimate physical relation that can exist between two human beings are under a particular obligation to clothe their argument in language restrained and objective, and to avoid scrupulously anything savouring of levity 01. Suggestiveness. If we are to recognise no moral standards at all, then of course, there is nothing to be said. But if the few limitations still gener- ally approved by society are to be accepted, then the writers and publishers of books which hold up orthodox marriage to mild derision, and view extra- marital adventures (promiscuity masquerading as freedom) with complacency, and condone if they do not advocate some of the more repellent forms of moral laxity, deserve general reprobation, whether they bring themselves technically within the range of the law or not.
There can be no invocation here of the sacred name of liberty. No liberty falling short of anarchic licence is in danger. Austerity today is not in the ascendant. An openness in sex matters un- believable a generation ago is recognised as not merely legitimate but wholesome. A few weeks ago the Birmingham stipendiary refused to condemn a magazine whose alleged offence was the inclusion of pictures of nude human beings. Everything in such a case depends on the character of the pictures, but questions of taste must be kept distinct from ques- tions of law. The Public Morality Council, in pro- testing recently, with justice, against semi-nudity (or something less) on the stage, pointed out wisely that it was expressing no view in regard to nudity in " art schools, bathing, sports or normal environment." These incidents are worth mention, for there are circles in which any word spoken in defence of what is known as conventional morality is treated as proof of a prehistoric mentality, to be regarded with mingled pity and contempt by the evangelists of a new gospel of emancipation—and self-indulgence.
Insidious attempts are perpetually being made to circumvent:, or, more appropriately, to crawl under, the few remaining barriers. Books are being written and thrust before the . public's eyes by firms professing to be more .or less reputable, whose effect can be nothing : but pernicious, There are lower and higher impuls.es in every human being, and writers and publishers who appeal .consistently to the former are poisonous persons doing poisonous work. A certain type of novel, more familiar hitherto in France than Britain, is appearing in this country clad in a seductive dust-cover, bearing an alluring title, and sailing as close to the wind as is consistent, or estimated to be consistent, with security from the law. How such publications are best, dealt with is doubtful. Frequent. prosecutions arc undesirable, though an occasional reminder that a law governing these matters does exist is, no bad thug. An official censorship would be much more undesirable still. Reviewers can do something, though as a general rule it is better to ignore salacious trash than to advertise it even by condemnation. It is to publishers themselves that an appeal can best be made. Nine- tenths of them, or nineteen-twentieths, have hands absolutely clean. But professional honour needs protection against the residue who besmirch it. The General Medical Council removes from the Medical Register doctors found guilty of infamous conduct. It. would be desirable, but difficult, for publishers as a whole to arm themselves by one means or another with power to take analogous action. No conduct can be more infamous than aiding or abetting in the corruption of public morals. The sale of adulterated food is not less culpable when the food is mental. But the publishers on their side can reasonably claim to be left free from vexatious interference. At present a prosecution may be. initiated by the Director of Public Prosecutions centrally or by a local chief constable before a local bench, and there may be. as many opinions about. what is " obscene " as there are benches, particularly as the currently accepted definition of obscenity (Lord Cockburn's) is vague in the extreme. Publishers have the right to ask that action, when it is taken, should' be taken by the Public Prosecutor, and in accordance with something like uniform principles.